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Firm Structure / Ownership Structure

Hey all,

I've been looking into A/E firm structures to help better understand what these titles and roles mean at other firms and to see how firms have transitioned from 25 people to say 75 people. I see titles of Associates, Senior Associates, Associate Partner, Principal - do others have this structure? Also, what does it mean in your office to go from an associate to something like associate partner (more hours, investment into the firm)? 

I've been researching throughout the web, not a ton of information easily available, but just really curious how other firms are structured and what the roles mean - specifically in firms over 50 people? Thanks!

 
May 18, 20 1:55 pm

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Featured Comment
Threesleeve

Any title with "Principal" or "Partner" in it most commonly means some stake in the ownership - though in some firms "Principal" is synonymous with "key personnel", who may not be owners.  Ownership could involve a buy-in, or the firm paying or bonusing some % per year or per some other agreed-upon time period, or both, or some other scheme for transferring ownership.  These titles are not always very telling of experience or tenure with that firm, as some firms have "junior partners" with just a few years of experience, and some people negotiate partnership timelines as part of their employment agreements with some firms, so might become partners very quickly.

"Associate", "Senior Associate", etc. are entirely firm-specific, so you really can't know for sure what the criteria are unless somebody in that firm can tell you.  In some firms everybody is called an Associate, right down to BIM assistants fresh out of tech school, and the receptionists.  At others an "Associate" is somebody with a certain number of years of tenure - though it could be 3 years or 20 - and/or certain credentials or roles.  In some firms even if you're in the firm it can seem a little arbitrary who has and has not had these kinds of titles bestowed upon them, and the only explanation may be something like "these are people that the partners judge to be critical to our future", or something equally non-quantifiable (except perhaps to those looking at invoices and hours.)

May 18, 20 2:48 pm  · 
4  · 

Thanks for your response! I should have been more a little more clear, I'm curious about how your individual firms do use those specific titles of Associate, Senior Associate and what those roles are within your firm specifically.

We happen to have those 4 roles with the Partners having Ownership - so I get how that works within our office, just more curious how others use those "titles".

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Threesleeve

In my firm there are partners, then Senior Associates, who are people who have been with the firm on average 15 years or more and are usually in senior management roles, and then Associates, who in some cases have not been with the firm a very long time, but are mostly the directors of department within the firm and/or have unique qualifications or credentials that make them harder to replace than the rest of the staff might be.

1  · 
thisisnotmyname

Anything with the word partner in it usually denotes an ownership stake in the firm.  The amount of ownership and how it was given to the person can vary widely.   Principal  could be a person with an ownership stake or a non-owner employee in a leadership/management role.

May 18, 20 2:50 pm  · 
1  · 
Non Sequitur

Position of associate and senior associate in my office is reserved for management who have client, project-overhead, and staff/resource allocation responsibilities.  They also have additional compensation contracts that include a set % of corporate profits plus bonus.  Min salary usually start at the ceiling of non-associate architects but some associates might also be minor share holders.  This last item is not something that we advertise with titles.

President, and vice-president(s) for the majority share holders.

Everyone else is either intern/designer, technologist, or architect

May 19, 20 2:31 pm  · 
1  · 

Thanks! Do associates who are minor share holders eventually get asked to become VP's? Do you guys have a set rules or qualifications for associates who are minor share holders?

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Non Sequitur

Yes, there are bylaws established but they are more of a succession plan for the current majority share owners. Becoming an associate in my office is a promotion and takes a years of PM and office politic maneuvering... it is not something that is automatic given X years or Y experience. Associates have a set salary with a profit % share (not ownership). Senior may, or may not have ownership but likely have a higher profit % payout. I don't know since I'm only a humble associate. 8-)

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humble associate for now! Thanks for your help.

