As his Alexander Road-based international architecture

firm celebrates its 40th anniversary, J. Robert Hillier,

in great demand as a speaker, is being asked just what

made him so successful, and how others can emulate his

success. Although he does not say it in so many words, his

life experience shows that to be successful in business

you need to go with your gut. Yes, he loved to draw and

solve problems as a kid, perhaps influenced by his father,

James Hillier, still alive at age 91, who is known as the

inventor of the electron microscope. And yes, his mother,

Florence, now deceased, had a paper from sixth grade where

he said he wanted to be an architect. But in the end, he

says, choosing architecture was a wholly pragmatic


He had decided initially to become a labor lawyer,

inspired by a summer job in a forge, on the night shift,

making automobile springs for the Mather Spring Company.

"I was fascinated by the whole idea of labor and unions,"

he says.

Things took a different turn after he got to Princeton

University. An honor student, he also became an officer of

his class and when the guy who was designing the

decorations for the freshman prom flunked out, Hillier did

the responsible thing and volunteered to take over the

design for the dance. That’s how he got involved in

building dance decorations.

When his grades went down to Bs and Cs, he went to his

advisor for help, and recalls saying, "There has to be a

way of getting better grades at Princeton and having as

much fun as I have had building these things." His advisor

suggested he have a talk with the architecture school. He

did just that, changed his major to architecture, and upon

graduation got a full scholarship for a master’s degree.

And after 40 plus years in his chosen profession, he says,

"It’s been a joy."

Hillier is being feted throughout the region this fall,

and recently addressed students at the New Jersey

Institute of Technology on ways to build a successful

practice. He is being honored by Princeton University at a

private reception at his firm on Monday, October 16, at

which university president Shirley Tilghman will be on

hand to offer congratulations. He gives a free public

lecture at Philadelphia University on Wednesday, November

15, at 6 p.m. (Call Scott Ogburn at 215-951-2933 for more


Although Hillier’s tips developed out of talks to students

on how to become a successful architect, he sees them as

relevant to just about any business. He offers several


Never say no the first time. "Often architects will get a

crazy phone call and will dismiss it, saying, `We don’t do

that kind of work or project’ without listening to it,"

says Hillier. He shares an example from his own business:

"We were doing a multibillion-dollar campus from scratch

in Rhode Island, a charter plane was waiting for me, and I

was dashing out, when I got a phone call from a farmer in

Cranbury, who asked, `Mr. Hillier, do you do fruit

stands?’" Instead of giving him the brush off with a quick

"We don’t do fruit stands. Why don’t you call another

architect," Hillier asked him to explain what he had in


The farmer had been selling apples from the back of his

station wagon on the road and making decent money. "I

thought I could make it more official and build a fruit

stand," said the farmer. The two men met and eventually

built a 2,000 to 3,000-square-foot farmers market. "It

became so popular," says Hillier, "that people asked, `Who

did this thing?’ and we got a lot of business out of it."

Bottom line: If you say no too quickly, you will miss


Get a summer job where you are doing lots of personal

transactions. Hillier used to work in a flower shop,

Princeton’s Flower Basket, which his mother owned, and

where he says he learned both how to read people and how

to respond to them. "If you are working in a flower shop

or a clothing store," he says, "you are dealing with a

combination of function and emotion, and doing it every 10

minutes with every customer."

"You have the customer’s need and you have the ability to

solve it," says Hillier, "and you start to be able to read

a client." In that sense it’s the same set of skills

needed by an architect, learning how to read people and

address their needs. Because young architects spend lots

of time in the back room and don’t even get to see the

client for a couple of years, this early experience is

invaluable. If you can’t read a customer and respond

appropriately, he concludes, you can’t give him the right


Understand bureaucracies. "If you fight it, you don’t get

anywhere," says Hillier. "If you figure out its purpose

and play to its purpose, you can use it to your

advantage." He recalls an instance in England, a country

with a well-developed, tightly structured bureaucracy. He

was in London, walking along a sidewalk where every three

feet there was a brass plaque stating that below the

sidewalk was a fire-protected parking garage. He couldn’t

fathom what kind of rule would require those plaques.

"That was when I thought that bureaucracy has gone too

far," he says, "but there was probably a good reason and

if I understood the reason, I wouldn’t fight it."

He recalled this observation later when he had a fire exit

problem in Rhode Island, where he was able to convince a

fire marshal that a different type of fire exit would

satisfy the rule book – by pointing out that the rule

could be interpreted a different way.

Another way to work with bureaucracy, he says, is to get

out in front of it. "When we design a building," he says,

"we will talk to officials before starting so they can

tell us where their concerns are, and we can then design

the building to their concerns. We’d rather know what we

can and can’t do at the beginning of the game, and our

clients get better served when we do that."

Understand the impact of advancing technology. "We all owe

it to ourselves to keep up with advancing technology as

much as we may not want to," says Hillier. He cites a

"huge network of brilliant invention" that has changed the

way architects work.

Buildings themselves are much more complex. Design work is

done by computer-aided design (CAD) machines instead of by

hand, and work can be shared easily over the Internet.

Technology has its good and bad sides, says Hillier. On

the one hand there is increased efficiency and speed – and

lower costs. "We can design a building today, send the

design to China to get the rendering, and get it back the

next morning." It now takes a third of the time that it

once did to design and produce a building. "All this is

possible only because of digitizing and the ability to

send stuff by computer," he says.

But there’s a downside too. The CAD machine gets in the

way of the emotional attachment that architects used to

have to their pencil drawings. With CAD, architecture has

become less of a craft, says Hillier, "and buildings are

less personal and have less soul. The buildings that do

have craft are still works of art, but are very


Another consequence of technology is that houses all over

the country produced by the same architect are often

identical, whereas 20 years ago a house in Pennsylvania

and one in California would be different. "The typical

American house is produced by a virtual factory of

standard parts put together," he says. "Because of

efficiency there is a lot of homogenization and


Learn a team sport. "Lots of people think of architecture

as somebody’s brilliance," says Hillier, "but today

buildings are so complex that they are created by teams of

people, each with different specialties." He likens it to

the difference between being a tennis player or a golfer

and being a member of a basketball or soccer team. Tennis

players and golfers are only interested in their single

shots or strokes, but on team players must understand

where they need to be, where other players are, who’s got

the ball, who should get the ball.

When working on a complex project like a hospital or big

laboratory, where 25 to 40 specialists may be part of the

development team, it is essential to understand how a team

works. "Knowing how to manage your ego and support your

team," says Hillier, "are skills learned on a soccer or

basketball team but not on a tennis court."

Hillier’s combination of basic business and people sense

and architectural design skill is reflected in his firm’s

growth from a sole practitioner in 1966 to a 350-person

firm providing a range of services, with offices in

Princeton, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C.,

Shanghai, and Dubai. He has designed corporate campuses,

including the GlaxoSmithKline World Headquarters in

London; unique condominiums in a former Princeton garage;

and campus projects for several of the Ivies.

His current projects include the East River Science Park,

an 870,000-foot biotech center in Manhattan and restoring

and renovating the U.S. Supreme Court. He is also one of

three finalists for the job of planning the redevelopment

of the Princeton Junction train station in West Windsor.

It looks easy when done by a master, but following

Hillier’s tips for success can help anyone to reach a

little higher – and with joy.

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