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Growing pains.

Growing Pains

To move or not to move was never the question. Association Management Center (AMC), an Illinois-based association management firm with a staff of 30, reached peak capacity in its Evanston, Illinois, offices in 1988. Realizing the crunch was imminent, company executives began a quest for space in 1987. What they hadn't realized was that the decision to move would lead them on a two-year odyssey before they would drop anchor in their new home port.

A growing company

in a confined space

Association Management Center is the flagship subsidiary of The Engle Corporation, a family-owned and operated association management concern. From its beginnings in 1974 with one primary client, the Association of Rehabilitation Nurses, and a staff of two - AMC President Arthur Engle and a combined secretary, data entry operator, and membership records coordinator - the company steadily increased in size and scope. (It presently has 10 full-service clients and several project clients.)

The company's home since 1979 had been a single-story storefront building in Evanston, Illinois. Art Engle bought the building in 1979 and moved into the center section with a staff of six, including his wife, company Vice President Dagny Engle. Adding space as other tenants in the building moved, AMC occupied the entire 6,200 square feet of the building by 1985.

The staff fluctuated between 25 and 30 people (including part-time employees) starting in 1986, necessitating a frenetic game of musical offices. The conference room became an office for three; a spare office became the conference room until it was needed as an office again; when there was no more room left for a conference room, the lunchroom had to suffice, even for client meetings.

AMC looked into the near future and saw the unavoidable truth. Although the company's growth and prosperity was a benefit to all involved, it forced AMC to confront the fact that it would soon outgrow its home.

Building the perfect office

Having been shaped in the do-it-yourself mold, the Engles decided to construct a new building on land they owned adjacent to their present building. The Engles met with architects, who began planning a three-story, 30,000-square-foot building, of which the company would occupy one floor. They met with Evanston city officials and won a rezoning that would enable AMC to build commercial space. They met with AMC's bank to work out financing. But in the end, they didn't meet with success: Tenants to fill up the rest of the building simply could not be guaranteed.

"We were going to take up one third of the building, and if you can't fill up two thirds of the building, you'd better not build it," says Art Engle.

The Engles didn't abandon the dream of a building on their own land until early 1988 - a year after plans had begun. Says Art Engle, "We finally said, |Look, we're spending too much time on this; we're not accomplishing our goals. It's time to move on.'"

To buy or to rent?

At first, AMC concentrated its search efforts on potential purchases. The company hadn't set itself an easy task. AMC had established a number of criteria a building would have to meet before it could be seriously considered, says Scott Engle, AMC director of finance. The building "had to be close so that we wouldn't have any staff turnover that wasn't necessary. The building had to be around 30,000 square feet. It had to be something that was close to being able to move into - in other words, we wouldn't have to gut the whole thing. And there had to be some tenants already in there that would stay, so we wouldn't have to lease it again."

So the search was on for a large - but not too large - office building within a few miles of the office that was partially occupied and ready to accommodate a teenage company that was out-at-elbows in its present location. But that building didn't materialize.

As buying a building that met the criteria began to appear less and less feasible, AMC had to shift gears from looking to buy to looking to rent.

The politics of renting

If the Engles had been selective as builders, and then as purchasers, they were almost more so as renters.

"We had rented before," Scott Engle explains. "There's a certain feeling about being a tenant, and especially being a small pea in a large pod. You don't get much attention; you feel like this is the way it is and you just have to accept it. We really wanted to avoid that."

AMC executives looked at rental space within a five-mile radius and were able to find three buildings that satisfied their criteria: They were close to the old building, larger than the old building but not enormous, and mostly occupied. But when it came down to the final selection of the building, Scott Engle says, the realities of tenantship suddenly manifested themselves in two of the three buildings: "We got the typical agent walking through very quickly, saying, |Oh, we can do that - we can do that,' and it just wasn't a great feeling."

