After spending 12 years in Gensler’s Denver office, Lamar Johnson opened the Chicago office in 1997. He recently discussed working and living in Chicago with us.
Lamar Johnson is a managing principal of Gensler’s North Central Region and a member of the firm-wide Management Committee. After spending 12 years in Gensler’s Denver office, Johnson opened the Chicago office in 1997 with a staff of four, and since it has grown to more than 340 employees. A registered architect in 37 states, he has extensive experience in the planning, design and construction of a broad range of project types and has worked with some of Chicago’s most high profile companies, including Wrigley, McDonald’s Corporation, Citadel, the Center on Halsted, McCormick Place, and the Chicago Transit Authority.
Under his management, the Real Estate Council of the Chicago Food Depository has recognized the Chicago office the “Interior Design Firm of the Year” four times. Gensler recently became the first architecture firm in Chicago to be awarded both “Architecture Firm of the Year” and “Interior Design Firm of the Year.” Additionally, the Chicago office has become widely recognized in the design and real estate industry for its active participation in volunteerism and fundraising for a wide range of civic, community and not-for-profit organizations.
Johnson joined WBC’s board of directors in 2014. Gensler has dedicated four employees to advance Chicago’s Plan for Economic Growth and Jobs through involvement with the WBC Fellowship Program.
QUESTION: Why do you live in Chicago?
ANSWER: After college, I started working for Gensler out of the Denver office. In 1997, we had a fair amount of business popping up in Chicago, and Arthur Gensler (the firm’s namesake) asked me to go open an office. I discussed it with my wife, called Art the next day, thanked him for his consideration, and told him we weren’t sure it was the right move for us just then. And shortly thereafter I was commuting back and forth between Denver and Chicago, setting up a new office. Because when the chairman of the world’s largest architecture and design firm puts his arm around your shoulders and asks you to consider a new opportunity, you do it. And I know that now.
QUESTION: What is the best thing about running a business in Chicago?
ANSWER: I’ve always found there’s a sort of Midwestern hospitality and openness – a welcoming feeling – doing business in Chicago. In a city this size, to be judged more by the quality of your work and the integrity of your commitments than you are about where you hail from is both profound and mindboggling. In Denver, I was aware of the business community; in Chicago, I got involved in it, and integrated into it. It’s counterintuitive to think the larger of the two cities would have been more welcoming to the services we provide as a firm, but when I got here 17 years ago, I had an office with four people in it, and today we have 340 people. Gensler thrives in Chicago because we were welcomed here.
QUESTION: How would you explain to your stakeholders that Chicago is the best location for your company?
ANSWER: For an architecture and design firm, there’s really no better place to practice, considering the roots of the American skyscraper are here in Chicago, and there’s such an awareness and appreciation of good design. On top of it, hard work, integrity, and humility are all rewarded in Chicago. We’re lucky to accomplish as much as we have here, and in the words of Arthur Gensler, “The harder we work, the luckier we get.”
QUESTION: How would you describe Chicago’s business community?
ANSWER: A couple of things here. For starters, Chicago’s business community is open and welcoming to new businesses, something that’s key to fostering new opportunities, and even to introducing competition, which keeps everyone on their toes. And I really think the business community here represents the very best in civic involvement, and support for charitable organizations and not-for-profit enterprises. To that end, I think collectively ours is one of the most unique attitudes in the country.
QUESTION: How have you found that the public/private partnership between business and government is unique to Chicago? In what ways have you engaged in this partnership?
ANSWER: The cooperation between business and government here in Chicago is remarkable, and really serves the City so well. It stems from a civic-mindedness, a sense of obligation to give support to the City that is authentic and genuine. It’s true everywhere – and perhaps especially so in Chicago – that neither business nor government will thrive without the other. And clearly, both are doing pretty well in our City.
QUESTION: How does your company take advantage of Chicago’s diverse economy, talented workforce, and access to the world?
DIVERSE ECONOMY: In economic terms, we’re in the perfect location because of the broad platform of services and expertise we offer: from airports to retail, offices to CTA stations, hotels to professional services firms. I can’t think of many other cities where we could provide such a range of offerings.
TALENTED WORKFORCE: In terms of workforce and available talent, it’s really one of the best things about our Chicago office: There’s such a legacy of talented architects and designers practicing in Chicago, and we’re able to take advantage of that pool. We’ve been very fortunate to attract incredibly talented people over the years.
ACCESS: As far as access is concerned, Chicago is a clear economic and cultural hub, both domestically and abroad. Our airports give us quick and efficient access to the upper Midwest, where a lot of our business is conducted out of this office, as well as just about every other domestic location we could possibly find a client in. And international connectivity, certainly, offers a huge opportunity for our Chicago office. Consider Shanghai, where we’re nearing completion on Shanghai Tower, the tallest building in China and second-tallest in the world overall: Getting our people on the ground in Shanghai to do that caliber of work has been practically effortless from a world access standpoint.
QUESTION: When entertaining clients or business associates, where do you go and what do you do?
ANSWER: I love Chicago sports, and any client meeting is a great reason (excuse?) to catch a game: Bulls, Blackhawks, Sox, Cubs (we have spectacular seats – row one, first base side – at Wrigley Field). And considering Chicago’s stance as a cultural powerhouse, there’s certainly no shortage of events and experiences we can take advantage of as a way of showing our clients and team alike what we’re made of and where we come from. In particular, I love the Adler Planetarium – and maybe my involvement with their Executive Committee makes me biased – but I can’t think of a better place to explore our universe from every angle than the Adler.
QUESTION: If you were to describe Chicago to a friend or family member that has not visited, what would you say?
ANSWER: Chicago is a great many things – some you might expect, and maybe some you wouldn’t: it’s friendly and welcoming; it’s vibrant; it’s clean. Chicago is rich with history, and the sheer force of our cultural institutions in this city defines the term, “world class.”
QUESTION: What area do you live in and what are its advantages?
ANSWER: I live in Oak Park, which is a wonderful place to raise a family. It’s certainly convenient, whether I’m headed to our office downtown or to the airports for business travel. And, of course, Oak Park has a rich history and legacy of architecture and design that is uniquely its own.