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Executive Profile

Blueprint for Success
Architect John Atkins, whose designs dominate the Triangle,
believes clients deserve more than finely-drawn blueprints

By Sandra L. Wimbish

ohn L. Atkins III quickly dismisses the notion that any architect could single-handedly leave an indelible fingerprint on a regional skyline or landscape. “It's a romantic myth and completely untrue that there is any one architect who can do it all. We are always dependent on others.”

Yet it is tempting to say, if such a distinction was possible, that the Triangle's thumbprint would belong to Atkins. “Quite simply,” says colleague Dail Dixon of Dixon Weinstein Architects in Chapel Hill, “John is a brilliant businessman, and he has created the best institutional architectural firm in the Triangle.”

Atkins, 56, is president and CEO of O'Brien/Atkins Associates, a multi-disciplinary design firm founded in 1975 by Atkins, William L. O'Brien and C. Belton Atkinson. Located in Research Triangle Park, O'Brien/Atkins has won more design awards from the North Carolina Chapter of the American Institute of Architects than any other firm in the state, and which was the inaugural recipient of the prestigious state AIA chapter's North Carolina Firm of the Year Award in 1998. Specializing in custom-designed corporate offices, biotech/pharmaceutical laboratories, and institutional facilities, O'Brien/Atkins has a client list that includes many of the Triangle's largest firms and most recognized names — Cisco Systems, MCI WorldCom, Glaxo Wellcome and Biogen to name a few. Not limiting itself to working solely in the Triangle, O'Brien/Atkins designed the N.C. Zoological Park in Asheboro and the N.C. Arboretum in Pisgah National Forest (owned by the University of North Carolina) as well. Serving the increasingly complex needs of such a diverse clientele is the challenge that today keeps Atkins and his staff busy.

It's a challenge for which he is well prepared — and one for which he's proven his mettle — according to his peers. His reputation for possessing exceptional business sense, design talent, and honorable character is respected and widespread.

“I think of John as being at the cutting edge of what's going on in architecture,” says long-time colleague Harvey Gantt of Gantt Huberman Architects in Charlotte. “Particularly in the level of services O'Brien/Atkins is beginning to offer. The fact is that architects are going beyond simply providing traditional design services. They are moving into areas like conducting feasibility studies and different kinds of analysis, and John has positioned his company out front in doing that sort of assessment.”

Atkins has indeed responded to the growing needs of the industry and moved his company to the front of the curve. He believes an architectural firm that wants to have a strong future has to be positioned to serve multiple needs, and it will have to do it understanding the monetary pressures and the time pressures involved, or it will have to find a niche doing storefronts or houses.

“We focus our work on science and technology corporate environments,” he says, “so we have to know our clients' businesses as well as they know them if we want to serve them well,” Atkins says.

Serving clients well, in O'Brien/Atkins parlance, means leading, educating, and managing clients; exposing clients to choices, educating them about the results of those choices, managing their budgets wisely, and keeping the projects focused. And never losing sight of client satisfaction.

Paul Boney, CEO of Boney Architects, with offices in Wilmington, Raleigh and Charlotte, echoes Gantt's remarks. “O'Brien/Atkins has always been a leader in our industry, in thinking up new ways of approaching architecture. I think the way O'Brien/Atkins approaches a design problem, wanting to know what is most important to the client and how the environment that they are going to create relates to the client's business sense and business environment, has gotten them a lot of work, and I think it's been a very positive thing for architects and architecture in general.”

Atkins, who has always enjoyed solving the problems surrounding physical facilities and the people using them, finds the new demands on architecture exciting. “Clients expect us to design them a nice building, that's a given,” he says, “but today we are also expected to come into the project with a broader array of services than just helping them design a building. It might be strategic planning, it might be real estate advising; it could be any number of things. But all these processes lead to the physical outcome.”

