October 15, 2018

Pulito rides out recessions to lead, grow SLAM Collaborative

HBJ Photo | Sean Teehan
HBJ Photo | Sean Teehan
Robert Pulito, president of Glastonbury architectural firm the SLAM Collaborative, says he's searching for growing markets across the country to expand his firm.

VIEW: Executive Profile: Robert Pulito

Robert Pulito

President, The SLAM Collaborative

City of residence: West Hartford

Highest degree: Bachelor's degree in architecture and business, Syracuse University

Executive insight: "They used to say that all politics is local, all business is global. And what has happened in our profession is that all our clients … are looking for us to bring them a national perspective, and the only way I feel you're going to survive as a firm is to be able to provide that broad perspective."

One of the wisest nuggets of business insight Robert Pulito ever heard came from his son.

Pulito told his son, Bo, a few years ago that he was lucky to have found full-time work with Google after graduating college at the height of the Great Recession.

There was some luck involved, Pulito's son replied, but it would have been irrelevant had he lacked the drive to pursue job leads, and not demonstrated competency that put him above other candidates hungry for work in a tough job market.

At the time, Robert Pulito was going through his own difficulties. He'd recently been named president of SLAM Collaborative, a Glastonbury-based architecture firm that shrunk by about 25 percent in the economic downturn's wake. But rather than playing it safe, Pulito worked to expand SLAM's portfolio into new markets like medical schools and athletic stadiums.

"We actually strengthened the company, and from there we've been steadily growing, and expanding our practice throughout the country," said Pulito, whose firm now employs about 220 people.

And with a recent merger with Los Angeles-based Frank Webb Architects, Pulito says SLAM now has a long-desired ticket to a growing West Coast market. It's pivotal that SLAM, which also has offices in Georgia, New York and Massachusetts, operates as a national firm, even as the company remains headquartered in Connecticut, he said.

Architectural roots

Pulito, a West Hartford native, entered the industry in 1978, after earning a bachelor's degree from Syracuse University with a double major in architecture and business.

He spent his first five years working at a New Haven firm established by Cesar Pelli, a world-renowned architect who was dean of the Yale School of Architecture at the time.

"That positioned me in architecture to be very successful," Pulito said. "That was a mentoring period that really helped me understand what the profession was about, and where my place in the profession was going to be."

After a stint at a Princeton, N.J. firm, Pulito was recruited back to Connecticut to work at Russell Gibson von Dohlen Inc. He arrived right on time for the early 1990s' recession.

The firm was decimated from about 150 employees to about 30, Pulito said.

"It was a devastating time, because it was the nature of that practice," which focused mostly on corporate clients, Pulito said. "It just stopped, it literally just stopped."

But the weakened firm made it through, and merged with Stecker LaBau Arneill McManus Architects Inc. in 1995.

For a time, the newly merged firm insisted people refer to it as S-L-A-M, rather than using the SLAM acronym, Pulito said. A lot of people thought it sounded too harsh.

"But it became obvious after a while that everybody called us SLAM, and it was memorable, and it became a bit of a brand," Pulito said. "So now we embrace it."

Pulito worked his way up in the firm, assuming the corner office in 2008. That's when he found himself on the other side of the desk during a major recession that led to layoffs.

While he had experience with tough economic times, the stakes were higher, Pulito said. Back in the '90s there was architecture work to be found in Texas. This time, those let go had nowhere else to go.

SLAM's commitment to keep aboard as many staffers as possible — it laid off about 40 employees and C-suite executives took salary cuts at the height of the downturn — wasn't purely a humanitarian decision; there was strategic value in it. Pulito reasoned that, as in past recessions, work would eventually return, and holding onto a larger number of talented architects than competitors would position the firm to grow when the economy picked up.

"Goal No. 1 (was) to be as aggressive in our pursuit of work, and to really strategize about how to get work," Pulito said. "(To) be aware that you needed to be as strategic as you could to not let anything, not let any stone unturned."

That mission led to a $40 million project in 2009 revamping the Duke School of Medicine. The job itself wasn't a financial home run for SLAM, but it drew the firm into the profitable niche market of redesigning medical-education facilities.

Pulito said many of the top medical schools in the United States are working out of facilities built about 30 years ago. But those spaces were designed mostly for lecture courses, while curriculums have evolved to focus more on interactive work.

"So, almost every medical school in the country is now rebuilding itself," Pulito said. "And now we're one of the experts on how to connect your facility with your curriculum."

In addition to the Duke project, Emory University commissioned SLAM for work on its medical school, Pulito said, cementing the firm's reputation as a go-to for the long list of medical schools looking to update buildings.

Future growth

SLAM has also entered the stadium business, designing Hartford's Dunkin' Donuts Park with Pendulum Studio, and most recently a $400 million project at the University of Notre Dame to build about 800,000 square feet of classroom, research, student life and other space surrounding the school's football stadium.

Meantime, merging with Frank Webb Architects last month gives SLAM a foothold in California, and markets like health care, Pulito said. It followed about a year-and-a-half of searching for a partner and another year hammering out the deal, he said.

"They're well-managed, they're highly profitable, and still want to join a larger organization, because they see the benefit in having that ... resources, talent and experience," Pulito said.

SLAM expects 2018 gross revenues to reach $60 million.

Now that it has a West-Coast operation, Pulito is looking for entry points in growing markets in the South and Southwest. Following his son's advice, he wants SLAM to be well-positioned when the right opportunity presents itself.

"The profession, the world, it is changing so fast, and you have to have a strong vision, and be constantly evolving, and pushing your limits, and reaching further than you think," Pulito said. "It is important to be aggressive in your pursuit, and you cannot stay at status quo."

Check out a video clip of Robert Pulito's interview at hartfordbusiness.com.

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