DIGroup Architecture traces its roots to a group of small firms that banded together to work on school projects at a time when such work was mainly handled by larger competitors. Today, New Brunswick-based DIGroup ranks among the largest minority-owned businesses in the region and has become a significant player in its own right.
NJBIZ recently sat down with Vincent Myers, the firm’s president, for a conversation about the business, the state of the market and his outlook for 2022. Myers also spoke about some of the persistent challenges faced by minority-owned firms. “Part of it we do take responsibility for — we need to do a better job everybody, needs to do a better job if we’re going to move things forward,” he said. “I can’t just sit back and go ‘where’s all the work? How come I don’t have this and how come I don’t have that?’ We have to go out and we have to get work and we have to let other people know who we are, what we stand for, the work that we’ve done, our reputation and get that message out there.”
What follows is an abridged version of that discussion. The questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity. The full interview is available at njbiz.com/njbizconversations.
Jeffrey Kanige: I’ve spoken to a lot of developers and brokers about the market in general and what’s been going on over past couple of years, in particular with the pandemic. But I haven’t talked to very many folks in your business, so I’m curious as to how your business held up during the past two years, during the pandemic when everything was sort of crazy. How did you how did your staff do, how did you make out?
Vince Myers: Well, I’ll start by saying we have a wonderful staff, a great group of people that we as owners in the firm worked very hard to keep. Other firms when there’s a downturn look for opportunities to kind of get lean and mean in terms of staffing. Having great people, getting people, knowing their talents and keeping them is really at the top of our list. And it must be. Second to that, we have a lot of diversity in terms of the types of work that we do. We cover all educational facilities. We cover health care, senior living, civic projects. Back in 2019 we further diversified by going into Philadelphia and opening up an office.
Q: You mentioned some general areas. I wonder if there are a couple of projects you’d be willing to highlight just to give us an idea of the kind of work that you do.
A: OK, I will name three. One of them is the Union County government complex. We were hired by the Commissioners in Union County in the late summer of 2020 … to do the design documents for two buildings in Elizabeth for the county to house all the programs that are currently scattered in different buildings [and] unite them in one place. … That project is currently under construction.
Number two, we’re doing a master plan for what’s known as the Budd Bioworks, which is a biotech campus in the in the city of Philadelphia, converting over a million square feet of warehouse space into bio manufacturing. … They’re a great client out of New York City called Plymouth Group.
The third project that I’ll mention is probably one of our smallest projects, but certainly very much representative of our culture, and that is at Stony Brook we did the Unity Cultural Center. It’s a tiny gem of a project, but it is having a ripple effect across that college community because we were hired to create really a special place for minority students on that campus. We successfully completed that job.
The end goal is always the same and that’s to produce work that we’re contracted for at a very high level and everyone understands that and everybody moves in that direction. We’re just dealing with a different set of circumstances along the way. – Vince Myers
Q: I’m curious as you are talking about all of this, and again going back to some of the other folks in your business that I’ve spoken to, we’ve heard a lot about how the pandemic changed the concepts of work and commuting and what offices should look like, what sort of features buildings should have. I’m curious about what your experience has been with that. Are clients asking for different things now than they did before the pandemic?
A: I don’t think that they’re asking for anything different. What I will say is that everybody, including our firm, is just working under a different set of circumstances. The end goal is always the same and that’s to produce work that we’re contracted for at a very high level and everyone understands that and everybody moves in that direction. We’re just dealing with a different set of circumstances along the way.
Q: So you’re not hearing about different building features, different amenities?
A: Oh, we are. Particularly during the pandemic, we had clients, most of our clients we’ve had for a very long period of time and they asked us to do different things to help them respond to the pandemic. … In health care, they were asking us to help them with separation rooms and things of that nature. In senior living, they’re asking us to help them create spaces that were safe once they were able to have family members come back and visit them. In education facilities, they were asking for how to align branding. with their particular institution to explain what needed to happen and then also do different planning exercises that allowed them to use their facilities in the maximum way.
And even now, I would say that everybody still looks over their shoulder, so to speak, and if they did not have the experience that we all had and are using history a guide to the future … everybody is adjusting and from a design standpoint, there are those things that we pay attention to, and they want us to pay attention to make that experience as good as it can be.
Q: And given that and what you’re hearing, are those kinds of things permanent or is this temporary — when the pandemic is over, we’ll all go back to doing things the old way?
