History

THE EARLY YEARS  |  THE BOOM YEARS  |  THE RECESSION YEARS  |  
THE RECOVERY YEARS  |  THE FUTURE

 

THE EARLY YEARS
1995 – 2001
In 1995:

Frustrated after seven years of working for others and convinced he could service clients at a much higher level, Bob Preston decided to take the plunge and hang his own shingle. Preston remembers those times ….. “It was tough. I had a new born baby, my wife went part-time, I gave up my job and our savings were scarce. But I was the happiest I’d been in years, so I knew being out on my own was where I needed to be.”

In 1996:

Learning fast how much you need a skill set beyond architecture to run your own shop, Preston is working 80 hours a week to squeeze it all in. Growing to a staff of eight, we move into office space on Roswell Road. Susan Locke joins us and takes over accounting, freeing up Preston’s time to focus on what he does best and grow the business. Dennis Galindo joins us and brings a new dimension to land planning. Struggling to make ends meet, Preston remembers that loans and financing were tough to come by .…. “It was impossible to get a bank loan, even with our increasing workload, so I had to fund the whole thing on credit cards. It was great back then, since credit card debt was at zero percent and card companies would beat your door down to get your business. So we just jumped every 6 months from one card company to another, paying off the previous debt and doubling our line of credit with the new guys. Pretty funny when I look back on it, but it’s what we had to do to fund our growth and payroll.”

In 1997:

Designing drug stores and shopping centers all across the nation, the firm becomes heavily vested in retail. Growth has taken hold and we quadruple our staff to twenty four. Edsel Arnold, a talented designer, joins us, as does Richard Kilpatrick who brings a wealth of high rise experience with him. Constantly having to expand and knock out walls in our Roswell Road office, we trade up to a larger and newer office at Central Park. We win a design competition against a couple of established multifamily firms and began to diversify with our first multifamily project in Florida. Our thanks go to Post Properties and Chris Cassidy for believing in us and giving us that multifamily opportunity. Will Brownback joins us and brings considerable multifamily experience to the firm. Brought structural engineering in-house and began working our way out of debt.

In 1998:

Remarkable growth sees us double in size and grow to a staff of fifty. Mike Grill joins us and brings considerable technical knowledge to our firm. You can get away without a Director of IT at a staff of 30, but it’s almost impossible at fifty. Thomas Dickinson joins us to fill the role. We have a tough time getting acceptable service from structural engineers, so we start our own structural engineering studio in-house. Seeing the success of that venture, we continue our multi-disciplinary approach and do the same with MEP. Inc. Magazine recognizes us as one of the fastest growing private companies in the country.

In 1999:

This is an interesting year for the firm, since growth continues to happen remarkably fast in the first six months. We build successful and rapidly expanding relationships with two clients in the retail and multifamily arenas to over 50% of our revenue. As we become heavily dependent on just a couple of clients, both move suddenly and expectedly in different directions with their programs, causing us to downsize in the back half of the year. Preston again remembers the impact it has on the firm ….. “Losing those two clients was like a kick in the gut and it took us several months to really take it in. We were flying high one moment and then, the next, we had to let people go. I learned probably one of the most valuable lessons in running my own business which is never to put too many eggs in just a few baskets. Since then, we’ve never let a single client grow to more than 15% of our business.”

In 2000:

We work hard to diversify, we turn it completely around and we have a tremendously successful ‘come back year’! Bob brings his brother, Andy Preston, from England to become our CFO. Diversifying into all kinds of multifamily projects, we exceed last year’s growth and hit a staff of sixty-five. Getting back to profitability, we start paying down the debt we got into the year before. Thanking our staff for their hard work and dedication, we pay them healthy end of year bonuses.

In 2001:

Preston sheds his partner, responds to his entrepreneurial spirit and decides to go it alone. In so doing, he gives up a third of his practice and a number of clients, pulling forty of his trusted friends into a new and exciting venture. Steve Middendorf joins the firm and starts our in-house landscape architecture studio, alongside interior design, structural and MEP. We truly become a multidisciplinary design firm. Business increases through the summer until the horrific events of September 11. Six major projects go on hold as we wait to see how long it will take for the fog to lift.

