CEO on Leadership: Lawrence R. Armstrong, CEO, Ware Malcomb

Winter 2019/2020 Issue
By: Ron Derven
Lawrence R. Armstrong, CEO, Ware Malcomb

The head of this international integrated design services firm offers his perspective on the industry and what’s ahead for his company.

Ware Malcomb is a leading design firm focused on commercial and corporate real estate with 22 offices in the U.S., Canada, Mexico and Panama. Founded in 1972 by Bill Ware and Bill Malcomb, its services include architecture, planning, interior design, branding, civil engineering and building measurement.

In 1990, CEO Lawrence R. Armstrong and retired President Jim Williams acquired ownership of the firm. Today, Ware Malcomb is led by Armstrong and Executive Vice Presidents Jay Todisco and Kenneth Wink.

Development: What led you to a career in architecture?

Lawrence R. Armstrong: The inspiration for my architectural career came about when I was seven years old. My father bought a vacant lot next door to our small ranch house in Northeast Ohio and had a new home built on it for our family. After that, I knew I wanted to be an architect, and I am very fortunate for that.

Development: Could you briefly describe how Ware Malcomb has managed its growth since its establishment in 1972?

Armstrong: Our focus was on diversifying the business, making it resilient to recessions and growing the company beyond Southern California. We have structured the firm to service our clients wherever they need us. Most of our expansion across North America has been driven by our clients asking us to expand into new markets with them. This in turn fuels our team members’ growth and provides excellent opportunities for professional development.

Development: Where will you take the company over the next five to 10 years?

Armstrong: We have developed strategic goals in our long-term plan, which provides geographic target locations as well as the growth goals for our business units and product diversifications. The goal is to maximize the market share in every region we operate in and in each product offering we provide.

Development: What is your primary role as CEO of Ware Malcomb?

Armstrong: My primary role is to provide the vision, oversee growth and the overall operations for Ware Malcomb. I challenge our leaders to continue to grow in their professional abilities so we can reach our strategic plan goals.

Development: What do you see as your greatest leadership challenge as CEO today?

Armstrong: As the firm continues to grow, it is important to ensure our company culture is thriving and the strategic vision is carried out. Each of our offices across North America needs to operate together like a fleet of ships and quickly respond to change as necessary. With this mindset, we are all on the same path, but we move in a quicker, more nimble manner when the course shifts.

Development: What do you look for when hiring a senior staff person?

Armstrong: When hiring senior team members, we look for certain qualities to ensure the individual is a good fit in our culture. Among those qualities is embracing the rapid pace of change. Anticipating and embracing change has become more important than ever before. Understanding and deciding what to change, what not to change, and when, is the art of business. So is developing a strong team and fostering relationships. Strong teams are a reflection of leadership and are the key to growth and success. Developing meaningful relationships with team members and clients is important in every aspect of business.

Development: What is your company doing to prepare for the inevitable downturn in our industry?

Armstrong: We always take a conservative approach to our business to safeguard against any economic turns or uncertainty. Our firm’s focus on diversification remains within the commercial and corporate real estate umbrella. Service initiatives include building measurement, interior design, workplace strategy, branding, surveying and civil engineering. Market initiatives include health care, science and technology, advanced manufacturing, retail, hospitality and more.

Development: What will have the greatest impact on the commercial real estate industry over the next few years?

Armstrong: We are seeing a growing need to consider future-proofing in new real estate properties. Our team members specialize in using the latest design and technology trends to provide flexibility and adaptability in our client’s properties to maximize long-term real estate value. Although this is seemingly a newer industry trend today, this is not a new concept at Ware Malcomb. Since the firm’s founding, one of our core business philosophies has been to design our projects with long-term real estate value in mind, which in essence is future-proofing.

Development: What advice would you give someone entering the profession today?

Armstrong: Engage in whole-brain thinking. Do not define yourself, or your business, too narrowly. Be open to new opportunities and consider if they are a good fit in your overall vision. Understand every aspect of the business you are in, especially those functions that aren’t your area of expertise. Round out your knowledge and understanding of your business in every way possible to continuously improve. Hire the best people you can find. They need to fit the company culture and buy into the vision. Empower your team members to craft strategies to help achieve the vision.

Development: Did you have a mentor early in your career? What did they teach you?

Armstrong: My father was my first and best mentor. He taught me that you should always work hard, give your best and never be ashamed of the result. That is a guiding philosophy I still live by today. I also learned a great deal from Bill Ware and Bill Malcomb, the founders of Ware Malcomb. Early on in my career they taught me about business, and I learned valuable knowledge and sound commercial real estate expertise working alongside them.

Development: How do you de-stress?

Armstrong: I stay active as much as possible. I work out with a trainer regularly, do Pilates, and I am an avid skier and golfer. I am also actively involved in the community and give back by volunteering my time and efforts. I am proud to serve as a Board Member of Orange County United Way, and I’m chair of the Leadership Council for United Way’s United to End Homelessness campaign. My wife, Sandy, and I are also proud to serve as co-chairs for the Kent State University Comprehensive Campaign to support our alma mater. In addition to staying active, I have studied and created art all of my life. I have been exhibiting my art publicly for the past 10 years. Outside of work, philanthropy and art, my wife and I are lifelong travelers.

Ron Derven is a contributing editor for Development magazine.