Anthony Orelowitz is one of the founding partners of The Paragon Group. He has a degree in Architecture and an MBA from Wits University. Anthony specialised in property finance and, after graduation, worked for Standard Bank’s Property Division. In 1997, Anthony returned to Architecture and founded the Paragon Group with his partner Henning Rasmuss.
He spoke to KC Rottok at the Paragon Illovo offices.
What do you consider the highs and lows of your career?
One of the lows has been the departure of several good staff members in the past 24 months. Most have moved to places like Australia seeking a different way of life. I guess the positive here is that few people have moved to our competitors; most have either relocated or retired. Another change has been developments in academic institutions where Technikons have become academic universities. As a result, there has been a decline in technical knowledge standards and we are finding that we have to do more training of the people we recruit. Those are operational lows. Commercially, we obviously have our wins and losses like any practice. For instance, we lost a job whose pitch cost us two million rand and seven months of work. But we won the commission to do the interiors and we find with a lot of jobs if we don’t get the architecture, we are often appointed to do the work on the interiors side. That is good synergy in our business. Finally, we have been trying to expand our African footprint and it is taking longer than we anticipated particularly in countries such as Angola and Nigeria where the slump in oil prices has affected the economy.
The highs are that we have been building bigger more complicated buildings, better. For instance, if you look at the Sasol building on Katherine Street Sandton, there are very few buildings like that in the world or even in Africa. The technology we used is very advanced; most of the building’s façades are double curved glass. It is also double glazed meaning there are two layers of glass which are bent and they need to align perfectly when manufactured. These kinds of buildings are advancing our skillset and this is a high for me personally, as I am involved in the core design of all our commercial buildings.
What keeps you awake at night or should I ask what makes you tick? Design is my thing. Our buildings must operate at the same rental as our competitors. To achieve this value engineering is required to ensure our buildings look sophisticated at the same cost. I believe that is the competency we possess over our competitors.
Not much keeps me awake at night. I think as you grow older your capacity to handle stress grows. We have evolved from a small business to a large one and maintaining personal connections becomes more difficult. It becomes a challenge to manage the company culture and to ensure that everyone feels they are a valuable part of the business.
What is your management style?
I think I am very hands-on. I know when it is important to delve into the details and when it is important to back off and empower people to take control of the job. We have learnt over the years that although we may come up with the vision and the parameters, it is important to sit with our staff and let them share their ideas so that they can feel a sense of ownership over the building. So I can say that we are also consultative and very open to hear peoples’ opinions.
We review our staff every four months and pay bonuses over that same period. We ask each person what we can expect from them in the upcoming four months and assess them after that period so they don’t have to wait until the end of the year to hear whether they have met their goals.
How do you take part in mentorship?
We spend a lot of time at Wits University and the University of Johannesburg (UJ). Paragon is a Visiting Professor at UJ and a many of our young staff members assist with the Design Resolution Portfolio. It has been very successful. Some of our women Project Architects interacted with the students, revealing that age and gender barriers can be breached in this male dominated industry. I probably spend over 10 days a year working with students including time spent as an external examiner.
When you eventually retire, what would you like to have achieved with Paragon?
I would like to see Paragon acknowledged as the best practice in Africa. I would like to leave beautiful buildings behind as a personal legacy. I would also like to leave our business strong with a generation of competent people to drive the business forward.
What would you say your business growth trajectory has been?
It has been enormous. The first four or five years were quite slow. Then we started getting some small commissions. As you come through Woodmead on the left hand side you will see some buildings that we designed like the buildings for Oracle, Group 5 and Motorola. After buildings of that size, we won a competition for a project within the Melrose Arch Precinct which became our first “building with a lift”. Then we commenced on the Alice Lane Precinct in Sandton. The Norton Rose building would be a turning point for us, as it was our first very distinctive iconic building of that size. It was 18 000 square metres and from there we went to Alexander Forbes which is 47 000 square metres and now Sasol which is 67 000 square metres. We have expanded our portfolio from commercial office buildings to education, residential, mixed use and industrial buildings. Our employees have grown to 100, we are the biggest we have ever been though we are not sure we want to be bigger because size is not our driver.
How do you demonstrate that you have been an ethical business?
Our ethical culture starts at the top with the directors. If there are issues with any of our staff members acting improperly we deal with it immediately and firmly.
The thought process around this also stem from our conduct. We are not selling pretty buildings; we are selling the lifestyles that are offered. We ask ourselves how we are going to improve the quality of the lifestyle of the people who work in the building where they spend eight hours or more every day.
We sell our design and supervisory services. We do not participate in the commodification of products associated with our designs, as does occur, particularly in the Interior Design world.
What has been Paragon’s contribution to the community?
Other than the hours we spend at universities; we also offer bursaries. The funds generated from teaching at university are ploughed back into bursaries. We donate computers to disadvantaged schools and support items to orphanages; and promote corporate culture in blood donation.
What has been your contribution to the architecture profession?
We recently sponsored the Architect Africa Film Festival which is important to us because we get to showcase what Africans are doing in architecture which is making beautiful buildings with less money. We also have contributed to architecture through our portfolio of work. We were amongst the first architectural practitioners to use AutodeskRevit software. We have also pioneered the use of various material systems including unitized panels, double glazed units, and paper thin stone tiles. We are early adopters of technology and leaders in innovation in architecture in South Africa.
What awards have you won in the recently?
This year we won 3rd prize in the Casalgrande Grande Prix award ceremony in Venice, Italy. Last year we won a merit award for a Commercial Office Development at the SA Property Owners Association (SAPOA) Awards for Alice Lane 2. In 2014, we received the AfriSam SAIA Sustainable Award for the Alexander Forbes building and we also took home the SAPOA Award for a commercial office development for Alice Lane Phase one. In 2013, we won awards from Gauteng Institute for Architecture, the Loerie Awards and we were the overall winner of the SAPOA Awards.
Is transformation a key objective for you?
We have formed and support a separate fully black owned entity – Paragon Architects South Africa. We believe this is a better approach rather than giving say 30% shareholding to a black owned trust. We have people who collectively assist both divisions with legal services, occupational health and safety and so on. And we are seeing that business growing significantly, so that I believe it will ultimately surpass the original Paragon Architects.
How do you measure your customer service?
Our projects are very interactive in nature so we engage our clients continuously. Fifteen developers control 80% of the market so it is quite easy to gauge how well you are servicing the market from your interactions with the main players. We also make sure that each project is supervised by a senior staff member. In addition, we assess client service as part of our four-month assessment of our staff.