 

THE BOOM YEARS
2002 – 2007
In 2002:

The first half of the year was tough as projects stayed on hold and we pondered how best to deal with it. Preston recalls the Spring of 2002 ….. “It was six months after the attacks on the twin towers and not a single project had come back to life. I remember meeting with every single one of my staff and asking them whether we should lay people off or stick together and take collective pay cuts. I don’t remember one person saying we should let people go. Overwhelmingly, we voted to stick together and weather the storm. It was clear we had built tremendous camaraderie and loyalty among our staff. It remains today as one of the proudest moments of my career.” We have wind in our sails again by the third quarter and we survive without much loss. We reinvent ourselves in the retail arena, build tremendous credibility among the multifamily community and land our first high rise project. All while realizing the strength of trust and integrity in relationships. At the end of the year, we move to a premiere office location to reflect the growth in stature of the firm.

In 2003:

We are having a good time! We double the size of the firm with the best year in our history. Challenging the more established Atlanta architectural hierarchy, we move rapidly into the realm of larger design firms. We land some really nice projects with growth in the retail, multifamily and mixed use arenas. David Yung joins the firm and gives us additional depth in retail. Having to hire in response to growth, we recruit talented senior architects from some of our friendly competitors. It doesn’t sit well with our peers, but as one of our clients would always remind us …. “If you can’t find ways to grow when the times are good, you’ll be lucky to survive when the times are bad.” Mixing light hearted humor and fun with our hard working approach, we build a house down at Lake Oconee to remind us how to relax.

In 2004:

Doubling our growth once again in the first four months of the year, we continue to recruit and find the best people to join us. Preston recalls how recruiting took on a life of its own ….. “We had worked hard to recruit some really good people over the last few years and we had built a really great culture. Word was spreading around town and my phone would ring with other architects who, despite already having a job, wanted to explore working with us. It was really quite remarkable and we got to the point where we were hiring five to ten new employees a month.” We have a client move to Washington, DC and he insists we open an office up there. Will Brownback relocates to Virginia and we do indeed cialtad.com open an office. It becomes or first branch office.

2005-2007:

These are the boom years in every aspect of the phrase. Relationship building becomes the cornerstone of our success. Our ability to execute on our projects, service our clients and deliver quality documents gives us momentum that we had never previously experienced. We open a second branch office in Charlotte after again being asked by a client to do so and it quickly grows to a staff of 30. We purchase an MEP firm in the DC area, open a second office up there in Bethesda and grow our DC staff to 85. Offices in Orlando and Denver follow as our Atlanta office hits a staff of 150. All told, we reach a staff of over 300 in six regional offices by the end of 2007. We are heavily vested in condominiums, rental apartments, high end shopping centers and large, mixed-use projects. We are designing 25 high rise buildings, including the 50 story Trump Towers in Atlanta. We venture out to the west coast with a high rise project in Los Angeles. Preston reflects on the craziness of it all …. “It was drunken. It honestly was. Sub-prime mortgages were fuelling residential construction, real estate values were increasing beyond belief, banks were lending money like their was no tomorrow, consumer spending was off the charts and our phones were ringing off the hook with project after project. Success was everywhere. The economy was on fire. Even today, I still look back and struggle to fathom how it all came about.” We put programs in place to reward our employees and to share the wealth. By the end of 2007, we achieved 1200% growth over the previous five years.

 

THE RECESSION YEARS
2008 – 2010
2008 & 2009:

There’s an old adage that people throw around …. If it looks too good to be true, it probably is! Preston laments about early 2008 ….. “I remember going to an NMHC multifamily conference in January and not only was everybody coming off their most successful year in history, but they were predicting 2008 would be even bigger and better than 2007. I returned to Atlanta expecting continued growth when I got a phone call a month later from one of our clients. We had 15 staff designing a 44 story condominium tower in Texas and our client called to tell us they had lost their financing. I needed to pull my people off and shut down the project. Within a couple of months, I had received a number of similar calls and while I still had clients convinced that a number of other projects would move forward, it became apparent very quickly that the music was on the verge of stopping. I realize now that we got hit earlier than most firms because we were heavily vested in condominiums. By the fall of 2008, Lehman Brothers had collapsed and most of our projects had ground to a halt. It was devastating and humbling. It touched everyone in our industry and beyond. I remember bumping into Niles Bolton at a conference in 2009 and asking him how he was doing. He had been in business a lot longer than me, but he just shook his head in disbelief.” Responding to the crisis and in the same boat as everyone else, we had no choice but to go through the very painful process of downsizing. By the end of 2009, we had laid off a remarkable 300 staff. Eighty six projects died in our firm alone, including 7,000,000 square feet of retail and 26,000 multifamily units. We were, however, still afloat. Our doors were still open for business and we were surviving. For that much, we will always be grateful.

