Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Rise and Fall (and Rebirth) of an Architecture Firm

My latest feature, out this month in Architect, is about CSD in Baltimore. The firm closed last fall after 62 years. The question the article hopes to answer: How could one of Baltimore's oldest and largest architecture firms suddenly collapse?

Ed Hord remembers Sunday, Sept. 6, 2009, as a particularly sunny day in Baltimore. The senior principal of design firm Hord Coplan Macht (HCM) was at home when he received a phone call from Tom Spies, then the senior vice president of CSD Architects. Hord and Spies were practically neighbors—in business and in life—with offices blocks from one another and homes in the same bucolic neighborhood north of the city. HCM and CSD were not exactly competitors, but they did share a healthy rivalry; over the years, Hord and Spies had developed a kinship in the small pond that is Baltimore architecture. When Spies said he needed to talk, Hord told him to come right over.

They sat outside under a Japanese Snowbell tree as Spies unloaded his news. CSD, he explained, was in deep trouble. Hord, like most of his peers, had had no idea just how bad things were at the 62-year-old firm, one of the largest in the region. He’d had an inkling that business was down. There were significant rounds of layoffs over the previous months—all cataloged in the Baltimore Business Journal—but who hadn’t had to jettison staff to survive the downturn? HCM itself had needed to lay off good people. Then there were the rumors about revenues. “We had heard that their ratios died, but we had heard that about a lot of firms,” Hord recalls.

The rumors turned out to be true. CSD’s cash flow had atrophied, leaving a seriously unbalanced ledger sheet. Revenue projections for 2009 were anemic—just $7 million, down from $15 million the year before—while fixed overhead remained high. The company was, to quote CSD president David Dillard, about to “hear the sound of metal on metal.” That could mean only one of three things: bankruptcy, a merger or acquisition, or something else altogether.

It was this third option that Spies wanted to discuss with Hord. READ MORE HERE.