Planning for a Mishap-Proof Move

Knowing how to choose a commercial lease, create a realistic budget, and get employee buy-in on design decisions should help ease the process

Every fast-expanding company outgrows office space, so many find themselves faced with the daunting task of moving. Jonathan Carson's legal technology firm, Kurtzman Carson Consultants, founded in Southern California in 2001, has moved three times and remodeled twice.

Along the way, Carson picked up some valuable wisdom on leases and planning and budgeting for a move. He spoke recently to Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.

Your business has grown by 2000% since you founded it. What does Kurtzman Carson do?

My partner, Eric Kurtzman, and I are former lawyers who worked in corporate restructuring under Chapter 11 of the bankruptcy code. We recognized that there was a niche where we could provide technology-based, administrative-support solutions for the legal and financial industries.

So we started the company in December, 2001. It was just the two of us and an administrative person we knew from the bankruptcy court. We leased 2,500 square feet of office space in Marina del Rey.

And how long did that space serve the firm?

After a year we had 35 people and we had broken through a wall to expand into 3,200 square feet. We had very tight pods of four desks in our workspace, and we found that it fostered a culture of collegiality and collaboration.

After another year, we moved to a new space in Marina Del Rey that was 13,000 square feet. We thought for sure we'd be there at least five years, but as it turned out we only lasted nine months before we again broke a wall down. We had about 19,000 square feet total, which was large enough for 50 or 60 employees.

Late last year, we hit 90 employees and realized we'd have to move again. We have a real, established business now, and we knew we could afford a bigger space. So we went out and got a space big enough for us to grow into in El Segundo. It's 45,000 square feet. We moved in about five weeks ago. We found a building we liked on the outside and we tore everything out from the inside and built it out from scratch.

How has your company culture influenced your priorities for office space?

We have a very strong commitment to making this company a fun place to work, and we're focused on taking care of our people. We have a company where most people are doing technology tasks and processing an enormous number of mailings every day. They're not building rocket ships, but we want them to be happy in their process. And it helps to have an attractive, comfortable workplace.

So we have a game and entertainment room, a soda fountain, two kitchens, a huge atrium, and a barbecue area outside where people can hang out. People bring their dogs to work. We let the various department heads design their own spaces, and we have seven conference rooms named after popular TV shows.

When you're growing so quickly and moving so often, how do you deal with commercial leases?

We originally went with short-term leases, and I'd advise any startup to do that. You need time to test your business model, but if you're committed to being successful you also have to look ahead. So begin with a small space on a short-term lease; you'll have to pay more, but it's worth paying that premium to have the flexibility. Now that we have such a large building we went with a longer-term lease and my partner and I purchased an ownership stake in the property.

How involved did your staff and management team get in the moves?

We started by gathering insight from our management team and we involved them in a lot of the planning. We asked every department head to prepare a memo asking for exactly what they wanted in the new building.

They knew they were not going to get everything, but we at least wanted a wish list from everyone. I think asking for that kind of input goes a long way toward making people happy, which builds loyalty, which pays you back in the long run.

How much of the planning and design did you and your co-owner do personally?

We were very involved. I was in meetings on this probably one to four times a week for months. But my partner and I have to be generating revenue for the company. So we hired an architect and other key professionals to help.

If I had taken up hammer and nails myself we'd still be back in the Marina! That would've been ugly. We also hired corporate-move specialists. When you're moving this many people and this much equipment, you need a coordinated effort. It's not like you're just boxing up some desks. You have to know when to surround yourself with people who are experts, and moving is one of those times.

With this recent move, we also assigned an in-house person who was dedicated to the company move. Our VP for office administration did things like managing the retention of our professionals and supervising the build-out of the new space.

We hired an outside project manager to handle those things and found he was close to useless. He didn't really know what we are doing here, or what our priorities were, the way an in-house person does. Plus, my VP has my ear, so she was a much better choice.

What kinds of mishaps and pitfalls did you stumble into?

It's important to understand the scope of what you're doing. We had used a wonderful general contractor for our last move and we trusted him, so we called him in to work on this one also. But when we got about two or three months into the planning with him and our architect, we realized he'd never done a project this big before.

We had to come to the difficult decision to replace him and bring in a larger general contracting firm. It put us under the gun time-wise and it was hard on our relationship, but we hadn't realized that this project was too big.

Another pitfall—always—is the budget. We put together our expected budget, and when the bids came back we found it was going to cost 50% more than we'd been told. We had to totally review the scope of the project for a couple of weeks.

Eventually we realized we would have to reduce the amount of private office space we'd planned on and increase the amount of open space. That was tough, because we had promised people they would get their own offices. The way we solved it was to buy strategic cubicles that allow for privacy in the larger space.

What about the actual move—did it go smoothly?

Well, we had a mini-crisis two weeks before the move. We had been told by our telecom companies that the telephone switch was not going to be ready for our move-in date.

We were able to solve that problem, but then we found out from the city that a fire safety inspection could not be done when we needed it because the inspectors were not going to be working in the office that week. So they let us put our furniture in the building but told us nobody could work there for the first three days after we moved in.

What saved us was that about a year ago, our CTO had persuaded us to spend the money on e-mail redundancy. So all our consultants were given laptops and were able to work remotely for three days. We had 95 people working out of local coffee shops or at their homes or in restaurants that have wireless Internet connections. It was stressful, but we managed.

What advice would you give a small company that's growing quickly?

Manage growth by expecting it. Plan for it, and you'll have the room to do what you need to do. And be flexible enough that you can work around mishaps, because anytime you move they're going to happen.

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