This Texas firm survived a downturn by solving problems beyond design

George Wagner Middle School - Huckabee

The main commons and dining area at George Wagner Middle School, designed by Huckabee.

In a tough economic climate, Fort Worth-based Huckabee doubled down on its educational clients and found success as a full-service K-12 thought leader

When a downturn strikes, it can be tempting to take whatever work is available to keep the doors open. For a smaller firm in a competitive market, it can be a matter of survival. One firm, however, made a different, bolder choice: to double down on serving one client type as thoroughly as possible. As a result, the firm not only survived the downturn but grew exponentially during the lean years.

How it happened

In 2017, 250-person Huckabee in Fort Worth, Texas, celebrated its 50th anniversary as a highly profitable, debt-free firm and a sought-after thought leader in Texas’ K-12 schools market. The firm has more than quadrupled its staff, and in 2016 was named the top educational design firm in Texas by Engineering News-Record. It’s also been recognized as one of the industry’s best places to work—and not just for the barista in their Fort Worth office.

But back in 1999, Huckabee was a 35-person pure architectural firm serving local school districts when one longtime client approached the firm to manage its bond program. It was something they’d never done.

“I initially refused. I tried to convince him not to hire us, but the client insisted,” recalls CEO Chris Huckabee. Eventually, they said yes and went on to manage several successful bond programs. “The client hired us because they knew us and trusted us to solve their problems. This taught me to put my ear to the ground and it set us on the journey of asking, ‘What else do our clients need?’”

That question has been a game changer. Founded by Chris’ father Tommie Huckabee as a West Texas educational architecture firm in 1967, the firm has stayed true to its specialty and mission. But it’s also branched out by designing creative solutions to the problems that keep its clients up at night, even when they’re not design problems.

More than architects

That willingness to step out of the architecture box fueled a mindset shift that changed the culture of the firm.

“During the economic downturn, we said, ‘What are our clients’ challenges and how do we best solve them?’ We committed to staying true to our vision for serving educational clients, and it proved to be successful,” Huckabee says.

It started by building a political consulting team to make bond program management a regular offering, one that includes communications strategy, branding, and media training.

“Overnight, we went from struggling to having a 100 percent pass rate with bonds,” says Huckabee. “We developed a team that understands how to communicate the need and help our clients get their message across to the community.”

Soon came assessment software to help clients to gather data, which the firm owns and stores. Then came additional offerings such as technology design, and safety and security services such as audits and active shooter training. They’ve hired economists, demographers, communication strategists, and police officers. Through a partnership with Baylor University, the firm also operates a learning experience lab called LEx Labs, where it conducts and publishes research on how learning environments impact student engagement and achievement. The Huckabee of today aims to handle as much as possible for the majority of its clients—from assessments and planning to bond issues and, finally, design and construction.

The STEM wing at George Wagner Middle School; classroom walls at the school can be removed completely.

It’s a business and service design strategy that delivers long-term client relationships and premium fees that reflect an expert-level, full-service experience. Mostly, the firm has built in-house teams as they’ve added new services, although they’ve also created local partnerships for engineering services, which their clients often prefer to be local.

Huckabee’s revenue grew by 90 percent in 2014 and 2015; today, about half comes from architectural design. Moreover, the firm has carved out a clear niche in the Texas educational market as a K-12 thought leader, thinking partner, and turnkey problem-solver.

A culture of learning

Chris Huckabee says his firm is not just passionate about education; they are a collection of lifelong learners themselves. The firm’s ambassador program—which assigns a principal with no day-to-day ties to their project to meet a few times a year with each client— has helped build the habit of listening and learning. While these conversations are documented after the fact, ambassadors are encouraged to just show up and ask good questions.

“Our principals know how to have a conversation,” Huckabee says. “They ask how we are performing, what we could do better, and what else they need help with. We find that our value comes from being that thinking partner for our clients. We try to think through solutions for them, even if it’s not us who can solve it. We don’t think about this in terms of getting a project out of it, because there will be plenty if we do that job right.”

Principals and department heads are also encouraged to mastermind together through a standing agenda item at the Friday leadership meeting called Collective Wisdom. It’s a safe space to share challenges, thoughts, comments from clients, problems that need solutions; anything that benefits from the group mind, says Huckabee. “We have some lively discussions,” he notes. “Everyone’s voice is welcome at the table; we do not have to agree. And someone always has a good idea.”

“We find that our value comes from being that thinking partner for our clients. We try to think through solutions for them, even if it’s not us who can solve it.” - Chris Huckabee

It’s that culture and the firm’s educational mission that has allowed it to grow, innovate, and easily attract new talent. By keeping an eye on profit, they’ve also been able to invest in fun employee perks, enviable office environments, and the creation of a foundation that has given more than $2 million over 10 years to causes chosen by its staff.

All the while, Huckabee’s creative service design has remained laser-focused on Texas public education, organically opening offices where clients take them. They’re currently having healthy strategic planning debates about how their focus on learning environments might expand in the future.

“You have to find what you are absolutely passionate about, whether that’s a market or a way of doing design, and let that become the hallmark of your firm,” he says. “We bought into the idea that being a specialist is healthy for a firm. Not everyone will agree, but it has been very successful for us.”

For more on Huckabee, learn about the firm's work on the Annie Purl Elementary School project in Georgetown, Texas.

This article originally appeared in the Practice Management Knowledge Community's Practice Management Digest for March 2018.

Rich Friedman is president of Friedman & Partners, which helps AEC firms craft and implement growth strategies. He can be reached at rich@friedmanpartners.com.

Image credits

George Wagner Middle School - Huckabee

Huckabee

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