Carol Wall | Crain's St. Louis

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Carol Wall

Background:  

Mitchell Wall Architecture & Design provides architectural, interior design and landscape design services for residential, business and educational clients. Notable projects in the St. Louis area include designing the Italian eatery Parigi and the President's House on the Lindenwood University campus. The firm also collaborated on renovations to the Whittemore House, Washington University's faculty club. The architectural firm was founded by Carol Wall's late husband in 1976.

The Mistake:

Waiting too long to remove toxic people from the work environment.

I’m not an architect. I'm not a designer. So those were strikes one and two. My husband, Mitch, passed away suddenly of cardiac arrest in 1999 and I stepped in. I had no choice – left foot, right foot. The children were college-aged and one year out, so I had an enormous responsibility.

I was spared some early mistakes by having really good consultants around me. I wanted to change the name of the firm right away and a friend of mine who worked at FleishmanHillard, the big PR firm, said, “Absolutely do not change the name. Don’t change anything. You can build on that reputation and people need to know you are continuing.”

Then, about three weeks after Mitch died, I had an architect come in and demand to be made partner. Since I'm not an architect and you always need licensed architects at a firm, I was sort of held hostage. I called my accountant and he said, “Why in the world would you become partners with the man who is holding a gun to your head?” That gave me clarity. The architect walked away from the firm right away. Five years later, I had two architects who demanded to be made partners without paying in. Again, I had that same accountant outline to them what it would cost.

I'd say a mistake was I waited too long to remove the cancers in the office because I was frightened early on. By cancers, I mean people who were there just for the good of themselves rather than the good of the firm. They were about their own wallets rather than about the creativity and design aesthetics. So I recreated the staff. Now I have a group who are all classically trained architects.

You're so shell shocked because you think you know your life and you don't.

The Lesson:

What I've learned is not to be held hostage, to be tough and to trust my instincts, which is hard when you’re raw and hurt. You're so shell shocked because you think you know your life and you don't. It's easy to be rudderless in those early months. Losing someone so suddenly, at least for me, I lost faith in everything. The best advice I can give, even though there's no ground under your feet and you’re completely rudderless, there are trusted people like those who advised me who can help you. Listen to their advice because they're coming from a grounded place.

I was also fortunate that I understood the industry, the machinations. I’d worked here part time, but more backroom stuff. I did not interact with the clients. I certainly didn't know how to go about getting work. We had a lot of good work under contract, and I was able to maintain that except for one builder who pulled his project.

It was tough because people would call and ask for Mitch. I’d have to say, “Mitch passed away, but so-and-so can help you.” I had other architects here, but I don't know what sustained us other than maybe our name and our reputation. And I just got myself out there and started marketing.

It's nearly impossible to keep a design firm going when you lose your leader, your creative force. Early on, I met with my attorney. He said, "You know, the odds are against you, Carol.” His advice was to sell the firm. He’s still my attorney, and he was just being realistic. But I wanted to preserve it for our son, who is now taking over the firm. It's very fulfilling to see my journey concluding with our son Tom taking over. That's deeply rewarding and gratifying for me.

Mitchell Wall Architecture & Design is on Twitter at @MitchellWallAD.

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