“Architecture is the easy part,” insists Gary Unger, founder of CPG Architects and Link Systems.
The complexity comes in with the addition of the end user. “If we didn’t have clients, it would be easy — just design a new building.”
Gary learned early in his architecture career that “if it doesn’t start right, it’s not going to end right. If you don’t define the client’s needs from the beginning, you’ll always have to keep circling back.”
Direct communication is key (Gary advocates face-to-face or phone calls above email whenever possible), as is taking the time to understand the organizational structure of the client company. He asks his employees to think not only about what their contact at the company wants — but what that contact’s boss will want. “How can we help them meet their boss’s needs better?”
Eighty-seven percent of CPG Architect’s business is from repeat clients. Based in Stamford, CT, CPG works with companies like Newman’s Own, Nestlé, General Electric, Dannon Yogurt, and Snapple. “We’re design-oriented, but really we’re a great process and procedures group. You don’t get the next job without processes in place.”
Unglamorous back-office tasks like billing — “the things no one likes to talk about” — are crucial. “You have to get your bills out the first week of the month. If you don’t — no matter how good you are — you don’t have the money to manage your company.”
Gary relies on his staff to keep standards high. Many of his employees have been at the company for 15-20 years. “In a small community like Connecticut, word spreads fast. If we had to go out and get a new client every day, it’d be terribly expensive and exhausting.”
A 360 Degree View
Early in his career, after a few years working as an architect, Gary took a job as the director of worldwide planning and design at American Express.
There, he learned how not to think like an architect. “As an architect, you design a building, and then you leave.”
But once the architect leaves, someone has to manage day-to-day change, usually a facilities manager. “At American Express I learned that information is king,” says Gary. This was before the internet, computers, and faxes. “What I always said was that when the software was right I wanted to design a program so that facility managers had all the information they needed at their fingertips.”
So he did. Gary started software company Link Systems, which is now run by his son, in 1990 to help companies manage space, people furniture, and equipment. The company currently has multiple products, including a lease management system used by over 800 corporations. While they’re separately incorporated, CPG and Link share an office in Stamford, and have around 42 employees between them.
Creating the software “was a natural evolution,” says Gary. While architects tend to “think 180,” he wanted to take a 360 degree view of architecture and real estate. The business model doesn’t hurt either. Whereas architects “start a project, finish it, then look for the next one,” Link System’s subscription-based model means “we get paid every month.”
Gary says one of the things he’s most proud of is “that people think of us as visionaries. I think we’re the only firm in the country that designs its own software and sells it. People think of us as being just as creative in the software side as the architecture side.”