Bennett Design Associates
The success of an interior designer is directly correlated with an ability to provide a unique blend of innovative creativity with architectural expertise and ultimately an ensconced atmosphere that reflects the personality and character of a client ’s identity from its interior walls outwards, the results of which can often be breathtakingly spectacular.
Bennett Design Associates of Uxbridge, Ontario is an interior design firm that understands the balance between design as an art form and design as a construction tool. Founded in 1997 by Principal and CEO Sue Bennett, the organization has grown substantially as it moves through its 20th year in operation.
Being a successful entrepreneur can be extremely difficult and certainly isn’t for everyone. What makes Bennett ideal for the task is that she is very risk tolerant and someone who likes to take on big challenges. “I’m willing to try something and if it doesn’t work, you re-jig. We are very good at learning from mistakes and fixing them.” she says.
Part of taking risks is being curious about pushing the boundaries on the status quo. “Design is a step by step process, and most firms are great at delivering that process. What we were curious about was the ‘why’ behind every project, and the interesting thing is that the ‘why’ is different for every client, and it greatly directs and affects how we create an effective interior solution for that specific client.”
Bennett Design broke down the standard design process and re-built it to include a layer of information gathering that captures tacit knowledge from the executive level right down through an organization, so that every voice is heard. Employee engagement and connecting with the people in an organization is paramount to the final design outcome and helps to bring the staff through a major change in their facility. Understanding what is important to a client’s business, where their business is heading, and where their challenges lie are all factors that feed into every design decision that Bennett Design makes. After all, even if a space is beautiful, if it doesn’t support the business drivers and the people who use it, it is useless.
Staying curious, questioning everything and always looking for a better way to create a relevant space for their clients is a passion for the Bennett team. The entrepreneur in Sue Bennett is always looking for something new and fresh to develop and her team is the machine that makes it happen.
Combining Creativity and Detail
Interior design is an industry that requires immense creativity, and even more importantly, the ability to be detailed. From an architectural standpoint one of the things Bennett Design offers its clients is an extraordinarily high level of detail that is included on the drawings and the amount of time taken when explaining the process. It’s a methodology that is enhanced by the use of the company’s in-house proprietary software.
Each of the designers at Bennett Design in the company are members of the Association of Registered Interior Designers of Ontario (ARIDO) and the Interior Designers of Canada (IDC). ARIDO is the governing body for Ontario, and Bennett is a past president from 2012 and sat on the board of directors for many years.
“They (ARIDO) take care of the regulatory side of our association,” Bennett reveals. “The IDC takes charge of the education standards and public knowledge about what interior designers do. They have been instrumental in putting forth standards right across the country for accreditation of interior designers.”
It is a mandate and part of the employment structure at Bennett Design that all of its designers have the qualified education to be promoted in order to progress from a junior designer to an intermediate designer to a senior designer and then to a project lead. There are three main aspects to any type of project as ARIDO often touts. There are the engineers, the architects and the interior designers.
“We’re not decorators, we are registered designers,” Bennett states. “In order to turn out a full building you actually need all three of us. That’s what we are fighting for at ARIDO. We are pursuing a Practice Act and we have a Titles Act, so you can’t actually call yourself an interior designer unless you have the exam education and experience.”
Of exceptional importance to Bennett is that the company always be conscientious about being recognized as a family-friendly business. As an example, if an employee has a child that is playing in an afternoon soccer game, Bennett believes the parent should have the opportunity to be part of that quality family time. There have also been many opportunities to move the office into downtown Toronto but she’s resisted, knowing that many staff members have young families who live in the subdivisions where they enjoy the quality of life. Bennett herself brings her dogs to work and will often take them on a long hike through the nearby forest as a way to unwind during lunch hour.
“We expect our people to answer their phones at 11 o’clock at night so we need to make some concessions for them in order to enjoy their life,” Bennett notes. “Over the past two years we’ve been talking with our clients about a work-life blend because there is no work-life balance anymore. There has to be this push and pull that allows our people to really enjoy their lives.”
Putting the Client First
In achieving a successful business, Bennett Design always believes in putting the client first. The promise from the company is that clients will receive solution-based results. If a client is having any type of challenge, the firm is there to help. To further assist with that promise, Bennett Design has written its own proprietary software and created business strategies that are unparalleled in the industry. Being innovative leaders is something that is strived for and achieved each and every day.
From a macro perspective the company can be broken down into three parts: creative, strategic and management. “It’s not just about the design. It’s about how we’re actually getting to that end result and making sure that it is defensible, whether it’s through our DIG process or A-Life process or through random questionnaires that we end up being able to pull together and streamline. It’s about being service mavens. We are there to service them from start to finish,” Bennett says.
