By Tiffany Rider
December 18, 2012 - After 33 years of doing business in Long Beach, architectural design firm Perkowitz + Ruth is making some changes to position itself for continued success into the future – starting at the top.
Founding partner Steve Ruth is the firm's new president and CEO, taking the helm after founding partner Simon Perkowitz stepped down this month. As part of the firm's leadership transition plan, Perkowitz will continue to work behind the scenes on litigation support practice, business development and risk management. In addition, Associate Principal Brad Williams has been promoted to chief operating officer and Senior Principal Brian Wolfe was elected board secretary – both positions formerly held by Ruth.
Perkowitz+Ruth is made up of four studios: placemaking (commercial development), retail (neighborhood retail development), Studio One Eleven (creating healthy communities through urban design and landscaping in Long Beach), and International Studio (development in China). In addition to its Long Beach headquarters, the firm has offices in Portland, Oregon; Rogers, Arkansas; Washington, D.C.; and Shanghai, China.
Ruth, who grew up in Minnesota, holds a bachelor's degree in business management from Moorhead State University. He came to California in the early 1970s to get involved in architecture. He established himself with a retail development architectural firm in 1973, where he met Perkowitz. The two worked with the firm until 1979, when they decided to establish their own entrepreneurial venture. "We thought we could offer better quality to clients without getting in the way of our own entrepreneurial endeavors," Ruth said.
The business partners formed Perkowitz+Ruth Architects, specializing in retail development. The firm has won awards for several regional and local projects, including the affordable housing project called the Senior Arts Colony and the retail development projects 4th + Linden and 420 E. 4th St. in Downtown Long Beach, "When we started our own company, that was the heart of the business we continued in and have been doing successfully since then," Ruth said.
Today, Ruth is a licensed architect in 25 states. He is a member of American Institute of Architects, the International Council of Shopping Centers and the U.S. Green Building Council. Ruth sat down with the Long Beach Business Journal to talk about how the firm has evolved with technology and societal demands, his hopes for Long Beach and what lies ahead for Perkowitz+Ruth.
LBBJ: What sets Perkowitz+Ruth Architects apart from other firms? Do you consider Perkowitz+Ruth on the cutting edge of architectural design?
Ruth: We've been very successful over the years with the core work that we do, and we also differentiate ourselves with the level of dedication and service to our clients, and the quality of design that we emphasize on each and every project. We have rigorous policies and procedures internally to monitor and control what we're doing, and we look at that very seriously. We work extremely hard to make sure that each project is going out the door successfully.
LBBJ: How has the industry evolved in the 33 years Perkowitz+Ruth has been in operation?
Ruth: Changes in the industry impact just about every sector and facet of the business that you could imagine. If you look at the technological aspect alone, when we started our business it was strictly phones and personal contact. We saw the evolution of FedEx and fax machines. Then e-mail came around, and I remember in 1998 when e-mail was just becoming more popular. We had four dial-up servers in our office and we would have our IT guy send us our e-mail twice a week. That was only in 1998, so from that time technology has taken off dramatically.
The CAD programs we work with are very sophisticated. We're now working on 3-D modeling software all the time, not only for design but also for construction documents. Communications, of course, has also expanded from the simple days of e-mail, then text messages. Now it's all sorts of mixed media. And with Facebook and LinkedIn, there are many more avenues for connectivity with our clients than were available previously. Technologically, the size and complexity of the projects has dramatically increased, too. When we started, the demands were driven by the economy or established standards for how the clients of the cities wanted to do things. The quality of architecture has gone up dramatically in the past 10 years. It's exciting to be able to work with many clients who can understand and appreciate the value added to their projects through creative design.
Other changes are in sustainability. All projects are required by the state to have CALGreen (California Green Building Standards Code) approvals along with it. There's also the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Efficient Design) accreditation for projects. I'm a LEED accredited professional. We see saving energy and promoting a healthier earth at the same time as a big trend. When we started our career, it was basically a suburban world. Today it's much different. It's much more urbanized with an emphasis on people moving back into cities. People are looking at saving time from their commutes. People are trying to address quality of life issues in their home and in the environment that they live and play in. That's a lot different from when we first started. It's very exciting because it leads to inner cities growing and evolving and looking at things from a different perspective; not necessarily kicking over green field or tearing down a project in a city, but being more creative with how you re-utilize it.
LBBJ: Describe the process by which Perkowitz+Ruth gains clients. Are most clients referred to the firm, or does Perkowitz+Ruth actively bid on projects, or both?
Ruth: It's a combination of both. We are very proud of our longstanding, successful relationships with national retailers and private developers. That has been the core, the meat-and-potatoes, of our business. It keeps us sustained and keeps the doors open. Much of what we do is repeat work for those clients, which is good for the company. We are also involved in a lot of competitions and creative projects that are more risk. They are competitive, tough projects that take time to put together. But they're fun to be involved with for the challenge, and they also enhance our reputation and expertise. We can build on those things together. They are challenging in terms of pricing, but they help us to stay connected to the marketplace. The relationships established through that are key for our operations going forward.
LBBJ: Why did Perkowitz+Ruth start Studio One Eleven?
Ruth: As I mentioned before, the company was started in the late '70s based on retail development through either the major retailers or the private developers. What we found is that the world was changing a lot, and we had individuals in our company who were very interested in different kinds of work. We had such a well-established identity in the business that we wanted to allow these people within our company – these creative leaders – to focus on local, urban and community-driven projects. Studio One Eleven was part of that challenge, led by Alan Pullman within our company. We're very proud to have a very strong relationship with the City of Long Beach. The Long Beach Airport is one of our success stories. We're very proud of it and proud for the City of Long Beach. Studio One Eleven also allows us to diversify into urban design projects, adaptive reuse, affordable and senior housing, and also to expand into landscape architecture. There are a lot of reasons we've developed and continue to thrive with Studio One Eleven, especially here in the city. It's fun working with the city on a more intimate level. . . . The old concept, with redevelopment, was tear it down and build something new. The adaptive reuse and reutilization is really looking at the context of the urban environment and rebuilding on that, saving the history and the culture of the area; not trying to change it, but to allow it to blossom on its own.
