Arthur Gensler started his architecture firm 52 years ago with no business plan—and no money. Counting the cash every Friday night, he initially paid himself $14,400 a year. Today the operation now known simply as Gensler is the largest architecture firm in the world, and it’s best known for designing interiors—everything from the original Apple Stores to headquarters for Facebook and Airbnb. Its current projects include the Shanghai Tower, the Abu Dhabi Financial Centre, the San Francisco International Airport, and more. The firm’s revenue last year was $1.3 billion, and the founder, now 81, is happy to just be an adviser.
I’ve wanted to be an architect since I was 5. I was born in Brooklyn, and my father was a salesman for a building-materials company. He’s the one who taught me how to sell and communicate and the importance of service to the client.
I graduated first in my class at Cornell University’s College of Architecture, Art and Planning in 1958, and after 52 interviews, I got a job for $2.50 an hour with the firm that designed the Empire State Building. Back then, my wife Drue, two sons, and I lived in a basement apartment in Jackson Heights, Queens, near LaGuardia Airport.
I moved my family to San Francisco in 1962 and got a job with Wurster Bernardi & Emmons, which got a contract to do the architectural standards for the Bay Area Rapid Transit system. I was put on a small team and ended up running the whole thing.
One day I was having a drink with a friend from Cornell who needed tenant development work done for the new Alcoa Building. I asked him what tenant development was, then said, “Give me three months to prove I can do it. The only catch is, I need to get paid every two weeks because I only have $200 and I’ve got a family to feed.”
He agreed, and I explained to [William] Wurster that I wanted to start my own firm but didn’t have any money. I asked, “Could I work for you in the morning and work for myself in the afternoon?” He said yes, so for three months that’s what I did.
You’ve got to take unexpected opportunities and believe in yourself enough to take a gamble. So in the fall of 1965, I started M. Arthur Gensler Jr. & Associates Inc. My wife became the office manager, and we hired one employee. I had no business plan and no money but felt something would happen.
We rented a space and used a T square, doors for drafting boards, and sat on wooden stools. At first we were living paycheck to paycheck. I was taking $1,200 a month from the firm. I’m not a borrower and would hound people till they paid me if I had to. We got lucky that the cash flow came through, and I quickly hired two to three people.
A tenant would move into the Alcoa Building, and we’d get paid by the developer for doing plans to determine the space tenants needed, which helped get the lease signed. Then we would be paid by the tenant to do their interior design. We got to know developers and real estate brokers, and they introduced us to other clients.
Word spread, and we were selected to do the interior design and planning for the Bank of Denver, where we opened our first office outside California. Then Pennzoil hired us, and we opened in Houston. We were always asked to come to a town and ended up building permanent operations there. Annual revenue the first year was about $200,000.
A year and a half in, I realized I was running a business and went to the University of California Berkeley Extension. After three weeks of night school, I knew I’d never learn it all fast enough. So I hired a professor as a consultant, and every Tuesday night he would give a tailored session with eight or nine of us. We got a mini-MBA on how to run a business, with exams based on practices at our firm.
In 1968, I started profit sharing because I saw that architects used to have to work until they died. Then in 1988 we started an employee stock ownership plan. We usually pay a two-weeks’ bonus at Christmas and a month’s bonus in June. We pay bonuses to those most in need first, then move up to the senior managers.
We’ve had tough times with major recessions where we had to lay off people and I didn’t take anything. But I was born in 1935; all of us in that generation saved. We still count the cash every Friday night so we know how much is in the bank.
Opportunities can come anytime. About 30 years ago, I was speaking on design at a conference where Steve Jobs was speaking about what computers do. We talked, and he had us design the first 100 Apple retail stores. One of my guys took a job with Microsoft, which offended him, so he fired us. But after he died, we got back in.
One lesson I learned early on happened when a competitor cut me out of a project. I was really upset, and when one of the competitor’s key employees said he’d like to get out and work for me, I hired him. He turned out to be a jerk who just wanted to do big projects and have a big expense account. So we let him go. I had hired him for spite and didn’t take the time to evaluate him.
I learned not to rush into things without proper vetting. We have a practice now of not giving titles for lateral hires. People have to wait a year and prove they really understand the Gensler culture. We don’t have star designers. The team works together for the good of all.
I’m great at listening to people and hearing what they want, knowing how far to push and stretch them. Balancing the organization of business and design is what I do. Great architecture is the result of teamwork between the architect, designer, and client.
I stepped aside as chairman in 2010 and sold my remaining ownership. I’m getting older, and one of my goals was to see the company go on forever. I asked other people to get out of the way and retire as well, to let the next generation take responsibility.
I’m happy to just be an adviser to the firm now. I stay busy by serving on the boards of three nonprofits. I love to work and interact with people. I only look forward. I don’t look back.
Arthur Gensler | My Best Advice
Founder of Gensler
Listen to clients, respect them, and become their trusted adviser so they hire you over and over again. If you help clients solve their problems, you become more than a hired gun.
Welcome talent back. If employees leave us for another job or because their spouse got a transfer, we make it clear to the most talented that they’re welcome back. When people return, we give them a boomerang with their initial employment, departure, and return dates on it. About 5% of our firm are boomerangs.
Be one firm, without silos. We have a Monday morning phone call with all 47 offices to share information. We start with Asia, then go to the Middle East, Europe, and the Americas, and the conversation is transcribed that afternoon for all. We share money, people, and clients. If a client in New York wants a job done in Chicago, whoever’s best for the project does it.
A version of this article appears in the April 1, 2017 issue of Fortune with the headline "Designing a World Inside."