Ask The CEO

Photography by Rebecca Baxter By Molly McCartney January 31, 2010

Husband-and-wife Don and Lisa Lawson have created one of the region’s leading architectural firms, with $400 million in projects in 2009. With Don as principal and Lisa as president, the Lawson Group has designed hundreds of buildings, including the Sarasota Bay Club, The Pines of Sarasota assisted living facility and Ringling College of Art and Design facilities. Lawson also found a niche in designing churches. The couple opened for business in 1983 with one project. Don says their friend and mentor, the late Ron Spector, contributed to spreading the word about their firm. "Ron would corral the people he knew and tell them they had to meet us. He introduced us to the next client and the next and the next," says Don.

How’s business? We certainly feel the pain in our community, but we have weathered it pretty well. The value of the projects we handled in 2009 is down 20 percent from the year before, but we expect to be back up to $500 million in 2010. Our clients wanted to wait and see what would happen with the economy, so they took a little break in 2009. But they are beginning to feel enough confidence to get the planning started to begin construction again in 2010.

How does the future look? As the economy grows back in strength, the Lawson Group is positioned to become more of a national firm. As a matter of fact, we have decided this is probably the great opportunity in our careers for our firm to expand and for us to pursue opportunities in other states and other countries.

Describe your firm. We have 18 employees, including seven architects. We have completed 1,560 building projects representing 9.5 million square feet of space and including 230 churches. Many of these buildings are in Sarasota and Manatee counties. But we have also done buildings in other parts of Florida and in other states. In November, we moved into bigger offices at 4910 Lakewood Ranch Blvd., where we have 7,000 square feet, compared to 5,000 in our previous headquarters on Osprey Avenue.

Lessons learned? In the 1988-89 recession, we lost about $10,000 in the stock market. Clients stopped their projects. We stopped taking any income to make sure there was money to pay our staff. That experience taught us that in any kind of business you better have enough money and resources set aside to run your business for multiple months.

Memorable jobs? We have been doing work at Ringling College of Art and Design since 1985. We have done something to virtually every campus building, from designing new ones to restoring or renovating the ones already there. We converted a grocery store into an art gallery. We converted a laundromat into a computer animation classroom.

What brought you to Sarasota? Lisa’s sister was here. We had just graduated from Virginia Tech and were looking for jobs. I drove from the Tampa Airport for nearly four hours on the old Business 41 to reach Sarasota. At first, I wondered who in their right mind would live here. But I also noticed an excitement in the air about the future and what this community could become. Looking at this beautiful body of water as I drove across the old Ringling Bridge, I decided to give Sarasota a try.

Explain your company name: We were just a couple of kids in our early 20s when we opened in 1983, and we thought The Lawson Group would sound like it was more than just the two of us.

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