He acknowledges that any single architect can't be all knowing in all categories; the architect must be able to gather a variety of people together, in a collegial way, to produce the tangible results the client expects. At O'Brien/Atkins, where the firm has grown from its original cadre of three principals to 70-plus employees, most of the human resources they need — designers, building system engineers, graphics specialists and many more — are in-house.

As the demands on architects have grown, so have the rewards. He uses Glaxo as an example, saying, “When we started working with Glaxo, nobody around here even knew who they were — we were going to Ft. Lauderdale to work with them — and it's very satisfying to know that we played a part, even a small part, in growing their business. Did O'Brien/Atkins make Glaxo a success? No. Did we contribute? I'd say yes.”

Working with people and learning from them — both clients and other designers — is another payoff Atkins enjoys. With the average length of a project being between three to four years, there is adequate time to build relationships, be challenged, and gain an education along the way. “It's extremely satisfying bringing the whole project together into a collegial kind of experience, satisfying the client, having a tangible result, wrapping it all up together,” he remarks.

While responding to the growing demands of architecture requires Atkins to stay alert to changing trends, he remains committed to honoring the industry's fundamental values, too. Architecture is still about designing buildings to solve physical space problems. “The greater expectations on architects are flattering, but you can't lose sight of the core values of what you're about,” he cautions.

Those values, he says, are standard fare at the good design schools and stand firm across time. They include building responsible buildings within the available budget and delivering them on time. These are the fundamentals that have guided John Atkins since the early days of his education and career, and they guide many of the other architectural firms across the state for whom he has great respect.

In particular, Atkins offers accolades to his alma mater, the School of Design at North Carolina State University, which has been producing well-trained architects for over half a century, and the College of Architecture at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte.

Born and reared in Durham, Atkins matriculated at North Carolina State after receiving his high school diploma. He enrolled in the School of Design, where he earned his bachelor of architecture degree in 1966. At that time, students enrolled at N.C. State were required to participate in the ROTC program during their first two years. Atkins optioned to continue in ROTC during his junior and senior years also, thereby securing himself a position as a commissioned officer in the military rather than finding out how he might shake out in the draft.

Following his graduation from State, Atkins was commissioned as a second lieutenant and served in the military for two years; a portion of that time at Fort Benning, Ga., a portion in Baltimore, and a year in Vietnam.

After his career in the military, which was the only time he has lived away from his native North Carolina, he earned a master of regional planning degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and went to work in Durham for John D. Latimer & Associates. It was while he was employed at Latimer that he met his two future partners, Atkinson, also a Durham native, and O'Brien, originally from Greensboro. In the spring of 1975, in the midst of a recession, the three hung out the O'Brien/Atkins shingle.

From the beginning, O'Brien/Atkins worked on large-scale projects, albeit from a small, makeshift office in Chapel Hill. “I think there are times,” he suggests, “when you don't fully understand what you have in your hands, but we were fairly self confident. We'd come from a firm that was pretty large, and each of us was experienced in handling large projects — they'd given us a lot of rope — so we knew how to do multimillion dollar projects.”

This year the firm is celebrating its 25th anniversary, although Atkins says they will not rest on their accolades. He calls it a constant journey, where the firm must be continually renewed.

Along the way Atkins married his high school sweetheart, Sandra, a woman he later discovered had been in his kindergarten class. He and his wife reared both their two daughters in Durham; older daughter Kelly, who graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and subsequently went to New York University where she earned a master's degree in film, and younger Ashley, who graduated from Davidson College and works as a research assistant at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Social Work by day and performs music with the four-piece Ashley Atkins Band by night.

Dixon, who has known and worked with Atkins since they graduated from design school in the late sixties, says that the lion's share of what makes O'Brien/Atkins the exemplary firm it is today is directly attributable to John's character. “John's a very intelligent fellow, very articulate. And he's someone who, when he takes something on, he takes it on with gusto.”