LBBJ: P+R put together the Downtown Long Beach Visioning master plan for the city. Describe the plan and what you'd like to see done.
Ruth: Studio One Eleven and the city worked on the visioning plan. It was an excellent example of evaluating the existing context and precedents that were used to produce the Long Beach Master Plan. Some of the things we looked at were improving the quality of life, accessing transportation, integration of the open spaces that we did have and how to build and relate to the public realm. A lot of times, historically, that hasn't been considered. People just look at their single project and develop it; how everything else fits around it is kind of ignored. I think the master planning process through the Studio and the city was very productive in evaluating that – where the city has come from and where the city is going in the future. It's a critical document for downtown, especially for the transportation corridor and how that has impacted in the past and will affect the city into the future. It's about how the private and public projects can relate to each other; from streetscapes to the urban environment and the open spaces.
Studio One Eleven is also involved in the bicycle plan that the city is working on. We have community meetings and leadership meetings here from time to time. Getting people out of their cars is important for the people but also for the community, to create that sense of community again. Bicycles are a big part of that. Even the parklets that are becoming popular now are another sign of that. Let's create our own neighborhood where we can live, play, work and get out of the cars. In the city and the world we live in right now, we're spending more and more time in cars. The generations coming up have had it. They don't want it. So it's fun to see the neighborhood groups getting stronger. Bicycles, skateboards and all sorts of things are fun transportation methods. Even walking.
LBBJ: Is there anything in particular you would like to see accomplished in downtown based on that master plan?
Ruth: I don't think it's the next project, but I think it's what's going to be happening over a period of time that is a byproduct of the transportation corridor. We are seeing a mega trend of urbanization of cities and densification of cities, and [improved] quality of life for those cities. I think Long Beach is positioned to be a leader in that area. With the light rail train and many other modes, the transportation corridors are going to be important components of watching neighborhoods form that may have been blighted areas in the past.
I think they're going to form and create smaller, more intimate neighborhoods again. I think Long Beach is going to be a good example of that in the future. There's a lot of high hope for those areas to develop into that. It starts with the corridor itself, and the nodes, and high density housing there. The Senior Arts Colony project is an example – and we're very proud to have been involved in it – for the future of what the city can do. It's not going to happen all at once because I think a lot of those have to be private developments. But with good guidance from the city and the master plan in effect, the spine is set for future development.
LBBJ: We noticed you have an office in Shanghai. What kind of work is Perkowitz+Ruth doing in China?
Ruth: We're doing a lot of mixed-use developments. Backing up a bit to how we got there, we saw an opportunity for diversification during a very tough time in our economy. A lot of the U.S. projects were being stalled or delayed or just killed. There was a huge growth opportunity in China, and there still is. We saw our niche there as retail architects as an evolving need to provide additional support and creativity to their retail-related projects. They also have a strong desire for Western architects. They like the our creative design process that they haven't had as a single culture over. So we took advantage of that. A lot of the projects we're doing in China are mixed-use with a retail component, very large scale in many cases. We are developing entire regional planning efforts, which are composed of retail, office, residential. We also have a lot of emphasis, in our China office, on hospitality. We have several international hotel clients who are doing work over there and see that as a very strong niche for us in helping to design projects.
LBBJ: Now that you are CEO, do you have any changes in mind for the company?
Ruth: There are a lot of initiatives that are being formalized and that we're looking to move the company forward with. But yes, we always want to be looking for change in things that will improve how we operate the company. I want to be a leader in providing the guidance for those changes. We have a good spine already, and a good heritage of past accomplishments. We want to be very careful in how we invest our resources and the initiatives that we take on. It's not a time to be taking huge risks, necessarily, but I think there are a lot of things we can do to make the company stronger and help it to be successful in the future. Part of it is internal for the reorganization and part of it is our marketing and business plan that we are working on and refining.
LBBJ: How would you describe Perkowitz+Ruth's community involvement?
Ruth: We're involved a lot. Studio One Eleven in particular is integrally involved in the City of Long Beach and with many of the different committees. In fact, the Ronald McDonald House is one that we would consider ourselves to be very active participants, contributing to making a small part of Long Beach stronger and as part of our community service to the city. We did a lot of work at a reduced rate to help the city out. Studio One Eleven is also very active following up on the master plan from time to time. We are also active participants in local [chapters of] national organizations in our profession. Each office is involved in it's own local community, so it's hard to quantify. The Washington, D.C., office spends a good amount of their project time with the D.C. Habitat for Humanity. The Arkansas office works with the local children's hospital. Each office has its own group and its own passions.
LBBJ: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Ruth: I'd like to express that we are proud to be a part of the City of Long Beach. This is our home. We opened our office here in 1979 and consider ourselves an integral part of this community, supporting the downtown area in particular. The re-urban components are extremely important to us and we want to see them come together well; we'd like to participate in that program going forward. We are also very positive about the firm. It's been a tough few years for us, but we feel optimistic and see that we are going to be operating for a long time in Long Beach. I'm also grateful for the strong leadership of Sy Perkowitz, who led our company as CEO for all these years. Sy will continue to be active in the company as a founding partner and taking on different roles. And if there's anything that we'd like to see, it's a strong successful future for the city, too. We know that's going to be happening. There are a lot of good things happening here, from the transportation corridors and the urbanization; this is a beautiful place to be. And please, go visit the airport!