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Designing business success
An architectural design business is hitting its straps after a long struggle thanks largely to the Small Business Mentoring Service.
Graham Crist and Nicola Garrod were part of the team when Antarctica started in 2005. Both have master’s degrees in architecture and wanted the independence of their own start-up studio.
Graham had worked in Perth and Paris before coming to Melbourne, where he was an architect at Denton Corker Marshall, working on the Melbourne Museum. He has also held academic positions in universities including Program Director of Architecture at RMIT.
Nicola grew up in Scotland and was educated in Edinburgh, completing her master’s degree at RMIT.
Antarctica began as a collective of five directors, but this gradually dissolved so Graham, a founding director, and Nicola, an original employee, decided to continue as a team. They have several employees.
The business offers traditional architectural consultancy aimed at innovative clients and public or institutional clients with a community focus. This includes a mixture of council, institutional and private organisations.
Antarctica has a strong track record, especially in certain building types such as childcare centres, and strives to be innovative. Clients are mainly based in Victoria, with some in NSW, ACT, Tasmania and New Zealand.
“We have a strong design/research focus compared with most in the small scale field,” Nicola and Graham say. “Our university activity gives us a ready-made R&D component.”
While they were experienced and respected, Nicola and Graham felt a business mentor could help them consolidate and move forward. They discovered SBMS while searching business mentors online and found Halle Yilmaz the best fit.
“Our business had undergone a major (and near fatal) directorial change and we were trying to rebuild the business,” Nicola and Graham say.
“We felt it was important to start the new structure with some clear guidance on how to get the most out of our new momentum and make the business sustainable.
“We also thought it was useful for Nicola as a new director to treat it as professional development, and for Graham as founding director to treat it as renewal and therapy.”
SBMS is a non-government, non-profit organisation of volunteer expert mentors who give their time and experience to help small business. It is supported by Small Business Victoria, which refers clients to it.
Halle has a background in financial planning and business consulting. She has worked with business owners and executive managers and is passionate about providing straightforward, easy to understand guidance.
Nicola and Graham deliberately chose a mentor who didn’t call themselves a designer and wouldn’t presume anything about how they operated. They saw Halle nine times over 11 months under the Small Business Mentoring Program and mentoring is continuing.
Halle says Graham and Nicole’s stress levels were too high. They were struggling to cope with financials, managing the business and juggling current projects with attracting new ones. “They were in a space that had no clear goal … they seemed to be completely lost,” she says.
The process started at a difficult time and they were stressed about both their tasks and the bigger picture. Halle helped them clarify where they were and how to get where they wanted to be.
Halle helped Nicola and Graham to clarify their goals and business direction and to develop a business plan, including marketing and financial management. They then worked on the importance of good communication in winning and keeping business.
Halle also looked at Antarctica’s business culture and staff management skills. While profits didn’t immediately increase, Nicola and Graham started paying themselves full time wages, which showed them what was possible.
“They are now in a much, much better position,” Halle says. “I can see they are more confident about their ability to enhance their business outcomes and their management skills.
“They both seem to have more clear direction, are more focused on their business outcomes and willing to move things forward. Financially they are in a better position.”
Since seeing Halle, revenue and cash flow has increased and Antarctica now has two staff members, which allows Nicola and Graham to delegate more. The work environment has also been enhanced.
The business is now stronger and turnover has increased by 15 per cent through improved client communication strategies. New customers have risen by about 20 per cent and inquiries by about 40 per cent. Floor space has expanded and been upgraded, signalling confidence in the future.
Halle says Nicola and Graham have an improved understanding of themselves, the way they ran the business and its impact on the business outcomes.
They say the mentoring gave them space to reflect on things that they’d been considering, but without much clarity. It helped them learn to manage themselves and each other as directors. “And now we are entering a conversation on how to manage staff,” they say.
Without Halle’s help, Nicola and Graham say they are not sure where their business would be right now. “We’d probably be less clear about what we are trying to do,” they say. “We’d certainly be more stressed about our situation.”
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