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 decision.
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 information.)
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 examples:
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 mind.
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 opportunities.
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 architecture.
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 expensive.”
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 commoditization.”
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.