30 Years of Embracing Change: Reflecting on Jim Wheeler’s Career at Ayers Saint Gross
2018 marks a significant change for our firm: it’s the first year since 1987 that Jim Wheeler has not been a part of our day-to-day operations. While Jim will continue as Chair of the Ayers Saint Gross Board of Directors, we will no longer see him each week.
This moment has been carefully planned for some time. But now it’s real. Jim has been a colleague, mentor, and friend. His impact on the firm has been, and will continue to be powerful.
When Jim Wheeler came to Ayers Saint Gross in 1987, the firm was already 75 years old, with a venerable history and deep local traditions, but also ready to transform itself. He saw a collection of people willing and anxious to take on the future – and change. That’s what Jim has always been about, and still is.
After a stock market implosion in the late 1980s, Jim and Adam Gross made a trip to the University of Virginia. Despite the economy, Virginia saw a boom coming in higher education and they would need to build. Inspired by that meeting, Jim and Adam said: What if we concentrated on higher ed? What if we became the firm colleges and universities turn to for new buildings, housing, and campus plans?
That moment of inspiration became a strategy that has endured for many years. The firm’s focus shifted to all aspects of higher ed planning and design. During the next three decades, Ayers Saint Gross grew from about 30 people to 170, from 10 or 15 projects to over 300, from one office to three, from Baltimore to the Mid-Atlantic to the western U.S. to 20 countries.
Jim embraced change yet again by encouraging the firm to redefine cultural attractions as educational institutions, thereby expanding our impact to a broader array of mission-driven institutions.
When it came to developing the expertise our clients needed, he encouraged us to go beyond architecture, investing in planning, graphic design, landscape architecture, and space analytics.
When it came to hiring, Jim pushed us outside of our comfort zone, purposely adding people with different points of view, contrary ideas, new voices.
When it came to connecting with our communities, Jim invested in multiple ways. He embraced our long-standing efforts to introduce the design professions to a wider audience of kids, particularly those at Beechfield Elementary School in West Baltimore. Jim’s understanding of the importance of giving-back led him to the United Way early in his career. When the challenge of leading the United Way of Central Maryland board came along, Jim saw a chance for growth and change – in the United Way and in himself. He helped lead them to pioneering projects, including a new home in Montgomery Park in 2017.
When it came to the firm’s future, Jim wasn’t content with conventional paths. He explored and implemented an employee-ownership structure – speeding a generational ownership transfer and refocusing the next generation of leaders and change agents.
When it came to leadership, Jim was a champion of real change. He insisted that the firm needed a new voice and a different outlook. I agreed to be his successor on one condition: if Jim stayed and worked with me for year to make the process as seamless as possible.
Jim was at the forefront of the firm’s business development efforts for many years. I’m pleased to announce that his successor there also comes within the firm. Since May 2017, Katy Hunchar has been serving as our Director of Marketing and Business Development. Katy first came to Ayers Saint Gross in 2011 and has since risen through the ranks to lead our strategic marketing and business development efforts across all disciplines for higher education, cultural institutions, and other mission-driven clients.
Now Jim is embarking on yet another change: his well-deserved retirement. He’s officially left the firm on a day-to-day basis, but will lead our board for through 2020.
Change, change, change. Many people run from it. Most resist or avoid it. And most companies whither from not keeping up with it or leading it. Not Jim. Not Ayers Saint Gross. I’d like to close with his own words:
“If you see change and are careful, that’s okay.
If you deny change, that’s doom.
If you see opportunity, that’s the future.”