The passing of power may flow gently amidst smiles, speeches, inaugural balls, and follow at work the next morning with rolled up shirtsleeves and a renewed sense of energy. Or, the crown may be seized after a beheading and bleed on into a bitter War of the Roses.
The former, better transfer befalls that organization, not with the best intentions, but with the most farsighted and established plan.
After nearly 30 years, Allan W. Kehrt, at age 68, is leaving KSS Architects, which he founded in 1983. Kehrt’s simple business card announces his 337 Witherspoon Street, Princeton address, and beside his name only the title “Partner.”
It is a modest designation for the man who has guided this thriving firm; imbued its 50 employees with core values of humanity and excellence; and brought his personal vision to its many creations.
Kehrt has led his company in the fullest possible sense. Be it the inviting, student-oriented remake of the Rowan University Campus, which he himself planned, or partner Ed Klimek’s award-winning 1.5 million-square-foot Mercedes Benz warehouse — each KSS job carries a hint of this master’s touch. Kehrt leaves a large hole, and he will be sorely missed for much more than his skills at the drawing board.
With five remaining partners amid this vacuum, the firm could well be in for a bloody round of corporate backstabbing. Certainly, this is the type of scenario that could set all employees to quivering and dusting off resumes.
Yet one has only to stroll through KSS’s Princeton and Philadelphia offices to catch the aura that this will never happen here.
One of the foremost reasons for this calm is the presence of founding partner Michael Shatken, who is still providing KSS with his own brand of leadership — very much akin to Kehrt’s.
The two men met when they were working for Princeton’s renowned architect Robert Geddes, and along with Rafael Sharon decided to split off and launch their own firm.
“Back when we three began,” notes Kehrt, “it was a real out-of-the-back-bedroom operation. We built mostly residential except for a few retail and mall jobs.” And as Kehrt, Shatken, and Sharon (KSS) grew, so did the bond among the founders.
Kehrt, the eldest, brought a philosophical vision to the firm. Growing up in Garden City, Long Island, Kehrt learned early on the client side of construction. His grandfather was the first superintendent of midtown Manhattan’s noted Crown Building, and his father headed all the real estate operations for Banker’s Trust.
After taking his bachelor’s in economics from Ohio Wesleyan in 1966, and serving five years as a U.S. Navy pilot, Kehrt turned to architecture, earning his masters at Virginia Polytechnic.
“We have to keep presenting intrinsic value to the client — something that answers the needs he knows, and the needs not yet known,” says Kehrt.
Shatken sees and agrees with this co-influencing of the structure and the individuals dwelling in it. Blending the two amicably is his passion. A native of Livingston, Shatken claims to have always had a love for buildings and architecture. His father, owner of an electrical supply business, taught him the necessity of attending to a building’s practical details.
Shatken earned both bachelor’s and master’s in architecture and business administration from Washington University’s School of Architecture, and shortly after graduation in 1974, came to Robert Geddes’ Princeton firm, where he met Kehrt.
Sharon left the firm in 1998 to embark on a new career as a psychologist. The remaining partners both continued a mutual fascination with their trade.
“Look at what you, as an architect, are doing,” says Kehrt. “You are beginning with a blank piece of paper, and from there you must gather all the people, the resources, the materials, and the energy to produce the final entity you see before you. Design is the best possible training for any person seeking to be an executive.”
To which Shatken adds, “And the devil lies in all the details. You are creating more than a building. You are creating a living environment both for the client and the people surrounding.”
Yet KSS’s calm change of leadership comes from a lot more than the good fortune of having a handy successor who has been pulling in the traces alongside his leader for decades.
Theirs was a carefully engineered transfer, launched well ahead of time, and set to last. It provides a model that other mid-size firms might do well to copy.
Beyond mere succession. Ten years ago, at age 59, Kehrt felt the first fancies of retirement. The firm had recently taken on several new architects who would be seeking partner positions.
With the help of his entire crew, Kehrt established a partner retirement program. He cut back his work week to four days/80 percent. In exchange, the new partners were given a somewhat complex buy-in formula that allowed them to take pieces of the firm.
“We made it a slow ramping up for our partners,” says Shatken. “We didn’t want a series of hard, shocking stops and plateaus and restarts.” While new partners would have time to gain their footing, old ones were required to give six months notice before actually retiring. This Kehrt did by actually sitting down with each principal employee and outlining his own plans and where that employee individually would now fit into the organization.
During a weekly teleconference between the two offices in January, Kehrt made the formal announcement of his leaving, and it was clear the plan had worked.
No one jumped back or knocked over their chair. No one hurriedly texted their broker or executive recruiter.
“Actually,” says Kehrt, “the response was rather blase, with an almost ‘Oh, yes, I understand’ kind of attitude.”
More than a one-time solution, KSS has set up an ongoing process. And while Kehrt stands as the trailblazer, all other retirees will accrue the same benefit rate. “Actually this kind of shocked us,” notes Shatken. “As we were figuring out the formula for Allan, we realized that this would eventually apply to us all — and I’ll probably be availing myself of the system next.”
Lucky breaks. Solid as the KSS plan seems, the model’s timing involved some good fortune. It’s not so much that KSS has done anything wrong, but that they did not bring it into place soon enough.
Luckily, Kehrt felt the call to retire while he was still alive, sketching, and had the time to initiate the plan. But suppose KSS’s owner and heir apparent had, before this plan, been hit by a large truck on his way to a job.
Suppose partner Kehrt awoke one day and instead of considering backing away amicably, chose to scoop out his shares and head for new horizons. Shambles.
Ed Klimek, who joined the firm in 1991, and had handled the monstrous Mercedes Benz and Princeton University off-campus administration building, had the experience and leadership abilities. But what would have been his fiscal stake?
Had no buy-in process been established, Klimek’s level of leadership, as well as many existing-project profits may have been lost. The moral of this hypothetical dilemma: right in with your startup company’s business plan, include not just your personal, but a financial exit strategy. And by the way, do you have a will?
The right people. Less tangible, but equally essential to KSS’s transfer plans were the selection of the right people. “When I first began this firm,” says Kehrt, “I decided that we only wanted to hire people we enjoyed having around the office.” Operating by the old maxim, he hired for attitudes and trained for skills.
All of the staff individually have adopted the KSS core values:
• Make each design exceptionally excellent.
• Design every project for the client and his needs. (If Hobart and William Smith colleges want Scanlon Hall in Gothic, that’s what they get — not the architect’s personal vision of what he’d like to build.)
• Build trust. Form relationships with clients to become “their personal architect” who solves their problems with this project — and the next.
Such are the strategies that have allowed KSS to, as Shatken puts it, swim upstream in its projects — build for the highest levels in each segment from Princeton, Rutgers, and Cornell universities to Mercedes Benz and the City of Newark.
“These establish us within each field and allow us to continue a culture of profit and growth, even during this recession year,” says Kehrt.
In the upcoming year, KSS will go on to expand and delve deeper into the educational construction format in which they have proven so successful.
Kehrt will spend more time with his wife, Michaele, and more days sailing. But he will not leave his firm completely. “After all,” he says, “what I’ll really miss most is these people, and I’ll just have to come by to see everybody.”