Architecture & Design, Economic Development, and Small Business & Startups

Its an ideal match

September 16, 2012
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While Progressive AE and Design Plus merged last week to form, perhaps, the largest architectural firm in the region’s history, with a staff of 150, two smaller design companies joined forces earlier to create what is likely to be an interior-design and space-planning leader.

Just a few weeks ago, Concept Design Group and Serve Studio merged their talents to become Concept Design. Stephen Fry and Thomas Tooley are principals in the new company. Fry is serving as president and Tooley as vice-president. Both have strong backgrounds in the local design industry.

Fry started Concept Design Group in 1989 and earned a solid reputation for designing creative and efficient architectural and interior projects. Before starting his company, Fry was a vice president at DeWinter Associates. Tooley began his career at Albert Kahn Associates in Detroit in 1985. He founded Serve Studio five years ago after directing design for nine years at Beta Design Group.

Fry and Tooley have a combined 60 years of experience in the field. The new union came together rather quickly.

“About four months ago, I realized the need to sort of get going and get ready for the changing economy and (office) space,” said Fry of a feeling he had that the workload was going to increase. “So I literally got a hold of Tom and within about three weeks, we agreed that it was a good idea for both of us.”

Fry and Tooley had worked together in 2007 on projects that involved the JW Marriott Hotel going up on Campau Square. Tooley headed the hotel’s design for Beta, and Fry did the same for the nearby Riverfront Plaza and Crowe Horwath buildings.

“The two of us had to work together to make that downtown block work physically with the new parking ramps, tunnels and all those access stairways. It was probably a year that we worked together to make that large project work. I always enjoyed working with Tom. So when I decided it was time to make a change, he was the first guy I thought of,” said Fry.

In his time at Beta, Tooley was involved in a lot of large projects, but when he left the firm to go out on his own with Serve Studio, he knew he’d be working on smaller jobs — at least, at the start.

“As our reputation continued to build, we were able to start getting into larger projects again. So this merger kind of gives us that extra advantage to increase our resources and increase our marketability for those larger projects,” said Tooley.

“So really what we’re doing is bringing two very, very capable small firms together to make a medium-sized firm that can handle very large projects,” he added. “Our firms are an ideal match. Our size is one of our greatest strengths, allowing me and Steve to stay involved with projects from concept to completion.”

Fry said it didn’t take long for him to notice that both companies practice in a similar fashion, so there haven’t been a lot of adjustments in merging. Both use the same type of computer systems and both had established reputations for carefully thinking through a project and creating thorough drawings.

Even the little things came together nicely. Fry said Tooley had the office equipment he didn’t have, but then he had the machines that Tooley didn’t have. “It all flowed right together. We were easily able to merge our books together. Again, they were very similar practices on slightly different scales but working in the same market,” said Fry.

The “same market” is downtown office space. Over the years, Fry said Concept Design Group and Serve Studio probably have designed more offices in the Central Business District than any other group.

“We’re number one as far as interior and office space that has been completed. If we needed to, we probably could go through and find out how many hundreds of different projects it’s been and how many hundreds of thousands or millions of square feet it is. By far, we are the leader in the downtown area for tenant space and that sort of thing,” he said.

Having that much experience made it easier for Fry and Tooley to detect a local trend early, one that mirrors what they’ve done. Fry said they noticed their clients have been “rightsizing” their firms because of the economy. Over the past four years, he said these companies have had to work smarter and faster. At the same time, office technology has advanced.

“So the surge that we’re seeing now with the office demand, with tenant spaces having gone through those changes, is the downtown market has now stabilized,” said Fry.

“Our clients are now looking for spaces to better accommodate the size that they are or anticipate to be, to better accommodate their technology, and, just as importantly, to give themselves a new image going forward as they look to what they would see as being a growth period. And we’re doing the same thing,” he added.

Tooley said Concept Design has an advantage that directly relates to the experiences and successes he and Fry have brought to the new firm.

“We know who the new worker is,” he said. “The new worker works differently. They have been taught differently in schools, in collaborations and in teaming, and they expect those types of environments.

“We’ve seen some of these firms that have spaces that are a traditional, private office using too much square footage and want to consolidate and create collaborative spaces,” he said. “We go through this with client upon client, and we’ve been able to consolidate them from two floors to one floor. Having a higher-end space that attracts new talent is one of their goals.”

The new Concept Design has 11 employees with four licensed architects, two interior designers and five specialists and support personnel. The company is headquartered at 89 Monroe Center in the same space the Concept Design Group occupied. Its website is

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