I had the pleasure of interviewing Lou Switzer CEO, The Switzer Group. The Switzer Group is the largest design firm in the United States that is minority owned that specializes in corporate office interiors.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I have a funny story from a while back, although it’s not funny from a sales perspective! We had a lead contact at UPS and put a package together showcasing all the the terrific things the Switzer Group has done. We ended up sending it to them by FedEx. Of course, it was never opened because, as most people might have reasoned beforehand, UPS doesn’t accept FedEx packages!
On a more reflective note, there have been a lot of interesting things that have happened to me since I started. But I think the most noteworthy is the trajectory of my company’s humble beginnings to the
70-person strong firm, one of the top hundred giants in the industry, that it is today. I came to New York from a small town — Orangeburg, South Carolina, and started in the mailroom of a design firm when I was 17 years old.
Ten years later, I started the Switzer Group, I was 27 and my only colleague was my secretary. I had, at the time, what felt like colossal aspirations: a firm of five, maybe six people. The growth and development of my business is also interesting because of the context in which it began.
In 1975, there were simply not many minorities in this profession. Also, economically the country was in a recession — high unemployment and high inflation. I remember I was interviewed by Interior Design magazine at the time and the journalist actually asked me if I was crazy to start a design business in this market. Buildings weren’t being built; architects and designers couldn’t find jobs. Architects were literally driving taxi cabs; another I knew decided to relocate to Texas! And here I was starting a company. I’ve always been an optimist and honestly rationalized that was that there was no better time to start a business because I knew that when the market picked up again, the Switzer Group would be an established firm. So, here I am today, still doing the same thing, even better, after 53 years of being in the industry.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
What really makes us stand out is the service, and indispensably, the follow through that we provide to our client base. Each and every client has a representative from the firm that is consistent from the beginning to the end, and often beyond the close, of a project. Also notable is the culture of our firm and the character traits we strive to possess: communication, transparency, honesty, flexibility, and tenacity.
The other aspect of our firm that sets us apart is that we are the largest design firm in the United States that’s minority-owned and specializes in corporate office interiors. We have a lot of stories that reflect the capacity of our firm but the best case for what makes our company stand out are the many clients who reward us with work, again and again, and they do so because they know that we’re attentive listeners, that we deliver strategic solutions that are on time, on budget, and critically that we care deeply about our clients’ success.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?
We’re fortunate that our firm has consistent work and on exciting projects too! Right now, we’re knee deep in a developing a new headquarters for a global financial company in Hudson Yards. It’s pretty electrifying because it’s the largest private real estate development project in the history of the United States and the largest development in New York City since Rockefeller Center. It’s truly the new urban city within the city. To have been selected by client to do this project is incredibly gratifying.
We’re providing workplace, trading and securities business units to a purpose-built, state-of-the-art facility to meet their long-term needs. Our firm designed a faceted, luminous ceiling for the trading floors and the ceiling integrates LED light fixtures with a tunable lighting system that’s programmed to change in color and intensity throughout the day to simulate sunlight and support the human body’s natural circadian rhythm which can impact and enhance performance.
The trading floors, which will house about 1600 traders, have an interconnecting stair in the reception area with a double-height digital display, showing abstract, nature-based original content as a counterpoint and respite to the constant stream of financial data that traders are typically exposed to all day long, providing an island of calm in a turbulent sea. The client zone on the 63rd floor includes a large multi-purpose event space with extraordinary Hudson River views to the southwest. This space can also be reconfigured for large board meetings, lecture presentations, seated banquets, event standing cocktail parties. The trading desks are specified to 120-degree workstations and the private offices were all custom-designed by Switzer to meet the client’s technical and functional needs. However, what I find most impressive is the client’s commitment to select minority firms to participate in the project, not just from a design standpoint but in terms of the sub-contractors and actual construction and completion of the project.
Another major project that we’re completing is AMC Networks, a 440,000 square foot space at 11 Penn Plaza, which is a conglomerate of different networks including Sundance, BBC America, AMC, IFC, IFC Films and the WE channel. The architecture, materials and finishes in the public spaces such as elevator lobbies and gallery spaces are consistent yet each network has carved out its own brand identity. We created different themes for conference, focus and screening rooms based on the different genres of shows, i.e. crime scene room, hip hop room, international film room, Cannes room etc. We also built a connecting stair and townhall, vertical collaborative spaces, which creates a real buzz and energetic vibe, bringing in light and height with slab-to-slab, full ceiling height, something AMC didn’t have in their prior space. The project has also been intense because it’s a restack in place project meaning that AMC had no swing space. We moved them out to temporary spaces, designed and phased floor by floor, which created a lot of logistical moves, shifts and excitement for AMC to witness the transformation from a dark tight space to a bright open airy environment.