At Bennett Design it is a goal to be able to take a project from the concept stage and understanding that specific project right on through to the implementation of the design stage. It’s about doing all the programming to understand how people are going to be laid out within a building and to come up with all the furniture solutions. Along the creative path there must be an ability to walk the client through the entire process, including the budgeting and making sure that the project is documented and tendered properly.
“We’re a creative profession. If we did the same thing every day it would be pretty damn boring,” Bennett says. “We love it when a client wants to try something different and we will press our clients to challenge them.”
Clients of Bennett Design come from as far away as Nanaimo, B.C. although about 90% of the clientele is located in Ontario. There was a time when the firm carried out residential work but at this point the focus is strictly on commercial and retail work, the latter of which tends to be relatively straightforward because it requires implementing existing design standards or upgrading those design standards. On the commercial side, each client project has its own set of challenges and inspirations.
“It’s an amazing part of our job that no two clients are alike,” Bennett says.
Bennett estimates about 75% of the company’s current client base would fall under the commercial sector with the other 25% being retail.
“We’re seeing a real growth in our retail side of things in the last year and so we’re really starting to step that up. We are also having people come to us, which is nice,” she says.
Notoriety for the company and Bennett have been well documented thanks to the firm’s incredible success. In 2015, Bennett Design ranked No.144 on the prestigious Profit 500 list. It all began in 2012, when Bennett was asked to submit for the W100 which is Profit’s Top 100 Women’s Entrepreneurs. Last year she ranked No. 19 on the W100 list.
“We had a very good year in 2014. This year we’ll break 100,” Bennett says. “We’re 20 years old this year and we compete against some awesome firms. They are qualified competitors and we are honoured to be considered in the same arena but I think we’ve done a really good job of differentiating ourselves and creating a name for ourselves. We’re very proud of what we’ve achieved.”
Many are long-tenured staff members, but with the recent explosion in growth over the past few years the company has added more people to the company.
“I don’t hire based on an upcoming project. We want our employees to be part of the Bennett community for a long time. We are quite slow to hire. We check references and make sure that the fit is right because we are still a fairly small company with about 40 people. An employee needs to have high levels of detail, quality of drawings and communication skills in order to succeed.”
A number of years ago, Bennett and other senior executives wanted to challenge the design team to contemplate their impact on the environment with every project that they took on. An internal reporting system was devised whereby at the kickoff of each project the team would have a discussion about the level of environmentalism they aimed to reach and whether or not the client was going for LEED certification. If they weren’t, the folks at Bennett Design would always still look to do some level of environmental conscious design.
In the past, designing to a level of environmentalism was a challenge because the products weren’t available and the necessary information simply wasn’t there. Any environmentally friendly always came at a premium.
“What we’ve done is greened out our library and so there are materials we will accept and others that we absolutely won’t. We’ve colour-coded the library so that it has different shades of green so the most environmentally responsible products are colour-coded with a Kelly green but the initial PureDesign™ was really to challenge our designers to think about the products and methodologies being used that will align with LEED certification standards, including minimizing the use of water and energy while implementing sustainable solutions and ensuring air quality.”
Bennett Design will typically design to a standard of LEED silver. Many clients opt out of the process because of the cost involved, which oftentimes pushes outside their allotted budget. Other clients will aim for LEED gold because they feel that nobody remembers who wins the silver.
Bennett Design hosts a very special event each year in honour of one of its directors who was diagnosed with uterine cancer. As a team Bennett Design was going to participate in the Princess Margaret Walk. But for each individual to participate in the Walk it would have required raising $1,500 each, and that in turn would have amounted to about $27,000 based on the size of the staff at the time, making it cost prohibitive. Bennett clearly wanted to do something but wasn’t sure what it could be.
“I happened to be on a plane heading south with a couple of industry colleagues and one of them said you just need to throw a party,” she recalls. The company rented the Balmy Beach Club and started the Bennett Beach Bash. There was dodgeball on the beach and a live band with about 400 people in attendance in that first year.
“We called Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre about donating funds. A couple of years ago we switched from the Bennett Beach Bash into an industry event called the Beach Ball. We rented the Sunnyside Pavilion down on the waterfront and we had over 700 people attend. It was so much fun and we raised $48,000 that year. Thus far we’ve raised almost $140,000 in the fight against women’s cancers,” Bennett proudly mentions.
As for the future of the company, Bennett insists she is not all about topline growth but instead ensuring the infrastructure is sound and stable.
“I couldn’t care less if we sold $2 million or $10 million worth of services. What I’m more concerned about is making sure that we remain profitable and that the bottom line is healthy. I want to be able to pay our staff equitably with a robust benefits program,” she says. “Rather than just getting bigger I’d rather get better, smarter and leaner to ensure the bottom line is healthy and I can take care of all these people that are in the office. That is more important than making the Profit 500 or having those crazy topline numbers.”