Updated April 1 at 8:48pm

Firm’s designs on regional presence

‘The greatest asset we have is the historic-preservation aspect.’

Formed by three graduate-school friends 31 years ago, Newport Collaborative had grown over the years to become the largest architectural firm in the state with 63 employees at the height of the real estate boom and offices in Newport and Providence. Then the bottom fell out of the housing market. More

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Firm’s designs on regional presence

‘The greatest asset we have is the historic-preservation aspect.’

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For an illustration of how profoundly the recession reshaped businesses in Rhode Island, take the recent history of Northeast Collaborative Architects, or as they were known before the crash, Newport Collaborative Architects.

Formed by three graduate-school friends 31 years ago, Newport Collaborative had grown over the years to become the largest architectural firm in the state with 63 employees at the height of the real estate boom and offices in Newport and Providence.

Then the bottom fell out of the housing market.

By the time the effects of the recession were fully realized, Newport Collaborative had laid off two-thirds of its staff as it scrambled to compensate for the drastic decline in demand for new construction.

From its founding, Newport Collaborative has focused on private-sector projects, especially coastal real estate, high-end condominium conversions and historic renovations. But post- 2008 the firm realized it needed to diversify.

“In the last recession we found ourselves the largest in the state and also the most vulnerable,” said founding Partner John Grosvenor. “It became an opportunity for us to re-evaluate where we wanted to go.”

Looking to keep its core business intact but expand its reach, Newport Collaborative decided that its best move was to join forces with Bianco Giolitto Weston Architects, a Middletown, Conn., firm that specialized in public projects and had worked with Newport Collaborative for years.

Last January, the two firms made a straight merger that created six equal partners and a new company name, Northeast Collaborative Architects.

A year later, the partnership seems to be working.

At the time of the merger, Newport Collaborative had nine employees. While the economy is still struggling, the new company is up to 25 employees and annual billings of $4 million. The combined firm’s new business in 2011 was up 30 percent over the new business of the two separate firms in 2010.

On top of broadening the firm’s expertise, creating economies of scale and consolidating administrative functions, the merger allowed Northeast Collaborative to invest in advanced architectural-modeling software that gives it a leg up on competitors in all different markets.

A year after the merger, Northeast Collaborative’s geographical footprint has expanded well beyond Rhode Island and Connecticut to include municipal projects in Keane and Wolfeboro, N.H., and the condominium conversion of a historic hunting lodge just outside of Chicago. Closer to home, Northeast Collaborative is waiting for the start of one $60 million project and another for $30 million in Connecticut.

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