“He's a very honorable person,” says Boney, “He's someone who will always do the right thing, no matter what the circumstances. I think that is one of the qualities that makes him such an outstanding leader. He is someone that architects turn to for advice, he is someone who has given freely of his time back to the community, and he is someone who continues to promote excellence in architecture with every project that he does.”

Gantt, who met Atkins when they served together on the North Carolina Board of Architecture in the late seventies or early eighties, adds his high praise. “I have found him to be an outstanding leader and a person that I felt was always honest and straightforward,” he says. “I also know John to be the kind of person who is willing to get involved in the big things that happen in our community and state. He does not mind rubbing shoulders with policymakers, expressing his opinions, and supporting candidates when he feels strongly about something.”

Evidence of Atkins' willingness to work with policymakers is well documented, and his influence can be felt not only in the Triangle, but also throughout the state. Ten years ago he was instrumental in establishing the Raleigh-Durham Regional Association, a group focused on recruiting industry and creating jobs in Orange, Durham and Wake counties. Four years later, when Gov. Jim Hunt and former Secretary of Commerce Dave Phillips were seeking to bring about a regional economic development strategy in North Carolina, the group broadened its focus and changed its name to the Research Triangle Regional Partnership.

Today the Research Triangle Regional Partnership has a budget of over $800,000 and a dedicated staff to continue cultivating economic development in the 13 counties that comprise the Triangle. Atkins sums up the group's agenda, saying, “We make a concerted effort to look not just at the three core counties in the area, but at the counties surrounding them.”

He is involved also with the Greater Triangle Regional Council, an outgrowth of the World Class Region Conference of 1992, which Atkins co-chaired with former Speaker of the House Dan Blue. The nearly 1,000 attendees at the conference said the strategic issues of the region needed to be examined. Based on that directive, and in conjunction with Triangle J Council of Governments, Atkins spearheaded the creation of the Greater Triangle Regional Council.

“We've had some struggles because of the complex nature of the issues we're addressing,” says Atkins. “We've looked at, studied and made recommendations on transportation issues, water issues, land use issues and other issues that deal with our quality of life.” He regrets that the difficulty of the issues and the lack of resources make the Council's progress seem slow, but he remains optimistic that results will become clearer as time goes on.

His professional associations are similarly impressive. In 1992 he was elected to the American Institute of Architect's College of Fellows, a very high honor bestowed on few architects. He continues to support the work of the North Carolina State University School of Design, of which he is a former president, by serving as a member of its executive committee. He has also served as a founding member and former chair of the North Carolina State University Board of Visitors.

“Here's the thing about John,” observes Dixon. “In the organizations in which he's involved, he's not just a member, he's the chair or the co-chair, or the past president. John just comes naturally to leadership. He's an eloquent spokesperson for whatever cause he thinks is important.”

Atkins himself soft-pedals his credentials but confirms that that he is a strong believer in the importance of keeping the Triangle, and North Carolina, economically viable. “If we're not economically viable as a region and as a state, then we're not economically viable as an architectural practice either.”

Read these previous Executive Profiles:
George Little of Southern Pines, of Little & Associates
Hunt Broyhill of Lenoir, CEO of Broyhill Asset Management LLC
Frank Borkowski of Boone, chancellor of Appalachian State University
Dwight Allen of Wake Forest, president of Sprint Mid-Atlantic Operations
Charlie Green of High Point, founder and president of Classic Galleries
Abdul Rasheed of Raleigh, founder and president of the N.C. Community Development Initiative.
Dr. John Weems of Raleigh. long-time president of Meredith College.
Margaret Rudd of Southport, co-founder and president of Margaret Rudd & Associates Realtors
Stephen Miller of Asheville, senior vice president of The Biltmore Company.
Ralph Shelton of Greensboro, president and CEO of Southeast Fuels Inc.
Ed McMahan of Charlotte, vice chairman of Little & Associates Architects.
Barry Eveland of Research Triangle Park, senior state executive for IBM.

COPYRIGHTER MATERIAL. This story first appeared in the April 2000 issue of North Carolina magazine.


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