Napoleon once said “an army marches on its stomach”.
Looking after your army was important for Napoleon, and it’s also a top priority for Chris Darling, founder of Darling Associates, although unlike Napoleon’s army, his team are showing no signs of being underfed; he’s conquered (built an office in) both London and Poland, working on projects in the UK, Russia and Australia.
They’ve had a bit of a rollercoaster: growing to 70 employees by the time of the 2008 recession, then shrinking post-2008. Now they’re approaching 80 people. Their turnover is on track to reach £7m this financial year with an upturn in profit margin expected to be around 25 per cent pre-tax.
Darling’s story is typical of many Leap 100 founders. “I was director of a very large practice, but I got a bit frustrated as there were limited opportunities to share in the success of the practice.” Luckily, a client called Darling one morning, telling him he had 24 hours to decide if he wanted to go solo with their backing. Despite having school fees, mortgages and overdrafts, Darling called back within five minutes with a resounding “yes”.
His philosophy for running his business revolves around one thing: the employees. When he first started Darling Associates, he explains how he made the common error of recruiting his friends. “While they were talented, they weren’t always the right people for the job; so we didn’t start with the best possible footing. Gradually we learned; when we started to recruit people purely based on talent, we started to recruit the right people.”
When hiring, he looks for “the Darling Factor”. Inspired by Steve Jobs’ idea that “the best people like working with the best people”, Darling stresses the “rigorous recruitment procedures” comprising of “six-month probation periods, where we filtered out people who weren’t really right for us”. Interestingly, for a male dominated industry, they’ve naturally acheived almost a 50/50 male to female ratio.
Employees have to be led, of course Again, we go back to Napoleon: “leadership is dealing in dreams”. For Darling, this means “the people we employ are dreaming themselves and we need to manage and deal with that”.
But leadership hasn’t always gone smoothly. He explains: “Architects spend seven years at university. There’s not one hour of lectures about leadership or running businesses. So I’ve had to make it up as I’ve gone along. At the beginning I was very idealistic, and I had this Richard Branson idea that there would be no set working hours, you would just do tasks and then you would go home. That just didn’t work at all. We spent too long in the pub, which we called the boardroom.”
Employees are Darling’s top asset. Prior to working at Darling Associates, one of the receptionists was studying architecture at university, but had to drop out because of the high tuition fees. As soon as Darling was made aware of this, the practice figured out a career plan for her, providing support so that she could go back to university to complete her studies. She is still there after six years, and is close to qualifying as a fully fledged architect.
Darling explains that it’s very important for everyone in the company to know where the profits are going. “We’ve defined how we cut the cake up and everyone knows about it.”
The belief Darling has in his people is reciprocal: 17 employees now hold shares in the company. Whether it’s a meticulous hiring process or having a visible profit plan and benefits package, the welfare and careers of Darling’s employees are paramount.