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Pellham-Phillips-Hagerman principals re-engineer firm

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by Paul Flemming

SBJ Staff

Jeff Wells is leading a changing of the guard without a changing of the name at Pellham-Phillips-Hagerman Architects-Engineers.

"It's kind of like 'Star Trek the Next Generation,'" said the 33-year-old engineer of his new position as chief executive officer of the firm.

"We really wanted to make a statement to our staff and the community that we are investing in the future," said Jerry Hagerman, AIA, who is president of the firm.

Founding principal Galen Pellham left the firm to pursue property management and real estate sales for CJR Commercial Group. (See related story on page 30.)

"Pellham-Phillips-Hagerman has done a lot of tremendous projects," Pellham said of the firm he formed on April Fools' Day 1977. "I was just ready for a new challenge. I left the firm as friends."

The change in personnel is accompanied by a shift in focus for the firm, as well. Wells said Pellham-Phillips-Hagerman will concentrate on projects in the hospitality, industrial and higher education areas.

"We're going to keep (being a generalist firm), but focus ourselves in specific market sectors where we have unusual strength," Wells said.

He said outside marketing campaigns will highlight the areas of focus and use strong work in those areas to generate more.

"We will demonstrate success with similar projects," he said, resulting in positive referrals and repeat clients.

The focus may result in turning clients away, a strategy that can be difficult to implement, Wells said.

"As a young firm you will take anything you can get. It's hard to let go of that. There may be certain smaller projects where we tell clients that someone else is able to do a better job for them," Wells said.

Such actions, he said, are best in the end for clients and the firm.

"If you go out and take every little project, you end up disappointing people," Wells said. "Here, we give our clients added value" and that leads to satisfaction for all concerned.

Hagerman said Pellham had been solely responsible for marketing the firm, whereas now each partner will have responsibilities in that area. "We will look to retain clients with the quality of our service," Hagerman said.

Wells and Charles Foster, AIA, bought into ownership positions in the firm as principals in August 1994. Hagerman, Larry Phillips, PE, and Joe Jensen, AIA, are also principals. Pellham sold his ownership interest back to the firm.

Wells said a transition plan was discussed when he bought into the firm, and his ascension as an officer was decided when Pellham announced his departure.

Hagerman said the plan outlined earlier has been followed precisely, easing the change. Following that plan internally will help the firm concentrate on easing the changes experienced by the outside world.

"It's fairly intimidating to take over this firm and be responsible for it," Wells said. "But I respect these guys. They think I'm ready, so I guess I must be."

That he will not be left alone is reassuring to Wells in his new position. He said he is counting on help from both the longer-term members of the firm, as well as his contemporaries.

"It's easier to start taking charge of things when you still have the counsel and advice of the older guys," Wells said.

"That's why I've retained the position as president," Hagerman said. "I'm really an overseer. We've tried to align people where their talents are used best."

Wells said Foster, a vice president of the firm, leads in operations. "We're one team, one fight. There's no 'you work for me' with us," Wells said of himself and Foster.

"For four years Chuck and I were champing at the bit, staying up all night studying, reading this book or going to that seminar, learning how to lead people," Wells said.

Both Pellham and Wells said the transition comes at an opportune time for the firm, with plenty of work on the board and prospects for more looking very good. The firm employs 30, and Wells said it will design about $60 million in projects in 1999 a very rough estimate.

Hagerman said that new decision makers and methods will have to be clearly identified both internally and with clients to make the transition a success.

Wells graduated from Strafford High School in 1983. After receiving a degree in architectural engineering from Kansas State University, he came back to southwest Missouri to work for Pellham-Phillips-Hagerman in 1988. He'd previously worked summers for the firm.

"We're perched on top of this 20-year history, with all the memory and experience and mistakes involved. We've got a great head start. Now we're off and running we're looking forward to the next 20 years," Wells said.

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