June 24, 2018
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WBRC Architects-Engineers, holds the keys to the future

By Andrew Neff, BDN Staff

BANGOR, Maine — Over its 108-year history, WBRC Architects-Engineers has completed or been integrally involved with more than 8,500 projects, ranging from one-car garages to supermarkets, schools and office buildings.

But all those accompanying plans and diagrams pale in comparison to the firm’s long-term blueprint for success.

Bangor’s oldest and largest architectural-engineering firm has been a study in consistency, with just five chief executive officers — all promoted from within — over its long history.

“We have the transition thing down,” said Steve Rich, who became WBRC’s latest change at the top after succeeding John Rohman as CEO this year. “We have always been a legacy firm and have always grown from within, and it is a really good process.”

Rohman is now the company’s chairman after 20 years as CEO. Rich was one of four candidates who went through a formal vetting process.

“Formally, we started the transition from John to me about two years ago initially,” Rohman said. “Our approach to strategic planning, in this and everything else, is the cornerstone to this round of rebirth and rejuvenation.

“I know we wouldn’t be where we are now if we hadn’t taken on a formal, strategic, five-year, annual review process.”

WBRC executives say it’s policies and systems like this leadership transition plan that have allowed it not only to weather a nationwide layoff and downturn in the architectural business, but reverse it in some respects.

Blueprint to stay in the black

Back in 1902, the firm began as Thomas and Crowell. It became Crowell and Lancaster in 1919.

Now WBRC sounds more like a radio station than an architectural-engineering firm, but the letters do have meaning, standing for the firm’s principal partners over the years.

“It’s been WBRC for about 30 years now,” said Rohman. “It originally stood for [Edwin] Webster, [Alan] Baldwin, [John] Rohman, [Michael] Czarniecki, but now it really doesn’t have a literal translation.”

The firm has among its nine principal executives a W, three B’s and two R’s, but no C’s.

Although cognizant of its past, identifying and preparing for future trends has become crucial to WBRC’s business model.

“Gauging future trends and being able to put yourself in position to respond to them is crucial,” said Rich, a Syracuse University graduate. “We’re in a lot of aspects five years ahead of many trends out there and that’s gotten us in a really good position. The 10 years of strategic planning have definitely been invaluable.”

That’s especially true over the past two years of economic upheaval and recession, he said.

“Almost a third of employees for architectural firms nationally are unemployed right now,” said Rich, an American Institute of Architects committee member. “Our industry is decimated right now since architectural is one of the first to get hit in bad economic times and one of the slowest to recover.”

WBRC — one of the largest and oldest firms of its kind in the state — is one of the few firms in the country not to follow that trend. In fact, its work force has held steady.

“We have not had to lay off an employee in that span due to a lack of work. We had 70 employees going in and now we’re at 72,” Rich said.

Predicting future trends in architecture and engineering is anything but an exact science or probability, let alone a certainty. Thanks to another prescient decision to go against prevailing wisdom, WBRC executives say the company has put itself in position to find work even when it hasn’t gauged the future exactly right.

“I guess it’s the diversity of our design background, which allows us to hit different areas as they come up, as well as the diversity of our work force,” Rohman explained. “We have really resisted the popular school of thought, which emphasizes specialization.”

Instead, WBRC promotes diversification: in its people, its locations and its capabilities.

“When I started here in 1973, there were 12 people in the office. We were a family, but as we grew to 50 people, we gradually lost some of that camaraderie that you have with smaller groups,” Rohman recalled. “So we decided to subdivide and go with a studio module where employees could maintain that close family-type re-lationship. It also allows us to shuttle people to another area of work or design if they start to feel like they’re getting burned out in the one they’re currently in.”

And rather than have an all-architectural or all-engineering firm — the popular approach in the industry — WBRC features both. That mindset extends to the top as the CEOs have been architects and engineers. Rohman is an engineer, and Rich is an architect.

“We’re an architectural engineering firm and having our engineers under the same roof as our architects allows us to have good control over scheduling,” said Rohman, a University of Maine and Husson College graduate. “As we increase our engineering ability, we’re providing more engineering for other architects.”

That flexibility has translated to more projects for WBRC. For some projects, it handles engineering and architectural services; for some, just architectural; and for others, just engineering.

“We did the engineering for Hollywood Slots, but not the architecture,” Rohman said.

And although WBRC didn’t get all of the business for that Bangor project, it got more as a result of it. Its engineering work was so satisfactory, it led to WBRC getting more work from Hollywood Slots’ parent company for another slots facility in Maryland.

WBRC’s diversification has also extended to the types of projects it tackles.

“Our education sector is probably responsible for 30 to 40 percent of our workload; health care is another 30 to 40 percent; civic and commercial make up the rest,” said Rohman, noting the firm recently has seen significant growth in commercial projects.

The firm’s recent projects in the area include the new Brewer Elementary-Middle School, the new Hampden Academy, the Peninsula School in Gouldsboro, and Gracie Theater at Husson.

Diversification also has paid off in other ways, from the firm’s decision to expand into Florida eight years ago with a branch in Sarasota to its subsequent expansion into Portland.

“We moved into Florida just as the real estate crash happened and we figured that spelled doom for us, but it actually increased business for us because so many other firms were closing their doors at the time,” Rich recalled. “Our Florida office was absolutely dead two years ago and now proportionately is the busiest unit we have right now.”

It has paid off in other ways, too.

“Our Florida work has expanded into the Carolinas and Texas as well,” said Rohman. “We added Portland three years ago to expand our base, but it also makes our company more attractive to prospective and current employees who prefer to be in southern Maine.”

Some green in the blueprint

A recent emphasis has been on green (environmentally friendly, efficient and sustainable) and LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) approaches to building plans.

“It’s good for all of us,” Rich said. “Many of our employees, especially the younger ones, are very much into this, and it’s great for clients because they’re seeing the benefit of LEED design that leads to more efficient building costs — electrical and mechanical — and recycling.”

Half of WBRC’s staff is officially LEED-certified and the firm has already won numerous awards and honors for LEED facilities and buildings, including the nation’s first LEED platinum-certified supermarket (Hannaford in Augusta), eight golds including the Orono Public Library and the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory, and numerous silvers.

“It’s definitely profitable, but frankly, it’s also the right thing to do,” Rohman said.

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