On the other hand, the third building left the Engles and the company's other managers and directors, who were in on the final phases of the building selection, with quite a different sensation. Quartet Plaza in Skokie, Illinois, was two miles away from the current office; it was even more convenient to the major expressway system; it had a splendid physical setting among trees and facing a forest preserve; it prohibited smoking by its tenants (this was important to AMC, which had been a nonsmoking company since 1979); and it had 10,000 square feet of space that was raw and ready to be built to a tenant's specifications. And most important of all, the Engles saw eye-to-eye with the building's owners, Quartet Ovonics, an office products company. Quartet was as selective as AMC, and the Engles like that, according to Scott Engle.

So at long last, in June 1989, it began to look like AMC's quest for space was at an end. AMC confirmed its interest in the greater part of the raw first floor; Quartet responded with a qualified agreement. But then came the signing of the lease.

The Engles reviewed the 40-plus-page contract themselves, consulting their attorney when they were unable to decipher particularly knotty clauses. There were a couple of "sticky points," Scott Engle recalls. For example, the Engles didn't feel they needed the entire 10,000 square feet, and Quartet Ovonics didn't feel it could lease any less. Thanks to a creative financing plan that includes a rent that will increase by a set amount each year for five years until it reaches the level Quartet initially wanted, the disagreement was ironed out. The lease was signed, and the building out of AMC's new offices on the first floor of Quartet Plaza began.

Keeping the associations


Throughout this process, AMC made sure the board members of its client associations were updated.

"One of the things we certainly did was to tell them all well ahead of time that we recognized the need for the move," says Dagny Engle, who serves as executive director for AMC's oldest client, the Association of Rehabilitation Nurses, and two other specialty nursing associations. "That's very different from a stand-alone association, where it would be a joint decision [between board members and staff executives]."

When AMC made the decision to move to Quartet, board members were informed in writing, although presidents were contacted by phone first. Jeff Engle, AMC director of marketing and meetings and executive director of several health care associations, says there were no adverse reactions from association boards - perhaps partly because they had been kept well-informed.

"We let them know that it wasn't just an overnight decision - that we had been thinking about it for more than three years," he says. "We assured them of the continuity of service and that there would be no downtime."

Let the buildout begin

The fact that its new office space was raw was exciting for AMC. The company looked forward to designing the space to its specifications. However, AMC faced some stringent building criteria. Quartet's standards included details such as a special size of ceiling tiles, special (and expensive) lights, floor-to-ceiling doors, and a double-filtered heating and air-moving system. The placement of walls and wall systems was dictated (nothing could cut into the middle of the window).

AMC knew from the first that it needed the services of a designer or a space planner. There was no way the company could spend enough time researching office furniture dealers to be able to make knowledgeable decisions. Fortunately, AMC had an in-house adviser. Director of Marketing Betsy Baer had joined the company in May 1989 after leaving the Institute of Business Designers, and she knew the industry and the manufacturers very well. She gave the Engles personal references for designers she knew, as did the architect.

Baer explains that the building owner's designers did the preliminary design work. AMC's designer then took those plans and helped the company pick office systems that would work best for its needs, could be obtained quickly, and would work with the color scheme AMC had selected.

Part of the open floor plan that resulted was something that would be a major change for AMC: office systems, or cubicles.

"It was a major thing to have everybody sitting out in systems instead of [having] walls," Scott Engle concedes.

Another large item that had to be incorporated into the office planning was the telephone system. AMC's telephone system, like its office space, had been outgrown, and an updated system would have to be selected in time for the construction of the new space to accommodate it.

AMC looked at three systems, its telephone consultant made recommendations, and the company settled on a system that offered automated answering, voice mail, and a host of other features. "It wasn't the cheapest, but we felt it was the best," says Office Manager Carolyn McMurray.

Planning the big move

While the company's executives and managers were focusing on preparing the new space, the staff was devoting its energies to getting out of the old space. As chief supervisor of the move, McMurray had a foot in each place.

Where does one begin the process of moving 30-plus people and a building's worth of furniture and equipment? McMurray advises that a company preparing to relocate ask several movers to estimate the job and describe how their company handles such a move. A big mover or one experienced in moving offices is the best and really only bet, she says, because "moving offices is a lot different from moving households." After getting estimates from several such movers, AMC selected Boyer-Rosene Moving and Storage.

