William Bostwick: You started your firm in the middle of the late ’70s recession—there was no work. How did you make a name for yourself then?
Eugene Kohn: In ’76 we were just trying to build our image, explain how we were going to approach things. I talked to a number of potential clients and asked theoretically what they would look for in a firm if they had the means to undertake a new project. But now we’re bigger, so a recession can be much more deadly. If you’re a small firm, it’s easier to just worry about survival, but today we have to care about our staff and our future.
WB: Are you doing better because you have such a global reach these days?
EK: Yeah, it’s good fortune for us. Let’s face it: The real growth of the world is taking place in Asia. We had been in China for 22 years, so we got to be fairly well known there. That really helped us get more work. It didn’t require much new marketing. I’m not bragging, but I think the firm is the best it’s ever been—we’re working in 21 cities in China, we’re landing some large projects in Korea, starting to get more work in India
Last year, we spoke with Eugene Kohn about founding his firm during a recession in the 1970s and how the current downturn has shaped the firm's strategy.
WB: Are you feeling pressure to advertise lower fees?
EK: I believe architects should never do this. Once you cut fees, it’s hard to go back when the economy goes back up. Some architects have cut fees so ridiculously low it’s been difficult to compete. The client is going to expect you can do it for the same rate. But in China, since the clients respect us, we’ve been able to get reasonable rates. It’s more prevalent in places like the Middle East. They’ll use other architects’ fees as a basis to negotiate your fee. That’s unfair.
WB: Will it be hard to come back home after doing all this global work and market to US clients again?
EK: We continue to talk to our US clients, we stay in touch, even though based on people we talk to, this could last one, two, three more years. I think it’s a real advantage to work overseas—we’ve been able to keep our top people busy doing major work so when the market returns here they haven’t lost a beat. Plus, people are really excited about the projects they’ve seen us do in Asia. They want to learn about other countries—they like that we’re global.