High-flying executive Ken Brown has been drafted in as president of architect SOM. His mission: to transform the business of architecture.
October sunlight slices into the dark CANYON OF WALL Street, centre of the world's largest economy. High above, in a modern office suite overlooking the New York stock exchange, Ken Brown relaxes into a Ludwig Mies van der Rohe chair.

He looks the embodiment of business success. Immaculately suited and groomed, he oozes casual confidence. His CV includes a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University; his last job was as a vice-president at General Electric.

His new job is a little different. In June last year, he was appointed president of Skidmore Owings Merrill, the legendary US architecture and engineering firm responsible for iconic skyscrapers such as the Sears Tower in Chicago and Lever House in New York. "I am the only non-architectural chief executive officer of a large architectural firm in the USA," he says. "It's a very bold move by this partnership. The industry assumes it can't possibly be managed by anyone who isn't part of the industry."

But Brown, 48, has been brought in precisely because he is an outsider; his task is to transform the business of architecture. And although he does not say it outright, he appears shocked at the way things have been done up to now.

"I'm not telling anyone how to do design," he says, "but I am saying it's kind of interesting for such a large industry that more people haven't thought about how the business is run. No one is focused on changing the ways things are done. There is not so much a disdain for business among architects but a sense that because they never touch it, they don't get it. It's as foreign to them as architectural design is to me."

In the 1990s, companies like SOM helped introduce the UK to streamlined US construction practices through projects such as Canary Wharf and Broadgate in London. Brown believes the next round of efficiencies will be achieved by revolutionising the way companies operate. He describes architectural design as a "plodding process" and believes productivity can be increased 30%. "There's a lot of inefficiency that doesn't need to be there," he says. "My bottom line is a 30% productivity improvement. That would begin to bring us into overall profit ranges that I think this industry is capable of – about twice as high as they are now."

One of Brown's key objectives is to break the link between the firm's performance and the boom-bust real estate cycle. "The problem with construction is that there's huge volatility. When the cycle goes bad, you can go from plus to minus in a year or two."

SOM has enjoyed average growth of 16% a year since 1995 and its total revenue last year was $170m (£118.9m), but Brown wants to prepare for the next downturn by diversifying into new services such as product design, construction component development, corporate real estate services and project management. "The more markets you are in and the more you are into products that are not so driven by the real-estate cycle, like furniture design, the more stable your income will be," he says.

Another way of reducing volatility is to go global. The booming home economy has led American firms to neglect the rest of the world, he says, although they will be scrambling for work abroad as soon as the USA cools down. Brown wants to break into new markets right away, making continental Europe a priority.

There is not so much a disdain for business among architects but a sense that they don’t get it. It’s as foreign to them as architectural design is to me

Investment in technology is a key priority. The company now spends 6% of its earnings on IT. Brown was shocked to discover that only 10% of SOM staff had internet access – now it's 100%.

"I said, 'Come on, how are we going to be part of an e-business if everyone doesn't have access to the internet?'"

Brown has also established a sophisticated company-wide intranet. Called SOMeThing, it contains a technical database, a CAD library, project notes and human resources directories, plus software that allows SOM's 900 staff in the USA, London, Hong Kong and São Paulo to work together on projects. "In a non-global world, you used to completely localise the office," he says. "That's no longer the case. Our great structural engineers are in Chicago. Some of our best transportation designers are in New York. We want to access those people for the benefit of the client."

But creating efficiencies across the construction process is the real goal, Brown believes. At the moment it is split into three parts – design, construction, and maintenance and operation – with each chasing its own efficiencies without speaking to the others, leading to huge inefficiencies where the three parts meet.

Brown fears that sophisticated new players are already moving into the market to exploit this weakness. "Our biggest concern in terms of competition is not other architects, it's organisations like Andersen Consulting," he says. Andersen, the largest consulting organisation in the world, is already approaching firms in the USA and offering to take over their entire building procurement process, from need assessment to design, construction and management.

"Who's doing most hiring on engineering campuses today? Andersen Consulting. Who hired more architects in Chicago this year than anyone else? Andersen Consulting. That's a very big deal."

SOM intends to respond through partnering. "We need to start thinking about long-range, lasting partnerships and collaborations with people who help us extend our ability."

This would allow Brown to replace the "plodding" process of architectural design with something akin to the way product design companies operate. "They bring their product designer, their manufacturing specialist, the supplier of their key parts and actually put them in the same factory, and they start working there and then. It cuts down the decision time involved."

Personal effects

Where do you live? In a rambling New England colonial-style home in Greenwich, Connecticut, with my wife Victoria Marie, five sons and plenty of dogs and cats.
Where were you brought up? In Colorado. My family ran two cattle ranches plus a lumber and hardware business. I grew up on a horse.
What are your leisure interests? Skiing, golf, hiking and rowing. I won a gold medal at the 1974 World Rowing Championships and was a member of the US national team.
What car do you drive? A Toyota Landcruiser, although I take the train to work each day.