Boyer-Rosene advised McMurray to diagram each piece of furniture on the blueprint of the new office, numbering each separate space as she went. She then drew enlarged diagrams of each space to aid in the moving process. Staff members were all assigned office numbers, and they were responsible for packing their own office accoutrements and properly labeling them with the numbers.

Boyer-Rosene provided a three-page list of instructions for packing, including exactly where to place the moving label on each box and each piece of furniture. Two colors of labels were used: one for the mail and storage room and the other for all other spaces.

The biggest problem in moving, according to McMurray, is packing things that might be needed up until the last minute. This was particularly true of AMC's mailroom. Another hitch that might not immediately occur to a company or association planning to move is what to do with all the stationery, brochures, and other items that have been printed with the old address. McMurray suggests storing the material in an emptied-out room so that it is accessible until the move and is conveniently gathered together to be thrown away after the move.

Load |em up and roll' em out

Timing of the buildout and the packing had worked out so that the move would occur the day before Thanksgiving. AMC's staff got the day off, with the condition that they come in over the long holiday weekend to get their desks and work areas ready to go the following Monday.

In addition, AMC's client associations had been informed that the company would be down that day. Calls to the old office would be forwarded to the new building so that messages could be taken by the voice mail system.

The move went quickly and smoothly. The one major delay in the process was the fact that only half the office had been carpeted by the time the move started, and the other half was being done during the move. "We had to start by telling the movers to take things from the old building that were in the half that had been carpeted," McMurray remembers. "We were calling back and forth on portable phones: |Now they're done with area x; bring that stuff over.'"

But despite the problems the concurrent carpeting posed, everything had been transferred by 4 p.m. that day and was in its proper area, says McMurray.

Choosing the artwork

Only after the boxes were unpacked, the office systems were installed correctly, and AMC began to settle into its new home did the company feel it had time to deal with office decor. Dot Vartan, director of AMC's communication department, was on the committee that oversaw the acquisition of new artwork. With a background in art direction, Vartan knew the importance of using art to convey a mood.

"It's a pretty modern office, and there's no heavy woodwork, so we couldn't have English hunting prints," says Vartan. "We needed to find art that would work well with the surroundings and bring something of the peaceful outdoors setting inside."

Most of AMC's old artwork hadn't been moved because it wasn't particularly compatible with the atmosphere of the new office. The committee of staff members called in several corporate art specialists to make presentations on a range of art. Then the committee members had the task of sifting out what wouldn't work, narrowing the field to what they liked and what the company could spend - "budget was a main concern," Vartan says - and then making their final choices.

Vartan was pleased with the result, a collection of modern abstract pieces. "None of them is realistic, so everyone can look at them and see different things," she says.

And what did the client associations gain from the move?

"There's the pride of image, for those who have been here and seen it," remarks Dagny Engle. "There's a different feeling here, and that sort of transmits itself through the staff."

There also are tangible benefits for the associations, Dagny Engle believes. "It's given them more flexibility in planning meetings," she says. "For instance, we were able to hold the Association of Rehabilitation Nurses' long-range planning meeting here, where before it's always been in a hotel." Because the Engles's business is an association management company, she adds, the client associations "had none of the expense of the move - planning the buildout, looking for the building, none of that. They got all the advantages of the move and none of the disadvantages."

Overall, the move was good and necessary. Scott Engle says that even hiring new employees has become easier in the new, more attractive surroundings, and the old employees are enjoying work more.

"Our attitude toward work is not casual - we really throw ourselves into it. But we have tried to create an environment where the staff can be excited about coming to work. I think it's working, and I think our clients feel that."

Lisbeth Maxwell is communications editor at Association Management Center, Skokie, Illinois.
COPYRIGHT 1991 American Society of Association Executives
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related article; how one association management firm outgrew one office and managed its move to another
Author:Maxwell, Lisbeth
Publication:Association Management
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Mar 1, 1991
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