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June 10, 2024

Following generational leadership change, new management structure aims to propel Newman Architects’ future growth

CONTRIBUTED Newman Architects’ new leadership team includes (in center) CEO A. Brooks Fischer and Chief Operating Officer Melinda Agron, surrounded by (back row, left to right) Dov Feinmesser, Laura Gilmore, Paul Santos and Abigail Carlen.
At A Glance: Newman Architects
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When Melinda Agron joined Newman Architects in New Haven six years ago, she had more in mind than just taking on a portfolio of clients.

“I have both a master of architecture and an MBA, which is something rather unique, and something that I wanted to bring into the practice of architecture,” she said in a recent interview. “I was interested in how an actual business background could come into a firm and really transform the way a firm operates and performs.”

She found fertile ground for her ideas at her new employer, a storied architect with 60 years of history in the city where it was founded and around the region. The firm was undergoing a generational leadership change around the same time, with the retirement of founding principal Herbert S. Newman (who has since passed away, at age 89, in 2023), along with several other older principals.

A. Brooks Fischer, a principal who has 20 years of history at Newman, was enthusiastic about Agron’s business management expertise.

“Over the course of history, we probably could only grow so much because we didn’t have responsibilities separated out for people, so it always stopped at how much could each person take on,” he said. “What Melinda and I have really been trying to do over the last three or four years is to make a firm that can grow.”

What that means in practice is a new C-suite management structure, announced in May. From principal, Fischer now becomes president and CEO, with Agron as the chief operating officer. The firm has also created four new director-level positions with Laura Gilmore as director of design; Abigail M. Carlen, director of marketing and communication; Paul Santos, director of housing; and Dov Feinmesser, director of sustainability.

While the firm was already legally a corporation, “this transition is much more about accountability and organizational structure,” Fischer said. “We’re trying to set the infrastructure for the firm into the future and allow other people, not just a select few at the top, to really lead major areas of the practice.”

Agron concurs about the flexibility of this new approach.

“There’s a history of firms being very much about a person,” she said. “There’s a person at the top who’s the designer, who gets the work, who’s really leading the organization. It can be a very limiting way to function.”

She says Newman is not the only firm to go this way.

“I do think there is actually a trend across the industry to move away from that model of practice and towards a model that’s about the work that the organization and all the people together are able to accomplish.”

Major Hartford-based architectural firm Amenta Emma Architects, for example, also recently announced an expanded leadership team, which will take over for co-founder Anthony Amenta, when he steps down as president in January.

In addition to naming a new president, Amenta Emma has added roles like managing principal and directors of personnel and project operations.

One explicit aim of the C-suite infrastructure: growth. Newman currently has around 40 employees, and while Agron and Fischer weren’t specific about hiring goals, they are looking for talent.

“We are really excited that we have a number of large projects that will be getting started later this summer and early in the fall, so we are always looking for people to join our team who can help contribute to those,” Agron said.

She says the C-suite structure creates clearer career paths for new hires, which they hope in turn will help with recruitment.

The firm is also looking to grow through potential acquisitions into new markets. Newman is currently best known for designing college campus buildings, along with work in multifamily housing and corporate offices.

Fischer points to health sciences and laboratory buildings as an adjacent market where they see growth potential.

“If we can find a firm that has a good relationship and does a good quality work, it almost builds a new department for us,” he said. “This new organizational structure allows us to do that much better, and really allows certain people to focus on growth of a market and how … we build around that.”

Newman Architects’ ongoing projects include Heritage Park, the mixed-use redevelopment of the former UConn campus in West Hartford; UConn’s new South Campus residence and dining hall in Storrs, opening this fall; and the adaptive reuse of the Fuller Brush Co. factory in Hartford’s North End, at 3580 Main St., into mixed-use housing.

The firm also recently completed work on Wesleyan University’s new Frank Center for Public Affairs, Fairfield University’s Bellarmine campus in Bridgeport and the 132-unit 18 High St. luxury apartments in New Haven.

The 132-unit 18 High St. luxury apartments in New Haven.

Value proposition

Poonam Arora is a professor of management and associate dean at the Quinnipiac University School of Business. She says, if handled correctly, a C-suite structure for a professional services firm can be more efficient than a partner-driven model.

Poonam Arora

“I think it’s definitely signaling that the firm is exploring how it thinks about its value proposition,” she said.

A key decision for firms is how they want to incorporate the business-process expertise they’re asking partners to embrace. Arora says in the past, in fields like consulting, functions such as human resources were filled by specialist support staff working for the partners.

“What this recent move to the C-suite is doing is it’s flipping: it’s saying we want the specialization at the higher level,” she said.

Arora also sees the C-suite structure as a more flexible and responsive way to face significant uncertainties, which include the coming impact of artificial intelligence.

“In a lot of areas, people are saying exactly what tasks is AI going to take over?” she said. “What value do I have to deliver for my clients, especially within service industries? People are starting to say, ‘well, how do I create greater efficiencies without compromising on being really effective?’”

Patrice Luoma

Continuity and more formalized succession planning can be another benefit of a more formalized leadership structure, according to Patrice Luoma, a professor of entrepreneurship and strategy at Quinnipiac who is also the outgoing director of the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

“If you have a corporate form, then the organization has its own life,” she said. “It can outlive anybody who’s in it.”

If the change is accompanied by a legal change of form to a corporation, it’s also a much more flexible way to raise capital, including in recent years, from private equity investors.

At Newman, Agron said she is struck by the reaction of her colleagues.

“Introducing this structure has really engaged people in a way that I think we haven’t seen before, and that I think you don’t see at many other firms,” she said. “People see a place for themselves in this new structure. I think it’s the beginning of something really wonderful for us.”

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