Urban development and Development/Redevelopment and Historic Preservation and Architecture/Design and Small Business and Leading Questions

LEADING QUESTIONS: Design guru abides in rocky economy

September 21, 2011
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Sanford Garner, president of A2SO4 Architecture LLC, plans to relocate the 22-person firm to this downtown church after a $1 million renovation. (IBJ Photo/Mason King)

Welcome to the latest installment of “Leading Questions: Wisdom from the Corner Office,” in which IBJ sits down with central Indiana’s top bosses to talk shop about the latest developments in their industries and the habits that lead to success.

Sanford Garner, 42, is proud of his company’s performance in 2010, despite the fact that its billings fell about $1 million, or some 20 percent.



“We still made a profit,” said Garner, co-founder and now sole owner of design firm A2SO4 Architecture LLC. “It’s probably been the worst year fiscally in my lifetime, and my business partner was running for secretary of state, and I was reorganizing my company. I’m actually proud of that.”

It was a tumultuous year for Garner, who in the past has not responded well to stress. Billings at the firm dipped from $4.9 million in 2009 to $3.9 million in 2010. Co-founder Vop Osili lost his bid for state office, and later exited the firm altogether. (Garner purchased his shares in the company earlier this year.) Six others left A2SO4 between 2009 and 2010, either due to layoffs or attrition, leaving the total headcount at 22.

Instead of relying on the “shotgun” approach to pursuing contracts that marked A2SO4’s early years, the firm has tried to play to its strengths. That includes concentrating on K-12 and higher education buildings, sustainable parking garages and other "green" projects, and multi-use structures. It also has shown a willingness to partner with other design firms on projects.

The bottom line in 2010 was $50,000 in the black. “My CFO was so angry when she saw the numbers,” Garner said. “And I said, ‘It’s a blessing. We made a profit in a horrible economy, after all we’ve been through. I’m ecstatic.’”

Sitting in the doorway of a vacant downtown church, Garner beams with the gleeful optimism of a Renaissance cherub. In the mid 2000s, as A2SO4 was getting on its feet, such a stressful year might have given him fits and inspired huge mood swings. He actually was hospitalized for three days during that period with an irregular heartbeat, born of anxiety.

Executive coaching and an increased reliance on his Christian faith have helped him deal with shifts in fortune. “I’m not prone to stress anymore, which is nice,” he said.

It seems all the more appropriate that Garner will become something of a permanent fixture in this 132-year-old Catholic church. He plans on rehabbing the dilapidated structure, located on the southwest corner of College Avenue and North Street, and relocating A2SO4 from its current headquarters in downtown's Union Station to the revitalized building.

“An associate mentioned to me that renovating this church is so much me and my spirit,” Garner said. “He said, ‘Your passion is the urban core. You love preservation. How much more of a way to show and live out your passion than renovating an old historic church in downtown? And knowing your belief, how much more of a way to express that than moving into a church?’”

The move also makes financial sense. Garner expects the firm will save at least $5,000 per month in operational expenses after the move, which includes the difference in leasing costs vs. paying off the bank loan required for the renovation.

Garner, who bought the building in 2001 with a partner, Mark Maryanovsky,  expects to spend about $1 million on the project. That figure will include buying out Maryanovsky, whose high-end audio and video shop, Tone Studio, will remain directly southwest of the church.

Renovation work is expected to begin within weeks, with move-in targeted for January. “We’re looking at keeping the inside largely the way it is now,” Garner said. “I shared with my staff, ‘Even though this is a historic church, please don’t think I’m looking to do a restoration.’ … It will look like a historic structure on the outside, but we’ll have some modern and updated twists in there that will surprise some people.”

In the video at top, Garner provides a peek inside the church, which has been vacant for at least 25 years and shows some serious signs of neglect. He also discusses how he has learned to deal with stress, and the coincidental significance of moving his firm into a church.




 

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