After 30 years as a Principal in the firm KCCT Architects in Washington, DC, Tom Twohey recently retired at the age of 79. Tom was one of the founding partners in the firm, and my client for the last 22 years. Unlike most architects, Tom had a business mind, and managed the firm’s finances as they grew from four partners in John Chapman’s house in 1983, to a successful Connecticut Avenue firm of just under 50 employees today. I was fortunate to get the opportunity to sit down with Tom recently in his South Riding, Va. home, and record the fascinating story of his career and world travels.
After graduating from Berkeley in 1957, Tom got an entry level architectural job making a few bucks an hour. He worked in several places, including a period of time working for himself. This was his first exposure to business management.
In 1969 while working at Rex Whitaker Allen in San Francisco, Tom was sent to Cambridge, MA to start a new office. Rex Allen was teaming with Hugh Stubbins to renovate the Boston City Hospital. That is where Tom met his wife and life-long companion Margo.
While running the Hugh Stubbins/Rex Allen partnership in Boston, Tom was responsible for running the business part of the project which was several million in fees. No one else was interested in the business side. In order to get paid, you had to go to City Hall and stand in line and ask for payment. Then they hand wrote the check. Tom was only one that would do it.
In 1974, Tom’s career led him to work for Harry Weese, a transportation planning firm in Washington, DC, where he became friends with Jerry Karn who ran the DC office, Elias Charuhas, and John Chapman. Tom spent much of his time writing proposals, and was successful in being awarded the design of the railroad station in Harrisburg, PA. Based on their experience with the Washington, D.C. Metro design, they wrote proposals on overseas transit station projects in Singapore, and Baghdad.
But discontent was growing as Tom and his colleagues were unhappy with the way that Harry Weiss ran the firm. There was a major disagreement over compensation, and lack of an ownership transition plan. One week when Jerry was away on vacation, he came home to find a note on his kitchen table firing him. After Jerry was fired, the four men decided to all leave at the same time to start their own architectural practice. They brought along two other project managers, and the four of them put their names together to become, Karn, Charuhas, Chapman and Twohey, now known as KCCT Architects.
They started their business on John Chapman’s dining room table in 1983. Of the four partners, Tom was the most familiar and comfortable with business and finances. He became the business manager for the firm, constantly bringing a reality check to the group, and helping them develop a business plan.
But they needed an office – they couldn’t work on John's dining room table forever. So they talked to DeLeuw Cather who they had partnered with in the past. They had space on Connecticut. Avenue in DC. Tom wrote a business plan. He got everyone's tax returns and went to the banks to get financing. He was able to get American Security Bank to give them a $150,000 line of credit at 18%.
They decided to try and take the Harrisburg train station project as it had not started. Elias went to Harrisburg and convinced the Harrisburg Redevelopment Authority to award KCCT the contract. It was remarkably easy to get. That was their first job. Then Jerry got a call from Jim Caywood the President of DeLeuw Cather. They had submitted the proposal for Baghdad and DeLeuw won. They hired KCCT to work on the Baghdad subway.
In 1985, they won the Taipei metro project and decided to start KCCT International based in the Cayman Islands. They did four design contracts in Taipei, and built them all. However, the authority in Taipei required technology transfer as part of their contract. Once a week they had to give lectures to the staff of the Chinese firm Sinotech to teach them how to design the metro stations. By the fourth metro station, Sinotech took over and they lost their contract.
After Taipei, KCCT International, Ltd. got many more jobs throughout Asia and the Pacific Rim. Tom was very focused on growing the international business which helped carry the firm over many lean years. In 1995, Tom ended up closing the international company because he couldn't staff the projects, but not before making over 50 trips overseas.
The U.S. company was focused on getting jobs at State Dept. and GSA. Elias had made connections with someone at the State Department, and they were awarded a large IDIQ contract. They became experts in designing and renovating consulates and embassies all over the world.
Tom was well known at KCCT for saying, “It’s a business, not a hobby.” He believed that, “every firm needs someone in their office that knows something about the business. Otherwise you will have a bunch of guys wondering why they are broke.” One of the most frustrating things for Tom was explaining to his partners why things had to be done, for example, why they needed a line of credit.
It was not easy running the financial side of the business. Tom was constantly trying to juggle the money, figuring out how to pay their consultants and make the payroll. He was often pacing his house at 4:00 am with a glass of wine trying to figure out what to do. All of his business knowledge came on-the-job. He had an architecture degree and never learned how to run a business in school. But somehow he always figured out how to make ends meet with minimal disruption and involvement of his partners. He didn’t want to bother them and they didn't really understand.
I asked Tom what the key to KCCT’s success was and he stated, “We got along well and we all had our own niche. We were not trying to out-do the other ones. There was no chest beating contest every Monday morning.”
Today, KCCT is focused on two key areas, one group working on GSA, Architect of the Capitol, and the Federal Reserve, and the other continuing the majority of their work with the State Department. While there were many lean years, they have made money over last five years and continue to grow.
Tom has been writing his memoirs. He is hoping to publish them someday, and will take his negatives and digitize them. He would like to document his journeys and give them to his three kids. He says it will explain what happened to Dad when he disappeared for weeks when they were playing little league baseball. Tom is fascinated with how travel has evolved over the centuries. He points out how in the 16th century, Magellan took three years to go around the world, then in 1962 in an old Boeing 707 it took 3 stops. Now it is 14 hours.
Tom will spend his retirement traveling and spending time with his five grandchildren. He likes to collect coins. Margo, his wife of 42 years recently passed away. She was an avid quilter and President of the Centreville Quilters Unlimited. Tom reflects that they had a good marriage, and Margo was a devoted mother. Tom hopes to take his grandchildren around the world someday. He wants to show them that there is some other place than South Riding, VA.
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