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August 2006
Designing His Way Around
By Ellison Clary

Explaining his business model, Paul Lorenz resembles Frank Sinatra crooning “My Way.” The driving force for starting Lorenz Architecture, PA, was that Lorenz wanted to serve clients his own fashion.

Lorenz logged 13 years toiling for others, briefly in Buffalo, N.Y., and then in Charlotte and Concord. He was with Carlos J. Moore and Associates in the Cabarrus County seat when he finally lit out on his own.

Throughout his career, Lorenz says, he could see better ways for operating an architecture practice. “I wanted to do things differently,” he explains. “I thought I wouldn’t be happy until I had my own office where I could do what I   wanted to do – and do it right.”

He started Lorenz Architecture in April 2003, probably the absolute bottom of the Charlotte region’s slog through recession. Still, his company grew.

In a little more than three years, Lorenz has built his workforce to 10 employees and put together a fairly long list of projects in several areas, including churches, retail, office, medical and motor sports. From 1,000 square feet over an antique store and a coffee shop on Union Street, Concord’s main drag, the company is growing by 50 percent a year, he says.

Lorenz believes that growth will continue because he and his associates provide personal attention and value for their clients.

“At other firms, the client meets with somebody and then gets passed around from person to person,” Lorenz says. “You end up with somebody who didn’t start out with the project. I didn’t like that.”

So Lorenz does it differently.  “We make sure the client stays with the person who knows the project,” he says. “You get a better project that way.”

That’s not all. At his practice, Lorenz says, all telephone calls must be returned the same business day. Clients are updated at least weekly. If important decisions are necessary, the client will hear from a Lorenz associate every other day. And Lorenz vows his project submission times will be 25 percent faster than any competitor.

Does the approach work? It did with NASCAR’s Robby Gordon. When the driver of the Number 7 Chevrolet wanted a quick job on a paint booth, Lorenz got with a contractor and knocked it out.

“Because of that, Robby wanted to meet with us and get us to do his race shop for him,” Lorenz  smiles. “I don’t think he talked to  any other architects.”

Lorenz justifiably calls the Mooresville headquarters for Robby Gordon Motorsports a “big project.” Now in the design phase, it features a catwalk that allows fans to gaze down on the shop from a second-story perch, about 30 feet up. It also includes a museum, a race shop and a round glass area for car displays. According to Lorenz, the 85,000-square-foot structure will be finished by winter.

It’s not the firm’s only motor sport venture. The fabled Wood Brothers racing team sought out Lorenz to retrofit a facility in Harrisburg. “They called us out of the blue,” says Lorenz, whose company showed them how to gut a 100,000-square-foot plant that made plastics and turn it into a display center for fast cars.

 

Designing the Venture

Plunging into the entrepreneur arena at 40 wasn’t hard, Lorenz insists. But he admits it was scary.

“The business came together pretty quickly,” Lorenz remembers. “I didn’t have any clients and I was in a 10-foot-by-10-foot room with Lee Shuman.” His first employee, Shuman is still with the firm.

Lorenz and Shuman banged on a lot of doors, promising quality, value and attention to detail.

“Hard work is why this business is succeeding,” Lorenz says. “We were customer-driven and we made sure we stayed in contact with our customers. We’re still like that today. We try our best to communicate and be responsive. We work an awful lot of hours, but I feel it’s important to turn around a product when we promise.”

Lorenz firmly believes that reasonable fees and delivering value are key to growth. The firm offers project consultation without charge or obligation, as well as developing fees for feasibility studies related to site, floor plan and elevations that are appropriate for the project.

Where did that value-added mantra originate? “My dad was a hard worker,” Lorenz says. “I think he instilled a hard work ethic in me.”

The elder Lorenz was a high school principal in Watkins Glen and Ticonderoga, New York. The younger Lorenz pulled a three-year tour in the U.S. Army before attending the University of New York at Buffalo, where he earned a bachelor’s and master’s in architecture, finishing in 1992.

By early 1993, Lorenz and wife Michelle, also from New York state, were itching to get away from Buffalo. They researched Atlanta, Charleston, and Charlotte.

Atlanta was saturated with architects, Lorenz says, and he found Charleston a bit too set in its ways. Then he and Michelle visited Charlotte. The Queen City happened to be hosting the NCAA Final Four college basketball tournament.

“My head spun around,” he laughs. “I said, ‘We’ve got to move down   here.’ We sold everything we had and came down.”

