GLH’S XAVIER HUYBERECHTS – “LEADERSHIP IS LEAVING THE SHIP BETTER THAN YOU FOUND IT”

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Xavier Huyberechts [cropped]

Xavier qualified in Belgium at the ISA St Luc in Brussels. He joined GLH in 1994, became a partner in 1997, and the senior member in 2005. Xavier leads the practice as the principal designer where his meticulous eye for detail and design is critical in every project. His experience includes a range of commercial, residential, and mixed-use schemes, and his skill as an architect and urban planner are brought to bear in all his work.

How do you view your role as the senior member?

I have been in this position for ten years. As senior member I manage all aspects of the business working with people who are responsible for different areas like the financial director who looks at issues like cash flow projections and HR director who handles staff matters. My role is to provide guidance but not to be hands on in matters such as administration. I assist in pointing people in the direction they should pay attention to.  My input is mostly important at the time of putting a structure in place. The only place where I have direct input is with client relations and design of projects which has always been my passion. I have delegated most of what relates to administration to focus on servicing the clients and I think it has been good for me personally and for the firm as a result.

What would you like to have achieved by the time you retire?

This is a big ship that has been sailing for 70 years. I am just a custodian of the ship at the moment. My aim is to get to the harbor and another captain will take over from me. I want that ship to be just as good, if not better than when I took over. That is important for me. We aim to do better buildings and do even larger projects. Quality is very important at the end of the day as it is essential in the long term to protect your name and your firm more than anything else. Obviously client relationships are essential to your business but the buildings talk for themselves. They are the best way of advertising yourself and they are a legacy. Architecture is not like doing an advert on TV.  You may lose a client but your building will still stand for very many years – if it is a good building it helps your profile, if it is a bad building it damages it.

What is your leadership and management style?

Management styles have changed over the years with various members. The founding duo of members were extremely close and made decisions by consulting each other. They had the company at heart but there was little consultation when a decision was made. When I took over, I had a different character. I am someone who makes decisions with the rest of my partners. We have a collective type of decision making system. I like to hear what others views are before steering the decision to where I think it should be. As we grow, I believe you need to have a balanced decision making process with your partners. There are also areas I do not deal with seeing as each partner has their area of control. Day to day matters are handled by these partners and only rarely do we escalate issues up the reporting structure.

What makes you tick or keeps you awake at night with respect to your position as the senior member?

Cash flow sometimes keeps me awake at night. Sometimes we are finishing a lot of large jobs and there is a lag in our cash flow. Sometimes when work is quiet we are required to retrench staff although this has rarely happened with respect to high level employees. We do have some leaving out of their own volition due to career aspirations. We do keep in contact with them and sometimes they do come back to us.

I also deal a lot with aesthetic issues around projects that keep me awake at night. Sometimes I go to the client the following morning and say that I think we have thought of something better. The other thing that concerns me greatly is the problems you will undoubtedly encounter when carrying out a large project. It takes a lot of thought as to how to manage those issues and protect the client and ensure that a quality project is delivered.
How do you take part in mentorship?

I stay very close to our projects’ architects on the aesthetic side of projects. I work with them on the drawings showing them how to pay attention to detail and make corrections and when on site I will supervise quality. I believe I mentor the architects by staying involved. I am hands on when it comes to aesthetic aspects while other partners are hands on with respect to the technical side.

What contribution has the company made to the architecture profession?

As a company, there are a lot of programs that are in place to constantly help people improve including refresher courses. We have allocated Friday afternoons to training which includes course for beginners. We also have bursaries in support of students at various institutions such as Wits. We also take in interns who are still studying and give them practical experience.  They spend 2 – 3weeks with us every year and quite often they join us afterwards. One of our members Andrew Wood started like that.

Our Friday training programme ensures that our professionals meet their Continued Professional Development requirements. We also give lectures at institutions such as Wits and at conferences which counts towards that.

What contribution has GLH made to the community?

We frequently make donations to institutions such as orphanages but our main contribution is bursaries to students who do not have the means to pay for their studies.

What could be your highlights and lowlights of your career?

I am person who believes that there is good in everything so it is hard for me to pinpoint lowlights. I am an optimist, even when it bites I see a lesson in what we are doing. We pride ourselves in giving the same level and quality of service to both small corporate clients and more visibly exciting projects with big budgets. We try to exceed our clients’ expectations.

On the highs, there have been a few lately including the Standard Bank Rosebank project. The brief and the vision of the client was very interesting because he wanted to break boundaries. It was very close to my heart and I was actively involved. We were engaged from the beginning including the purchase of the land for the construction of about 70,000 square metres of rentable office area. The client wanted something timeless and I think the final product is a testimony of maturity. The property is integrated into the city and we managed to put parking space of about 125,000 square metres underground which was a plus from a commercial point of view.

What accolades would you like to speak of?

In the past few years we have been getting lot of recognition from the PMR Awards which is an industry survey and it does reflects how we are seen by peers and clients. We were the best architectural firm in that this year. The other awards we always look at are the South African Property Owners Association Awards which we always do well in. Last year we won the Commercial Office Development category for 90 Grayston. This year we have won in the best Corporate Office Development category for Multichoice City. I am also extremely proud of our achievement on the green side of what we are doing because we have been leaders in the commercial environment when it comes to sustainability. It all started with the Nedbank head office Phase II.. We convinced our client to embark on a journey that would see this becoming the first 4 star rated commercial building in South Africa. Also with ABSA Towers West we managed to get the first 5 star rated building and with Vodacom we produced the first 6 star rated building.

How has GLH fared in terms of business growth?

Our business has grown in the past 70 years. At the moment we have the highest number of employees since inception. From a financial point of view, we have done extremely well in the past 10 years but we are still looking at growing even more.  It is not an easy thing to do in troubled times like now where there is less work and more risk. We need to carefully consider our options given that a presentation to try secure a project can cost more than R100 000 which is a big investment.

How has your firm demonstrated a commitment to ethics and integrity?

We have been applying these principles for years. It is critical to a company of our size. We have never bribed and we never will. We also don’t take commissions. Sometimes we have lost jobs because there was bribing involved and that is fine. We have a 70 year old name to protect and bribing can affect the integrity of the whole company. We maintain integrity which is also important to the city councils and local authorities. Occasionally we get clients who are a bit pushy and we are tactful in sticking within the limits to what is required within the rules without displeasing and losing the client.

Is transformation an important objective for your firm?

It is a key objective for us. From as far back as 1994 we formed a sister company where we were sister shareholders for a few years before transitioning to make it completely black owned. They are today called Terra Ether architects and we refer a certain amount of work to them although it is not a situation where we just give away work but rather that we work together. An example is an engagement with Statistics SA where we both do a certain portion of the work. It is a long term partnership and they don’t work exclusively with us, they also work with other architectural firms.  Within our own firm we also have a black female partner and business owner and we strive to have more black partners.

How do you measure your customer service?

Most of our clients are repeat clients which shows that they are happy with the kind of service we are providing. That is the best way of tracking our service. A lot of corporate clients try not to work with just one company as it is seen as a threat to their corporate governance rules. An example is Standard Bank where some of their large buildings are not done by us but where there are opportunities they always include us which shows they value our work. When a client comes back to talk to you and invite you to participate it shows you are doing something right. In addition we have done well in the PMR Awards which are based by industry surveys which again shows that our service is highly rated. We have a reputation on being tough with contractors and occasionally clients because of our insistence on quality but at the end of the day we work well with everyone involved in any project.

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