5 Lessons for 50 Years: SERA Principals on Reaching a Milestone
Since 1968, SERA has restored, transformed and created from scratch a myriad of exciting projects – projects that pique the interest and enrich the lives of the people who interact with them. From a sparkling marble hotel bar and a daylit workspace, to a place to sleep at night, and a newly-walkable Main Street, our work defines us.
In celebrating 50 years of shaping our communities, SERA’s principals reflect on how we got here: What does it take to build a firm, maneuver through recessions, and continue to evolve in the practice?
Forge strong partnerships from the start of the project – or even earlier
Long before Integrated Project Delivery made its way to the design and construction industry, SERA and our many project partners have embraced this philosophy, working together in a mutually respectful and supportive environment to achieve phenomenal successes. An early example of this is founder Bing Sheldon’s engagement with Bill and Bob Naito in the 70s and 80s that resulted in the creation of Montgomery Park. More recently is the University of Oregon’s new Erb Memorial Union. Coming together with the client, contractor and the community to solve problems – be it a disused department store or a dated student union – has long been a hallmark of how we approach every project.
Help your employees lead
In 1995, SERA’s founders Bing Sheldon and Don Eggleston decided against a traditional transition of the firm, where a few employees ‘buy out’ the owners. Instead, they decided to transfer ownership to all the employees. This ensured that leaders in the firm ascended based on skill and merit, and that the culture and legacy would be passed on. And by making SERA an ESOP – Employee Stock Ownership Trust – employees are also provided financial incentive to contribute to the firm’s long-term success in the form of privately-held stocks. We’re proud to say we’ve been 100% employee-owned since 2002.
Stay involved in your community; you’ll reap what you sow
SERA has been an engaged member of our community for the past 50 years by way of our paid and pro-bono work, but also as community volunteers, planning commissioners, sustainability and resilience advocates, and advisors on non-profit boards. This was Bing Sheldon’s vision for the firm. As such, we have been instrumental in crafting the Portland and broader Pacific Northwest ethos that we’re now exporting throughout the country. We’ve enjoyed the benefits of this simple strategy of giving back to our community: we’ve earned clients who share our vision and passion for placemaking, and attract talented staff who want to be part of our mission.
Show your clients what’s possible
Clients come to us to define and solve problems and be experts. In an organization dedicated to great customer service like SERA has been over its entire history, it is easy to lose sight of the value we add by providing confident and data driven design recommendations. One lesson that SERA has learned over the last 10 years is that simply asking a client “what they want” is rarely, if ever, a recipe for a successful project. As designers, we need to provoke conversations with our clients that stretch their imagination and create opportunities for great outcomes they never imagined in the first place.
Grow your to expertise to weather the storm
When I joined SERA in 2001, Bing Sheldon and Don Eggleston had strongly established our firm as the experts in historic building renovations in Portland. Since that time, we have grown our expertise to include a robust urban design and planning studio and market-focused architecture and interior design studios: multi-family housing, hospitality, workplace, and public. We also opened a new Bay Area office. This market diversity not only allows us to offer up design creativity across our studios, and to address projects from the building to the neighborhood scale, but it’s helped us weather the economic ups and down of individual markets.