Lorenz joined Meyer-Greeson-Paullin in center city Charlotte’s Latta Arcade, then hooked on with Clark-Nexsen Architecture & Engineering, before connecting with Lincoln-Harris Properties. For three years, he served retail and commercial clients at Charlotte business cohuna Johnny Harris’s company before moving to the Carlos Moore firm in Concord.

Early on, Paul and Michelle Lorenz had picked Concord for their residence because they liked the pace and the town reminded Michelle of her roots in New York’s Finger Lakes region. Since he moved his professional career to Cabarrus County, Lorenz finds more chances to be with Michelle and their 6-year-old daughter Olivia.

 

Building from the Ground Up

Maybe half his firm’s revenues come from what Lorenz calls the “Ecclesiastical” field. Among the churches he’s planned is the project he’s most proud of so far. It’s Cornerstone Baptist Church in Kannapolis, laid out in a half-circle

and featuring an exposed wood structural system.

Although it hasn’t been built, Lorenz feels it will be. The congregation of 200 is expecting to grow quickly to 300.

A Lorenz design that has been built is NorthEast Urology Clinic in Concord. The medical office was occupied in April. Tim Arey, owner of Arey Properties and Windsor Construction of Concord, brought Lorenz into the project and enjoyed working with him and his firm.

“We hired Paul to sit down with the doctors and do the design process from the ground up,” Arey says. “He was very attentive. He’s responsive, honest and offers good value for his fees. I’m fond of Paul.”

Lorenz also likes his company’s design for the Locust Town Center in Stanly County. It’s a three-building, mixed-use retail/office center that will include law and medical offices, a pharmacy and restaurants. In all, it will encompass 80,000 square feet.

“We’re trying to give it the appearance that it’s been there for hundreds of years,” he says. “The materials, brick and wood, are products that were used 100 years ago. That’s one we’re real proud of.”

 

Lorenz Leads With Casual Approach

Lorenz speaks matter-of-factly and without notes or aids as he discusses the company’s history and future aspirations. He often presents almost as informally to prospective clients.

He acknowledges he sometimes loses a project to a company with a slick presentation, complete with PowerPoint slides, but says his simple approach keeps costs low.

As he sits for an interview in a cubicle, several of his associates can hear every word, but that’s alright because they include long-time friend and former college classmate Jim Fulton, lured from New York to Concord about a year ago, and Shuman, with him from the beginning.

Shuman interrupts Lorenz to ask about parking tickets on Union Street, where parking is free for two hours.

Lorenz shrugs. “Sometimes I take a chance,” he chuckles. “I get tickets when I park on the street.”

But the casual Lorenz manner belies a detailed strategy.

Though he is the firm’s sole owner, Lorenz is planning to bring two or three others into ownership roles. He’s got a profit-sharing plan, a 401(k) and group insurance. He won’t tell figures, but says revenue grows by 50 percent a year. His intent is to plow 8 percent back into marketing. And commitment to professional associations and civic organizations is a priority.

Every associate must understand the firm’s vision and how he or she helps accomplish it, he says.

What’s that vision? He puts it in everyday language: “We’re trying to be very customer-driven while providing real nice design work. We’re trying to do something that most firms don’t do – be responsive and competitive.”

In five years, Lorenz believes the firm will have 12 associates and will be in larger quarters, though still in Concord – historic downtown Concord, Lorenz emphasizes. “We’d like to buy a building and renovate it,” he says.

Another option involves the former Paramount Theatre, gutted for a mixed-use project he’s working on with Len Sossamon, a former  Concord city manager. It’s on Union Street, too, and might make a nice office address.

Lorenz shares more ideas. “Maybe down the road, we could have an engineering component, civil or     electrical,” he says. “We work with a lot of young people and we’re trying to stay on the cusp of technology, so I’m hoping to have somebody here who can do 3-D animation.”

To him, the hardest part of running a business is handling growth. “It’s deciding when to bring somebody on and at the same time keeping the payroll going,” he says.

Having more people at the company could help Lorenz, now 43, slow down a bit. Right now, Lorenz says, he’s working in excess of 60 hours a week. The rest of his time is with family, leaving idle his former passions of fly fishing and woodworking.

But the schedule is fine, Lorenz says, because he finds architecture rewarding. “I’m going to have buildings here that will be seen for hundreds of years,” he muses.
Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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