It isn’t easy being a pessimist in Massachusetts these days, but the founders of CBT/Childs Bertman Tseckares are doing their best to overcome that challenge. Even as the local economy continues to flourish, with the real estate industry especially hot, the architectural firm is busy preparing itself for the inevitable downturn.

What happens when it all collapses? Believe me, we’re thinking that way, principal Richard Bertman said in an interview last week. When that time comes – which it will – we need to be prepared.

In some respects, CBT would seem to be among the firms least needing to worry about the future. Along with Bertman, founders Maurice Childs and Charles Tseckares have built CBT into one of the city’s premier architectural practices over the past 33 years, its stamp already affixed ubiquitously on the skyline and more additions on the way. The firm designed the 36-story office tower under construction at the Prudential Center, for example, as well as the Trinity Place luxury condo project that is nearly sold out with several months of work remaining. Numerous other proposals are in the formative stages, including a 432-room hotel slated for a site near the Hub’s improving Theater District.

The caution that CBT is wielding in spite of its success stems mostly from the late 1980s, the last time the robust economy seemed it would go on forever. As Childs recalled, he and his colleagues were not initially worried when conditions turned and several clients phoned to cancel their projects. CBT, after all, had just won a national design competition for a 20-acre complex in Los Angeles, and had also been selected by the Prudential Insurance Co. to design the Prudential Center tower. The insurer seemed like a battleship, Childs said, giving CBT comfort that the tower would keep their firm employed.

When they called, we knew, Childs said. That confirmed to us that [the boom] was over.

With its largest undertaking about to take a decade-long nap (the tower was revived last year by Boston Properties), CBT was forced to lay off two-thirds of its staff during the subsequent nine months, retrenching to about 40 people. The firm had been through recessions in the mid-1970s and from 1980 to 1981, but Childs said neither compared to the chaos that followed the crash of 1989 to 1992.

It was scary, he said. It was just like we were in a freefall.

While a painful experience, Tseckares said he believes CBT emerged from the early 1990s with a greater sense of how to keep the firm on solid ground, including better lead development and diversifying its offerings. Although the firm has never been a specialist, shunning only prisons, hospitals and science centers, the practice has expanded in recent years to include a wider mix of private and public work, as well as commercial and institutional design. In so doing, Tseckares said CBT will not be committing its resources to one sector.

As occurred in the early 1990s, Tseckares said institutions such as colleges often run their development cycle counter to the private sector, giving the opportunity for well-positioned firms to tap into that market during down periods. Just last week, for example, CBT celebrated the completion of a new administrative center and arts studio at Bowdoin College in Maine. It has also become adept at library design, with current projects underway in Quincy, Middleton and Lancaster. The key, Tseckares said, is for CBT to be active in its planning, no matter how well conditions appear to be.

In the last recession, people got fat, dumb and happy, thinking things would go on forever, Tseckares said. We’re not going to let that happen this time.

New Directions
One approach, not simply for the near-term, has been to add partners to the firm, with CBT promoting Janice Mones, James McBain and Robert Brown in the mid-1990s. The firm just promoted four more in Margaret Deutsch, David Hancock, Christopher Hill and Alfred Wojciechowski, while Bertman said more partners are anticipated as well. The strategy not only lessens the management pressures on the three founders, Bertman said he believes it will help CBT prevent the pitfalls seen at other firms, where the principals find themselves ready to retire with no one to replace them.

All three CBT founders are now in their 60s, and while their boundless energy belies that fact, Bertman said it is nonetheless the right time for them to begin preparing the next generation of the firm. One problem often encountered at privately held operations is that newcomers are reluctant to join for fear their career growth will be limited, and with architectural talent hard to find at present, Bertman said CBT did not want to be seen as a dead end. The selection of Mones and Brown had an immediate impact with the growth of CBT’s interior design division, Bertman noted, adding that it also encourages company professionals to be more committed to the firm.

Partners are involved, he said. They work hard.

One thing the public should not expect is to see Childs, Bertman or Tseckares lounging at the beach or feeding squirrels at Boston Common in the near future. The self-described workaholics continue to lead the firm in new directions, both literally and figuratively. Later this summer, for example, the company will move from its longtime home in the Back Bay, where they have been since 1971, to a 30,000-square-foot headquarters in North Station. CBT is designing the lobby entrance and its five-level space, which will allow the firm to be together for the first time in years. Now at 150 people and growing, CBT is currently housed in three different locations.

As Business Booms, CBT Readies Firm for Downturn

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 4 min