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Ten years on, Bjarke Ingels and Sheela Maini Søgaard reveal how they brought BIG back from the brink

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Sheela has a really healthy confrontational attitude. She started phoning our late payers, getting them to cough up. Where architects are typically overly optimistic, Sheela has a healthy scepticism

BIG founder Bjarke Ingels and CEO Sheela Maini Søgaard have revealed how they transformed a struggling firm 10 years ago into one of the world’s fastest-growing and best-known architecture practices today.

Speaking to CLAD for our comprehensive BIG Special, Ingels and Søgaard described how a decade ago BIG found themselves facing an uncertain future.

“By the fall of 2007, we were going down,” said Ingels. “I took control of our finances for a year, let go of 35 people, cut down everything I could, including lunches and our cleaning services, borrowed some money and managed to turn the company around.”

Ingels said he realised he needed to hire someone with a strong business mind, allowing him to focus his energies on the creative side of the practice. He employed ex-McKinsey consultant Søgaard as chief financial officer in 2008, and she soon became CEO.

“I joined at the point when they had to start thinking about a financial model,” Søgaard told CLAD. “There were about 50 people working for BIG at the time, including interns, and there were no partners – Bjarke was the sole owner.

“I was given the task by Bjarke and his advisory board of turning it into a sustainable, healthy platform, and also of turning it into a partnership.

“It was pretty basic; it was just getting a handle on the pluses and minuses, looking through the projects we were working on and finding out whether clients had paid their bills. It was a small firm then, so it was easy to work out where we were losing money.

“I contacted all the clients who owed us money and engaged a 'no cure, no pay' collections firm to deal with those who wouldn’t pay.

“At the time it was completely incomprehensible to me why we’d work for people who hadn’t agreed to the terms and conditions; why we’d hand over our intellectual property before we’d received payment. I understand it now, but at the time I was quite insensitive to the passion of being a very young firm excited about clients wanting to work with you.”

Reflecting on the impact Søgaard had on the business, Ingels said: “Sheela has a really healthy confrontational attitude. She started phoning our late payers, getting them to cough up. Where architects are typically overly optimistic, Sheela has a healthy scepticism. And where most of us would happily do a project for free, she has a ‘fuck you, pay me’ attitude. We needed that.”

Almost a decade on, Søgaard and Ingels are among twelve BIG partners, overseeing 450 employees across offices in Copenhagen, New York and London. The practice have completed major projects across the world, including the Via 57 West 'courtscraper' in New York, the Lego House in Bilund and the Tirpitz Museum in Blavand. Many more are in the pipeline.

Describing the working culture at BIG, Søgaard said: “One thing that differentiates us from other firms I’ve worked for is the insistence on being playful and having fun.

“None of us has our own office, so we all sit together, we’re loud – very sort of 'Viking' – we swear, we’re inappropriate sometimes. This approach really eases the mood a lot.

“It’s really a juxtaposition because we take ourselves so seriously in terms of what we do and in terms of our contractual negotiations, but then we take ourselves so un-seriously in the celebrating we do and the mood in the office.”

Ingels described the practice as a “true meritocracy”, with decisions about who to put forward for a particular project based on talent rather than the amount of experience a person has. Open plan offices make it easy for employees to communicate and all staff, including interns, are encouraged to contribute to design conversations.

“Of the partners at BIG, about half were interns in the early days of the company, so we’ve been together for a ridiculously long time," said Ingels. "We’ve developed a culture through friendship and collaboration that’s very strong.”

You can read our in-depth interviews with Ingels, Søgaard and the 10 other BIG partners in print, online or on digital turning pages.

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BIG founder Bjarke Ingels and CEO Sheela Maini Søgaard have revealed how they transformed a struggling firm 10 years ago into one of the world’s fastest-growing and best-known architecture practices today.
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