Another exciting project that demonstrates the expansion of our company is the opening of our Los Angeles office, giving us greater coverage from New York to L.A. and everything in between. There was a need for our presence and there’s so much opportunity so we’re very excited about that.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
A great way to illuminate employee talent is to offer them freedom to express themselves through their talent and actualize their potential. I saw my own creativity and passion flourish when someone gave me the freedom to achieve things.
In addition, recognizing good work and creating an environment where mentors support and encourage new hires can be really inspiring. The best leadership advice is to lead by example. Do what you say and say what you mean. Use honest weights and scales when making decisions and treat others the way you would like to be treated. There is no substitution for authenticity. Finally, if you put yourself in someone else’s shoes and try to understand the world from their point of view, you’re likely to come away a greater understanding of them. Always try and be courageous and strive to be a visionary but never abandon the traditional values that have remained tried and true such as hard work, dedication and quality.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
I actually have three people to whom I’m grateful. First, I had a mechanical drafting teacher, an architect himself, who was my mentor in high school and taught me how to draw. The second was the partner of the CEO of the design firm who offered me the job as a mailroom goffer when I was 17. When he interviewed me, I explained to him that I could draw and I had a portfolio. He said “Look, it’s a mailroom job, it’s not for drawing.” But after working in the mail room for about three months, I got a tap on shoulder from the office manager, who said, “I hear you can draw. Why don’t you bring your portfolio in?” I was super excited to show off my talent and he asked me no less than four times if they were my drawings and where I had learned to draw. I explained that I had a teacher who taught me well. They realized I had talent and I was promoted. So that experience in high school is what made me successful in going from the mailroom to drafting.
Lastly, the CEO of that same firm was a huge supporter. In 1966 when I applied to Pratt and got accepted, I asked him whether the company had a tuition program. He simply asked why and how much. Before I knew it, I had a check from the bookkeeper made out for $1000 so I could attend night school.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Absolutely. I’ve been on a number of not-for-profit boards including Make-a-Wish Foundation of Metro New York, several private school boards, the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation and have been philanthropic for a variety of community causes such as Big Brothers Big Sisters of America. I give back to the community because I believe in living a purposeful life and generally have a morality and worldview that supports lifting people up.
I was founding member, and for many years a trustee, of the ACE Mentor Program, a national
non-for-profit which encourages high school students to pursue careers in architecture, construction management and engineering. Recently, I established a scholarship fund at Pratt to provide support to young design students including minorities. I also like to give that sense of self-determination to my employees, allowing them to grow and thrive. I think leaders who inspire people to seize opportunity and be the best versions of themselves can also motivate others towards a broader sense of social responsibility, a sort of welcomed obligation, to do good and heal the world.
Can you share the top five ways that increased diversity can help a company’s bottom line.
Clearly, I believe strongly in diversity. We live in New York City and the vibrancy and dynamism here is rooted in its ethnic and cultural diversity. It’s an absolutely critical strength for business. A McKinsey study that’s often referred to shows that companies with racial, ethnic and gender diversity have a strong, positive impact on financial performance. Our governor has been a big advocate for diversity and has been active in advancing equality and promoting opportunity through tax incentives and establishing workforce participation rates for minority and women-owned business. I think it’s up to 30 percent now.
It would be meaningful if corporate America also stepped up to the plate not only to encourage but to actually hire firms such as mine to do large scale projects. There are deeply embedded and marginalized practices that have existed for long time and are, unfortunately, still very much part of the system. At our firm we pride ourselves not only on diversity for minorities and women but also for our different ages, cultures and the perspectives that we offer. I tend to shy away from the indistinguishable as it dampens creativity and instead I actively pursue staff and a corporate culture that’s unalike, and nonhomogeneous. I think our business is strongest when everyone is empowered to participate and all voices are heard.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
In my staff meetings, I’m always offering this life lesson: You don’t have to spend a lot to win awards, you just have to be creative.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
I think Jeff Bezos is someone I’d love to sit down with over a meal. Imagine Amazon started just with books and now it’s literally conquered online retail. He sets high standards but has realistic expectations. As my life lesson quote reflects, he focuses on customers — their satisfaction, their user experience, not competitors. He’s such an outstanding innovative thinker and literally has changed the world. I also like him because of his demeanor. He’s exciting and fun to listen to; he’s energetic, cheerful and positive.
Originally published at medium.com