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joseffischer

Also an associate... we have a VERY few PMs who arent registered who are associates and one Sr associate, but no one will be making that title without a license now. I assume our politics are less heavy than Non's, basically if you're a decent PM for 2 years, they give you the title. If you're a licensed PA, fill a niche roll like specs/CA guy (though that's being phased out as well as all younger PMs are expected to do their own specs and CA) and you've got years with the company, you'll most likely have the associate title as well

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joseffischer

from a client perspective, if you're talking with someone who isn't an associate (how is that happening and who did you call?) then you're not going to get any answers. If you're talking to the PM/associate for your job, then whatever they say is most likely the case, pending due diligence and baking it into email correspondence and/or meeting minutes

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Non Sequitur

Joe, we're a medium-sized firm in our city and that's about 20ish people spread between licensed-arch, intern, interior designer, technologists... so you can't just make people associates based on a time-served rule. You essentially have to ask for it and prove to the senior associates and equity owners that you deserve it. It puts your name on the formal titleblocks and invoice correspondence letterhead (at least for us) so it's a reserved list.

1  · 
joseffischer

interesting. Once you become a PM there is a phased process of taking over invoice correspondence as part of our process as well... I assume you mean drawing titleblocks? All our sets go out with one of 3 owner stamps, and we do still have a spot for who drafted and who reviewed the drawings, but it's never filled out on any of our titleblocks

Edit: oh, and I feel like we're a medium-sized firm as well, but we technically have two locations, a separate incorporated interior design team, separate incorporated engineering wings for each location (so 5 total companies under an umbrella company) and roughly 150 employees all-in

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Non Sequitur

I wrote titleblock but meant titlepage as in cover page for formal correspondance (invoicing, competition, letters to AHJ, etc). Our titleblocks are the same as you describe.

 · 
midlander

my large corporate AE firm:

executive VP - responsibility for work in a large sector with multiple teams / offices

vice president - essentially a department head within an office. full profit/ loss responsibility for that studio, occasionally multiple studios. develops long term client relationships. voting rights wrt corporate decisions. receives company stock, performance bonus is a large part of pay (majority in good years)

principal - studio leadership focused on design or management (so studios might have more than one principal). responsibility for financial performance of specific projects. may be main contact person with client for routine business negotiations and major project decisions. no ownership, but bonuses apportioned according to project performance.

associate. licensed professional in their discipline, including back office functions ie accounting. can be focused on any role including design, management. no financial performance responsibility. may be day to day contact for client project teams. bonus as a share of office performance with some discretion by management.

designer/ staff. routine production work or support work. no responsibility for management or performance, not a client contact at any level. bonus as a fraction of monthly salary based on office performance.

each of these roles can promote to a Senior level which mostly recognizes excellent performance over multiple years, no major changes to responsibility or compensation structure.

May 19, 20 9:20 pm  · 
2  · 

Thank you - really appreciate it!

 · 
atelier nobody

I'm an anomaly, in that I work for a huge corporation where AE is just one of many things the company does. I actually have 2 job titles (one being my actual functional role and the other being more of a "pay rate").

In my case, my title of "Architect, Principal" means I could stamp drawings (although I don't because my boss prefers to do it himself), but there are still several levels of management above me - "Architect, Principal, Supervising", "Architectural/Engineering Manager", "Senior Architectural/Engineering Manager".

May 20, 20 4:47 pm  · 
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atelier nobody

Oh, and as for ownership, we are a combination ESOP/public corporation, so no job titles necessarily correspond to any particular arrangement of equity or profit sharing, although there may be some higher-ups at executive level who are able to negotiate something for themselves.

1  · 

Thanks for the post Adam!

I'd recommend you check out Archinect's Guide to Job Titles series. We plan on working on producing pieces on more senior level positions in the future.

Cheers!

May 20, 20 5:43 pm  · 
1  · 

Thanks - these titles are good for big picture no doubt, I'm trying to dial in on how each specific firm uses that title. For example, everyone in our office is an associate, which is very different than most - but some are also PM's as Assoc and some are Partners that are PM's - just curious how other places work.

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I see. So you're looking more for how many firms might use one title? In this case, it might be something like "Associate?"

Working on this series that's definitely been the biggest challenge. Trying to write something with a comprehensive description of one title is difficult since many firms create their own definitions of roles.

At least that's what we've been finding in our investigation. 

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Agreed, there's no one size shoe fits all - more of we have assoc, senior assoc, partners, etc and as a senior assoc they are responsible for this, get compensated differently, etc and partners do this and have ownership - etc.

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