Malaysian towers maestro Ken Yeang has got the design bit of his job sorted out. More unusually, he's come up with a fully considered business philosophy as well. We found out about it over a precisely timed power breakfast.
It's first thing on a Sunday morning and Ken Yeang is exhibiting all the signs of a highly organised man. Dressed for the airport in a black polo shirt, joggers and pumps, he checks out of London's fashionable St Martin's Lane hotel at 8.27am, arriving in the breakfast room precisely at the pre-arranged time of 8.30am. "We have exactly an hour," he says, putting his watch on the table and ordering eggs ("Boil them for two-and-a-quarter minutes," he tells the waiter).

As it happens, an hour is plenty of time to understand Yeang's approach to business. The Malaysian architect is internationally known for his "bio-climatic" skyscrapers and is working up towers for locations including London's Elephant & Castle and Reading. But Yeang is unusual among A-league architects: he is able to talk about architecture and business with equal fluency.

However, whereas the theory behind his architecture is complex and scientific, he has reduced his management theory to a series of bullet-point lists that he casually rattles off over coffee and orange juice.

Stressing the points
Despite his jet-setting lifestyle, Yeang thinks that life is pretty tough for architects. "I don't think an architect's life is a good life; it's quite stressful," he says. Cue first list: Reasons Why Architecture is Stressful.

1 You have to do the work before you get paid.
2 It's delivery intensive: every day there are a dozen things that can't be put off to another day.
3 Architects have to carry out multiple functions, such as design, marketing and managing finances. In most companies, those functions are carried out by different departments.
4 Architects are always fighting fires: no matter how well prepared you are, things will go wrong.

Do, get, run
They don't teach you how to deal with this at architecture school, Yeang says. "I believe an architect has to do three things to succeed in business: one, do the business; two, get the business; and three, run the business."

Architects learn the "do" part during their professional education but not the other two; they have to find out for themselves how to "get" and "run". "Get" is about finding work and generating repeat business. It involves salesmanship, branding, positioning, marketing and closing the deal – not skills architects tend to excel at. "If you don't get the business you can't do the business," Yeang says.

"Run" is about management: having a staffing policy, retaining good staff, understanding financing, cost control, payroll and so on. Again, architects have to learn this the hard way.

Teach yourself business
Yeang says he realised he needed to brush up on his business skills in 1976, after only nine months in practice: "I realised that there were a lot of things I didn't know. So I took evening courses at the Malaysian Institute of Management."

A believer in life-long learning, Yeang, 57, is off to Harvard Business School next month for two-week residential course, entitled Leading Professional Service Firms. "I want to know what they know that I don't."

He also devours management books, quoting from them frequently and trotting off another list of his favourite titles without hesitation (see factfile, right).

Give the client what they want
To get business, you have to understand clients' needs, Yeang says. "Why do people appoint a particular architect?" he asks. The answers, not surprisingly, come as a list, this one based on research he once saw.

1 Forty-five per cent of clients said they selected their architect on their ability to deliver a project within cost. "The first thing I learned was that taking care of the client's money was really important. From day one I tell the client his money is in safe hands."
2 Fifty-five per cent of clients cited the ability to deliver a project on time. "Nothing annoys a client so much as delays," he says. "If the client knows you are moving heaven and hell to get the project completed on time, he'll be happy."
3 Sixty-five per cent of clients cited the importance of getting the job done without mistakes.
4 Surprisingly, but most importantly, 85% of clients said their choice of architect was based on trust. "That is the crux of being in profession," Yeang says. "You can be a bit overbudget, a bit late, or make a bit of a mistake, and you can explain it. But you can't be a bit untrustworthy. You have to be the client's best friend."

Get focused
"You can't be good at everything," Yeang declares, testing his boiled egg. The egg is underdone, but he decides not to send it back. "Focus is about positioning your business," he continues. "You can't be a McDonald's and a fine dining establishment at the same time." He cites another survey, this time of US architects, that found there were three types of practice:

1 Those that put the emphasis on service – making sure the client's experience is seamlessly professional.
2 Those that stress production – the ability to deliver buildings on time and to budget.
3 Those where the emphasis is on design – what Yeang calls "the big idea".

Yeang's firm, Kuala Lumpur-based Hamzah & Yeang, falls into this last basket. Firms, he believes, should work out what their focus is and market themselves accordingly.

Take a position
"Positioning is the battle for the mind of the consumer," Yeang declares, sounding more and more like a management book come to life. "When people think of something, you want them to only think of you." He gives an example: "I went into a chemist the other day and asked for a tube of Colgate. The word Colgate has become synonymous with toothpaste.

"People always remember the first person, not the second," he continues. "The first person to fly over the Atlantic was Lindbergh. The second guy did it faster, but who remembers his name?"

Yeang, accordingly, set out to develop a position, settling on the bio-climatic skyscraper – low-energy eco-towers featuring masses of vegetation. But having a unique selling point is only half the battle. "Once you get pole position, protect it at all costs. Never give it up."

Diplomatic delegation
Yeang checks his watch: we have seven minutes left. Perhaps effective time management should be our next topic of conversation. But instead, we discuss delegation. "It's one of the keys to being a good manager," Yeang says. Most architects try to do everything themselves, which is fine in a small practice, but disastrous in a larger one (Yeang employs 52 people).

But he warns: "Delegation without control is abdication." For example, if he wants an architectural model photographed, he will give precise instructions as to the types of shot he wants. This saves tantrums later when the prints arrive and are useless. "Delegation is the key to saving time and money. But if you don't do it properly, you have to do the work again," he says.

Precision timing
The last topic of conversation was going to be networking and public relations. But the minutes are ticking away, and Yeang sends for the bill. When it arrives, he scrutinises it meticulously. "Isn't orange juice included with the English breakfast? Why have I been charged for coffee?"

As it happens, the bill is in order. But our time is up. Yeang excuses himself, puts his watch back on, and heads for the waiting taxi, which will whisk him to the airport. It is 9.30am precisely.

Ken’s top five books

  • The One-Minute Manager, by Kenneth Blanchard. HarperCollins Business, £6: “A good introduction to delegation and motivation.”
  • Kotler on Marketing, by Philip Kotler. The Free Press, £20: “Kotler is a marketing guru. This book is excellent on getting business and understanding the marketplace.”
  • Positioning: the Battle For Your Mind, by Al Ries and Jack Trout, McGraw-Hill, £8: “All about positioning, branding and finding a niche in the marketplace.”
  • On Competition, by Michael E Porter, Harvard Business School Press, £26: “The guru of competition writes about handling competitors and being competitive.”
  • The Circle of Innovation, by Tom Peters, Coronet, £10: “About putting the wow factor into your business. The book argues that in the future, design will be the key to business success.”