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Even in Tough Economy, Firm Positioning for Growth Spurt

By Kathryn M. Roy

February 28, 2011

The Great Recession has taken a toll on architectural and engineering firms, but that hasn’t stopped Fletcher Thompson Architects from positioning itself for better time ahead.

From humble beginnings as a two-person industrial engineering office in Bridgeport, to a 100-employee architecture and interior design firm with six offices along the East Coast, Fletcher Thompson Architects is celebrating 100 years in business.

With the recession forcing a near dormancy period on corporate work for the firm, Fletcher Thompson’s diversification of services and industries has helped the firm weather the economic downturn as management looks for business to improve in 2011.

Founded by E. Leslie Fletcher and Charles L. Thompson, Fletcher Thompson Architects saw growth under the leadership of J. Gerald Phelan and later his son, John Phelan, who retired in 1998. A new leadership team brought expansion, with offices now located in Hartford and Shelton; Boston, Somerset, N.J.; New York City and Naples, Fla.

Fletcher Thompson’s growth has included acquisitions of firms in New Jersey, Southwest Florida, and most recently, Schoenhardt Architecture + Interior Design of Tarriffville.

While business has been largely flat in many market sectors since 2008, Michael Marcinek, managing partner and chief financial officer of Fletcher Thompson, said it was the right time to acquire Schoenhardt.

“The reason why we went after Schoenhardt is that Fairfield County is on the verge of doing things,” Marcinek said. “I think the whole real estate community is being repositioned in Fairfield and Hartford counties, where your big users are, and Schoenhardt has good insight.”

Schoenhardt and its three officers have relocated to Hartford, where they are pursuing architecture and interior design opportunities as Schoenhardt, Interior Design, a Fletcher Thompson Co. Former Schoenhardt President Bill Clegg is now principal of interior design for the newly-aligned firm. Diane Kozel, Fletcher Thompson’s director of marketing, said Schoenhardt’s strong reputation in the design business has given the firm a distinct advantage.

“We’re seeing an evolution by which the corporate offices realize they can do without; they’re looking to get out of excess space and to downsize,” Kozel said. “Schoenhardt had a very strong corporate interior presence. We completed the merger in October, so that when the corporate market started to pick up again, we would be well-positioned.”

Fletcher Thompson concentrates on the primary markets of K-12 schools, colleges and universities, healthcare, government and corporate.

The firm has seen a slowdown in municipal work, due to trickle-down effects of the state budget crisis. The lack of municipal funding has resulted in Fletcher Thompson being awarded projects that were later cancelled, such as with the Platt Technical High School project in Milford.

“The K-12 market has been very slow for the past several years,” Marcinek said. “Cities and towns don’t want to bond any more debt and student populations are falling, as evidenced by the population reduction in Connecticut.”

Still, the firm anticipates more K-12 work in Connecticut’s urban centers, and with the creation of new magnet schools. Fletcher-Thompson is working on a new East Hartford-Glastonbury Elementary Magnet School, featuring a planetarium, which is expected to open in the fall of 2012.

College and university work, including community colleges, has held steady.

One of the firm’s major projects currently is at Rutgers University in New Jersey, involving a 650,000 square foot state-of-the-art residence hall.

“The residence halls have become the front doors of colleges; that’s how they recruit the kids,” Marcinek said.

Closer to home, Fairfield University has been a Fletcher-Thompson client since the university was founded in 1945. The firm worked on the university’s first building, Berchmans Hall, and has continued work on campus today, having designed Alumni Gymnasium and other structures. Fletcher-Thompson also completed the university master plan, and is working on a proposed addition to Fairfield Prep.

David Frassinelli, associate vice president for facilities at Fairfield University, said Fletcher-Thompson did an exceptional job on Pedro Arrupe Hall at Fairfield Prep in 2005. Arrupe Hall connects the first two buildings the firm designed back in the 1940s. Frassinelli said the challenge on the project was to use the same style of elaborate stonework and brick used in the original buildings to connect them.

“Many of the materials were no longer available,” he said. “The best compliment we received when the project was completed was that the building looks like it has always been there. They were able to build a modern, state-of-the-art building, with all the modern technology and energy efficiencies, and have it blend seamlessly with the two circa 1940s structures.”

On the healthcare front, the firm’s work is largely focused on expansion and renovations of emergency rooms and laboratories, and the construction of medical office buildings.

“Real estate is much higher in hospitals, so there’s a major push to off-site a lot of that stuff,” Marcinek said. “A lot of hospitals are going to operate in what we consider a slow mode in the next year or two till they can digest what’s going to happen with health care reform and look as their master plans for renovations.”

The firm is also starting to do healthcare work overseas, as it has developed a relationship with a major hospital client in New Guinea. The project has the potential to result in four new hospitals there.

Marcinek said 2008, 2009 and 2010 were all flat in terms of business, with many slow periods lasting five or six months. Revenues have been $19 million to $20 million over the past few years.

“If you look at most of the architecture and design industry, there has been a lot of decline; we can take pride in the fact that we’ve stayed relatively flat,” he said. “The geographic mix of our offices has allowed us to penetrate those areas.”

Fletcher-Thompson has maintained its 100-person staff spread across six offices, but many of those positions have moved out of Connecticut, with stronger business in Boston, New York and New Jersey.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Business Journal. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Business Journal Archives at http://www.hartfordbusiness.com/archives.php.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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