A: I think initially they were things that were definitely viewed as being temporary. That had to do with signage which we do a lot of. That was always believed to be temporary. There were other things — the flexibility — because everyone believed that we were all going to emerge from the pandemic when we got our vaccine shots and now the page has turned we can go back to normal. And as we’ve seen, normal is not nearly what we thought it was going to be. Because there is a capital investment to make a change, there is not likely to be a major capital investment to undo those things, particularly in health care and things of that nature. In education, I think there are things that were built, but a lot of those capital improvements were in really good areas right – in higher filtration, better mechanical equipment, those are things that people in some instances gave short shrift to. Those things are really important, that goes to health and things like that. So a lot of those things people will evaluate and they’ll figure it out.
Then office space — we don’t do a lot of commercial office work, but obviously, that is one area where because of the nature of work from home, there are already creative people that spend a lot of time in that market envisioning how those commercial office spaces can be reimagined. I think this work from home environment is here to stay and the longer it goes, more hard decisions remain about bricks and mortar.
Q: OK, again in talking to others in the business, the impression I get is that, when the pandemic first hit there was an initial pullback. But then the construction and development market came back pretty strongly both in 2020 and through 2021. Number one, was that your experience? And number two, is that what you’re seeing now? What’s the state of the market at this point?
A: I’m definitely seeing capital being put in different places. And again, it depends on which market you’re talking about. Health care is really strong. We’re starting to see in education — in higher ed money is flowing to colleges and universities and we will be right there ready to do our part in terms of helping create new spaces, create new buildings, etc.
So we’re very pleased about that I think the infrastructure bill is about capital and while we won’t benefit — we don’t do a lot of pure infrastructure projects — however, the infrastructure bill itself infuses capital in a lot of the markets where we are, that will help with things as well. So we’re guardedly optimistic. Our backlog right now is very healthy as compared to where we were certainly during the pandemic, and that’s a good that’s a good sign.
Q: Well, you actually anticipated the last two questions I was going to ask you. The first was about the infrastructure bill. I get that you’re saying you won’t benefit directly, but it seems to me, with all that money coming in, there has to be an indirect benefit to you. I mean, some of these institutions that you’re talking about – health care, higher education — they’re going to get some help. What I hear you saying is that you’re expecting to see some benefit from that.
A: Certainly we are expecting to see a benefit from that. I think they need some work done in terms of the language of … minority firms … [W]hat they want in terms of participation is not likely what they’re going to get if some of the legislation remains the same, because in some ways it does penalize minorities who are involved in that work because of the way that they define certain thresholds and things like that on small businesses.
In other words, once you get a project, it kind of forces you to grow out of that status. And really, to help minority firms grow, not just the startups, they need to constantly look for ways to make sure that the pool of people involved represents the whole.
Q: OK, now that you mentioned it, and I was curious as to how some of those rules were working. I’ve heard some complaints from other minority-owned businesses about the fact that the rules aren’t working the way they were supposed to. What’s been your experience on both the state and national level?
A: So, our experience is mixed. You know, we have a little bit of a skewed benefit because we’re a pretty healthy-sized architectural firm with a lot of experience and a lot of broad experience. I grew up around architecture and my father was an architect, etc. So I’ve had the ability to kind of rise above certain aspects. I’m not new. The firm is not new. We’re not struggling in the purest way with getting work as other minority firms and startup firms are but that doesn’t mean that we don’t understand that battle. What we see is that New Jersey is definitely not where it needs to be in terms of setting the right tone for participation. They are more sort of goals. There’s a little bit more flexibility in terms of how terms are put together in New York, where we are registered … there is a real desire to have participation and so we’ve benefited from that.
Where people have control of the largest projects, they are still, in my opinion, except for some, are still very reluctant to share the pie. We’ve primed on projects that are in excess $200 million, but there are a lot bigger projects out there that are significantly greater than that, where we would love to partner with a large architectural or engineering firms … Those firms that have control of those kinds of projects, who are connected politically are very reluctant still to work and figure out a way to work with firms.
I’m not saying all of them. We do have great partnerships with large architectural and engineering firms. We intend to grow that pool and kind of use our strength and be a firm that’s quite capable of producing designs at a high level.
Q: Finally, before I let you go, you mentioned that you were optimistic ,that your pipeline looks good, and so I was just curious as to what you were planning for throughout the rest of the next year. I mean, assuming the pandemic sort of begins to fizzle out as everyone hopes, what are you anticipating through say the rest of the year and into 2023?
A: Well, notwithstanding the pandemic in 2021, we ended the year exceeding our budget which understandably was scaled back. … [W]e’re building back another 10% growth, probably puts us back to where we were two years ago in terms of revenue, so we’re starting off on a good foot, with new projects already out of the gate, with a strong backlog, with a reasonably conservative overall firm budget for 2022, with our staff intact. And we’ll probably add one or two people during the course of the year. We have to staff our Philadelphia office which we intend to do. And really take advantage of how we positioned ourselves, but certainly with an eye for further expansion.