2010:

There just isn’t much work in the first half of 2010. It’s our 15th year in business, but there isn’t much to celebrate. We hit bottom in May, but then some things begin to come to life in the summer. Some clients are procuring financing again, even though at unreasonable rates and as much as 50% down. Very few of our clients can perform under those requirements. Workload and revenue actually begin to pick up and we get the definite impression that the worst is behind us. By the end of the year, six projects have come back to life and moving towards construction. Some projects get redesigned, but for the most part, projects move forward as they were designed back in 2008. We are busy with our reduced staff and despite our desire to hire, a lack of clear momentum prevents us from doing so.

 

THE RECOVERY YEARS
2011 – 2012
2011:

By all accounts, 2011 is a remarkably successful year for the firm. Our revenue more than doubles, fuelled by the continuing resurrection of many projects that died in 2008. By the summer, new projects are outpacing the old ones, especially in certain parts of the country. We again have a national footprint with projects in California, Colorado, Texas, Florida, Georgia, The Carolinas, Tennessee, Virginia, Maryland and DC, representing 10,000 multifamily units in design or under construction. Our projects continue to run the gamut from high rise to garden style, including renewed focus on 5 story stick, 6 to 8 story light gauge metal framing and concrete tunnel form. It’s all about multifamily, since retail, mixed-use and office continues to struggle. In response to the growth, we hire 32 new employees. Some are new to Preston, but many are former employees who chose to return. Combined, they bring an additional 255 years of experience to the firm. Our employee count is now at 50, with the greatest depth on our bench that we have ever had. Almost 50% of our staff are licensed professionals. Our Washington, DC office continues to see growth with new projects in Wheaton, Silver Springs, Bethesda, DC, Arlington and Baltimore. All told, we have nearly 5,000 multifamily units in design or under construction across the DC region. We double our staff in DC, move our office to Tyson’s Corner and win three new projects of podium and high rise design. It feels pretty good, but it’s by no means 2006. Have to be honest though. It feels an awful lot better than 2008.

2012:

Momentum continues in the first quarter as the design of projects from last year concludes. New projects are coming in and lining up on the horizon during this quarter, but proving slow in moving forward. Many of our clients are having a tough time procuring equity and the equity that is out there is becoming very selective, so only the best projects are getting financed. We are working conceptual design on a number of new projects, representing a second wave of projects that are on the horizon following the first wave of last year. The slowing economy, the stagnant unemployment rate, the upcoming election and the turmoil in Europe keeps the economic climate uncertain and unpredictable. As such, we stabilize at 50 staff for the first half of the year. By June, some projects are being released and it looks like the back half of the year will be busy. In response, we hire 4 new employees and expect to hire ten more by the end of the year.

 

THE FUTURE
2013 and Beyond:

It’s doubtful we’ll ever see the kind of growth again that we saw in the boom years or reach a staff of 300 in multiple cities. This time around, we are centralizing our operations out of Atlanta with an office in DC, convinced we can perform more coherently and better service our clients. Great design, great documents, great service and relationship building will continue to be the cornerstone of our success. We’ll be happy if we can take it to half the size of what we used to be or somewhere between 100 and 150 staff. Our business plan calls for us to accomplish that by 2015. We expect only moderate growth in our industry through 2013 and into 2014 before the economy recovers some strength in late 2014 and into 2015. In summary, we feel prospects for our growth are good and we’re excited about the opportunities. Stay tuned or read our Facebook blog for updates.

“Fortune-Johnson has had the pleasure to build several of The Preston Partnership’s award-winning designs.  Bob and his team are experts at achieving the perfect balance of innovative design with function and affordability.  Their responsiveness and dependability create a collaborative environment for both the developer and the contractor.”
– Brett Fortune, Fortune-Johnson, Inc.