AMY CLARKE, FREELANCE MARKETING STORYTELLER
As Chattanooga area businesses shift, pivot and change, trying to adapt to a new normal, many are tapping into the passion that led them to open their business in the first place. Over the course of the next number of weeks, we'll profile some of these owners and share their inspirational stories on how they are doing it.
“It’s an opportunity,” says Rob Fowler, Managing Partner, River Street Architecture, LLC, and a founding partner in 1999. “You have to look at it as an opportunity to change direction, reassess things and look at how you are doing business.”
The longtime architecture firm located in the heart of downtown Chattanooga in the old Elks building at 7th and Walnut Street felt the impact of the pandemic lockdown almost immediately.
“Within one week, we had a million dollars in fees go on hold,” Fowler says. “Three or four big hotel projects and one industrial project. It all went boom!”
A PPP loan bought the firm some time.
“It was a good thing. It really saved our bacon,” Fowler says.
But it hasn’t been enough. The work just isn’t there. They have had to let go of four people so far.
“It’s an opportunity to rebuild the firm from the ground up. We have a good core staff here.”
Combined with new financial software in full force, the partners are taking a deeper dive into their expenses.
“We think we are going to be able to do more with fewer people,” Fowler says. “It’s a tool we didn’t have in our tool bag and we are hoping that it will help us be more efficient, serve our customers better and capture income that we’ve been missing.”
The firm is also looking at new markets.
“We have been wanting to get into more industrial work. We do a lot of hotels and that has become our thing,” Fowler says. “We have had wells dry up forcing us to pivot a little bit and look into some markets that we haven’t explored and haven’t pushed very hard.”
Much like the last recession, Fowler is reminded that in business, you can’t get too comfortable.
“You have to be able to think on your feet and change your direction and your tactics. One thing I have learned is, when you have good partners, your partners have your back.”
Together the three leaders are trying to be as transparent as possible, sharing their plans to help their whole office deal with the ongoing pandemic.
“For a lot of people, it makes them feel a little bit better about the situation. They are able to function better. The effect of this is not just those that are ill. The fear, the concern and the anxiety has definitely affected our work.”
Still the team is optimistic and believes they are in a better position to weather the storm.
“We have had three or four record years in a row, not just repeat customers but new customers, billings were great,” Fowler says. “And so we are hopeful, especially if there is a vaccine at some point, the economy will pick back up where we left off.”
Much like the shifts and turns of building and managing a business, Fowler’s path to the field of architecture had twists.
“I grew up watching the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions and being a Star Trek guy. That’s what I really wanted to do,” he says. “So I went to Auburn for a while to study engineering, and eventually my plan was to be an aerospace engineer.”
But plans change and Fowler remembers exactly how it happened. It was after a conversation with his RA at the Magnolia dorms at Auburn. His resident advisor was on track to be an architect.
“He saw me sketching one afternoon … and he said, that’s pretty good … I showed him what I was working on. He showed me the error of my ways…and what he was working on. They had a bunch of models, I thought that was cool.”
In no time, Fowler transferred to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, graduated in architecture, got his license and got to work.
“I have always been interested in design, designing spacecraft, designing buildings. It’s problem-solving, it's all the same to me.”
After 10 years in the field, Fowler got a chance to combine both of his passions, architecture and aerospace.
“I’m at this Kiwanis meeting and a guy was talking about the space station and manned missions to Mars, and how Boeing is looking for engineers. They needed architects in Huntsville, AL. It got me pretty fired up,” he says.
It was the early 1990s.
“I went down there and got to work with a crew of people who were doing research and development, looking at how we get to Mars. What is the best way to put together a manned mission to Mars? I got to work on that for four years and I got to work on the International Space Station program.”
When funding dried up, Rob headed back to Chattanooga, back to designing buildings but this time, he teamed up with longtime architect, Terry Barker and together they started River Street Architecture. Ten years later, they added partners Michael McGowen and then Justin Dumsday.
“I love having built a company, that is really what I enjoy.”
His advice to small business owners now:
“Don’t panic. The world has seen a lot worse than what we are going through now. I think we sometimes forget what hardship really is, compared to our parents … every generation has some cataclysm that we have to deal with and we may or may not be getting ours. We are going to come out of it.”
I help companies find the stories that show the heart behind their brands and ultimately connect them to the people that matter the most for their business growth and success.