Secrets of the Big 6-0

Creativity and common sense help WATG reach a milestone

August, 2005

Last year, Clint Nagata, a 35-year-old Waialua native, became one of the newest shareholders of Wimberly Allison Tong & Goo (WATG), a company that is 25-years older than he is. Nagata, who was also appointed a director of the architectural firm’s Honolulu office, is a local example of the way WATG is aggressively entering its 60th year, with renewed commitment to its employees and expanded ownership. WATG is a global design firm and its project portfolio includes the Hawaii Convention Center, Atlantis in the Bahamas, the Venetian in Las Vegas, Abu Dhabi’s Emirates Palace, the Four Seasons Wailea and the Hyatt Regency Kauai Resort & Spa. The number of WATG shareholders has more than doubled over the past two years, from 21 to 44.

Nagata joined the firm in 1993 and almost immediately went to work as a project designer on the Hawaii Convention Center, under WATG partner Don Goo. “I grew up in the firm,” Nagata observes. It was a lot of responsibility for the recent University of Hawaii graduate, but it showed him how WATG empowers staff.

Goo was scarcely older than Nagata when he was made a partner of what became Wimberly, Whisenand, Allison, Tong & Goo (WWATG) in 1971. WWATG was the subject of a Hawaii Business cover story in 1972, in which partner Gerald Allison stated, “We are a Hawaii firm. Most of our work is still here, and we believe there is a lot of work yet to be done in Hawaii.”

Today, WATG, which has been ranked as the No. 1 design firm in the world in the areas of hospitality/leisure and hotel/restaurant, has offices in Honolulu, Newport Beach, Calif., Seattle, Orlando and London, plus two site offices in Cairo and Singapore. What’s stayed the same since WATG’s founding in 1945 and the renovation of the Royal Hawaiian hotel, is its focus on hospitality. WATG’s annual sales have more than quadrupled from its debut on the Top 250 in 1988, with $17 million in gross sales, to its current spot at No. 105, with $69.2 million in 2004 sales.

WATG’s president and chief executive officer, Ron Holecek, says the biggest change since he started with the firm in 1973 has been its expansion into a global practice. “Honolulu is still kind of an incubator for travel and tourism, in terms of learning curve and sophistication in dealing with travel and tourism. So it’s a good laboratory to take our clients from other places to show them what’s worked, what hasn’t worked, that sort of thing,” says Holecek, who now works out of the Newport Beach office.

The Next Generation

WATG is somewhere in between third- and fourth-generation ownership. Holecek notes that most architectural firms in the United States usually don’t survive beyond the first generation. “There’s been a continued commitment from each generation of ownership and leadership for the renewal of the organization and the continuation of the organization. I think that attitude has resulted in us reaching our 60th anniversary and it still exists,” he says.

Goo agrees that the firm’s successful business model revolves around ownership transition, which started early on. “Pete Wimberly and George Whisenand said, ‘We’re going to bring in partners and we’re going to give them a piece of the action and they’re going to help us become successful,'” he says. “Ownership transition became a very important part of who we are in our growth.”

David Moore has the corner office on the 18th floor and was appointed the Honolulu office’s managing director in 2002. He says, “As some of the guys like to say, it’s a 60-year-old new firm. The old guard is still here, watching things, making sure the transition is smooth, answering questions as needed, but the operations have really changed to the next generation.”

Some of that generation’s new initiatives are back to the future, or at least back to Hawaii. Deborah Roseblum, who was made an owner last year with Nagata and shares an office with him, says, “One of the areas that we had not been focusing on extremely well in the past 10 years was our local market, and so there are a few of us who now are really, really focused on the local market.” Some of the new Hawaii directors, such as Rosenblum and Moore, are dedicated to the Islands and to building WATG’s presence in the state.

Before Moore moved to Hawaii in 2002, he helped establish WATG’s Singapore site office and was there for five years. Moore says, “We’re able to take what we’re learning in Asia and apply that in Hawaii, which is really exciting. It gives us a good testing ground for new product and new design types – how to push the envelope a little bit on the hospitality design.”

The new Hilton in Thailand is a case in point. When the hotel chain asked WATG what the designers would do to make a room romantic and sexy, WATG was able to convince the major hotel operator to focus the guest rooms there around the showers.

In another Asian hotel project, WATG is moving the bathtubs out onto the lanais. Moore says, “We’re really reshuffling the rooms around. We’re making them more exciting. Giving them a fresh new look. That type of energy, excitement and new fresh look at things is what we’re going to be bringing back to the Islands.”

All in the Family

Operations in the Hawaii office, under Moore, have already been restructured. The office has four teams, called, “families,” whose members have varying degrees of experience and varied expertise. Each family is responsible for maintaining quality control and the execution of multiple projects.

Moore says, “That family structure has allowed quite a bit of freedom and growth for our young staff. I think that’s one of the things that keeps our young staff here and why we don’t have a huge turnover rate.”

In fact, the voluntary turnover rate for WATG professionals in Hawaii is a low 5 percent, in a competitive industry where it is getting harder to find and retain qualified workers. The company employs 314 worldwide. The other WATG offices are watching and may adopt the family structure at those locations, too.

Roseblum has also created WATGU, with bimonthly seminars and professional continuing education. WATGU can be fun, as well as educational. A recent session required the class to visit a Hawaii spa, to make sure all employees have firsthand experience. WATG’s got a reputation to uphold. A spa it designed in the Bahamas was recently ranked as the No. 1 resort spa by the readers of Conde Naste Traveler.

Go Where The Action Is

It’s not surprising that the firm has designed an award-winning spa half-way around the world. It’s in keeping with what Goo, now a senior vice president, heard when he became a partner in the early 1970s: “Go where the action is.” To date, WATG has done projects in 130 countries.

A recent posting on the walls of WATG’s Hawaii office reads: “WATG has completed 198 hotel and resort projects totaling more than 74,000 rooms (built).

“Another 29 hotels [9,800 rooms] are under construction. Share this information with your friends and clients. We are experts in the Hospitality Design industry.”

Yet there is no defining characteristic of a WATG design, other than it fits its location, both physically and culturally. Goo says, “I don’t think people look at the buildings and think about WATG, because the brand really is that the buildings fit the place. It’s not an I.M. Pei design. It’s not a Frank Gehry design. If it fits, then it’s probably a WATG design.”

Goo says that, in the early years, others in business would wonder if WWATG was restricting itself too much with its tourism niche. However, the former partners proved prescient, as the hospitality industry is the world’s largest and continues to grow.

Ironically, the Hawaii Convention Center, in Goo’s home state, is the project he considers his biggest professional challenge. Most convention centers are essentially boxes, he says. However, the final, decidedly unboxy design for the Hawaii Convention Center is something he feels represents Hawaii both physically and spiritually.

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“It feels like Hawaii,” Goo says. “They can feel the breeze when they are walking through the corridors. Most corridors in convention centers are air conditioned because they are inside a box. Our’s are open to the sky. You can feel the humidity, feel the breeze, you can feel Hawaii.”

Back To The Future

Even with WATG’s global presence, Ron Holecek says, “I think it’s important to understand that we’re still a Hawaii corporation. We do our banking in Hawaii. We do that for a reason, and that’s because we’ve continued to find the business environment in Hawaii one of the better ones – particularly our banking relationships and business relationships – to find it understanding and amenable to working with us as a company.”

Goo still sees plenty of opportunity for the company in Hawaii. Waikiki has thousands of hotel rooms that need renovating. Then there’s the Big Island’s Kohala Coast. Says Goo, “It’s got land. It’s got air transportation. It’s got water that can be developed. It has five or six major landowners that if they could come together, could make that the new growth area for Hawaii.”

WATG has also partnered with Texas-based Hunt Building Corp. to bid on the redevelopment of Kakaako. A winner is expected to be announced in September. Goo says, “I feel really good about the team that we have for Kakaako and the concept that we have for it.”

The new guard is bearing the responsibility for the future squarely on their younger shoulders. Nagata says, “We have a certain reputation and our biggest challenge is to make sure we continue living up to that. We don’t seem to have a problem getting work. We just want to make sure we do the best possible.”

Goo adds: “They are the future. They’ve got energy. They’ve got ownership. They’ve got their future at stake.”

 

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