Up, Up and Away

Photography by Rebecca Baxter By Kim Cartlidge  January 31, 2010

Ian Collins, the low-key and affable CEO of the multimillion-dollar global company Novum Structures, works in a quiet, fourth-floor office in the stately old Archibald Building that used to house Main Book Shop. The company’s name is etched in small letters on the back door of the building, which overlooks an alley. Inside, Novum’s glass doors lead to an open office with wood flooring, nearly invisible glass walls and a view of Main Street below.

The only other marker signaling Novum’s presence is the flat steel and glass awning over the sidewalk that the company designed and installed. The $30,000 awning was Novum’s smallest job last year—a job it undertook, according to Collins, because it was good training for a new engineer.

Although few locals know the company is here, Novum is a highly specialized design-build company that engineers some of the most fascinating freeform architectural structures in the world. At any given time, the company is actively working to win 600 projects. In 2009, Novum completed 80 projects and met with 5,000 architects. Many of its projects are with some of the most famous architects in the world, such as Pelli Clarke Pelli in New Haven, Conn., and major global design firms HOK and Gensler.

Some of its structures include $42 million in soaring and curved glass features at the $7 billion MGM CityCenter in Las Vegas, canopy entrances for Hyatts across the country (including the Hyatt Regency Sarasota), Toyota dealership portals, features at airports, aquariums and athletic centers like the USF Sun Dome and UF’s Stephen O’Connell Center, and a 27,000-square-foot freeform structure that covers a retail center in China, built in 2009.

Locally, G.WIZ’s geometric glass and steel skylight was designed and built by Novum, as were the roof at the Sarasota County bus transfer station across from Whole Foods and the two-story, large-scale skylight at the new Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, which has been described as a caterpillar or lava flowing from the top and sides of a block building. Designed by Tampa-based architect Yann Weymouth of Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum (the firm that designed the glass pyramid at the Louvre), the rendering has generated endless conversation about what the structure signifies.

Collins thinks of it as a skylight Dali himself might have conceived. And while Collins appreciates the aesthetics, he and his team are more concerned with the engineering—designing and building the structure to withstand hurricane-force winds and Florida downpours while retaining its fragile-looking, curved-glass shape.

“In double-curved surfaces, you lose geometry if you weld,” explains Collins, who started life as a Ph.D. in structural engineering. Novum engineers work from renderings or preliminary plans, and employ combinations of its 18 structural and cladding system products to form integrated enclosure structures. They oversee projects from the problem-solving, conceptual stage through pricing cost-effective materials, fabrication and construction. Owners benefit when a complex building element, such as a glass roof or atrium, doesn’t have multiple subcontractors and suppliers, says Collins, so there’s less risk for making errors. Adding to the complexity of making a steel and glass structure sound is its transparency.

“If you build a house, the stucco doesn’t leak. It leaks around the windows. It’s the interfaces where things go wrong,” says Collins. “A lot of engineering is buried in a building. Everything we do is seen. It has to come together elegantly.”

Collins and his wife, Robyn (who is in sales with health technology firm Spectranetics), both travel extensively for their careers, and they made Sarasota home base about 15 years ago, shortly after they married. But it was not until April 2009 that Novum established an office presence here. Avid beach and golf fans, with a taste for fine dining, the couple likes the smaller size of Sarasota. They also like the weather. “No matter where you go, you know when you get home, you’ll see the sun,” says Collins.  

Until 2004 Collins was president of Mero Structures in Milwaukee, the U.S. operating entity for German-based Mero GmbH, an international architectural enclosure firm with a 60-year history. The U.S. division had $30 million in annual revenues. Then Collins, his executive team and an investment group led by Corporate Financial Advisors bought Mero Structures. The new ownership renamed the company Novum Structures in 2006.

Since then, Novum has focused more on international business and has designed and built nearly 500 projects all over the world. By 2009, revenues totaled $95 million and 25 percent of revenues and 40 percent of new orders were generated from outside the U.S. The company has grown from 70 U.S. employees in 2004 to 220 employees world-wide and has added offices in Europe, Asia and India. The Sarasota office, with seven employees, not including Collins, covers the Southeast region from Washington, D.C., south to the Caribbean.

Novum’s management structure is regional since the types of big projects the company wins usually require the skills of several offices. “You have to be close to clients or you can’t do what we do,” Collins says. “In each country, you can’t build enough experience to do everything, so it’s not unusual to have different subsidiaries involved. That’s why you can’t have a headquarters.”

Currently Novum Structures has a steel manufacturing facility and an office that handles most of the accounting in Milwaukee. There are regional sales and project management offices in Sarasota, Dallas and San Francisco as well as stand-alone sales, engineering and manufacturing operations in Germany and the U.K., France, Italy, Turkey, Beijing and, most recently, Bangalore.

Novum chose its international locations based on construction opportunities, but the expansion into new markets is also dependent on the local talent Collins is able to hire.  Early in 2010, the company will open an office in the Middle East. “It has really to do with who you find, and you have to pick local people. You can pick markets, but if you can’t find the right talent, you can’t go into that market,” he says. In addition to finding the right talent and right materials, the company has to meet myriad different local building codes for earthquakes or hurricanes, for example.

Novum’s Dali Museum project is a local example of global interdependence. The complex design was engineered in Germany. The steel structure was manufactured in Wisconsin. The glass was purchased in China, and raw material for metal parts is from India. The project manager is based in the office on Sarasota’s Main Street. “It is not uncommon on any of our projects [to have this global scale]; sometimes steel may be coming from China for one project, and being sent to China for another, depending on price,” Collins says. “We’ll never have all the resources to do everything in one place.”

Part of the company’s sales strategy is to problem solve with architects as they are designing buildings. In fact, reaching out to more architects has been a key strategy during the economic downturn. “In the last 18 months, we’ve asked what we can and can’t control. We can control the number of architects we see and costs. We can’t control the developer’s funding. You have to see more people to get to the same place,” says Collins.

In part due to Novum’s expansion into seven countries and U.S. regional offices, and its purchase of a membrane fabrication facility in Germany, the company is planning to hire. Collins is currently looking for more architectural detailers who do interfaces between glass and steel, estimators and engineers who could be based in Sarasota or elsewhere. “To grow, we have to have more experienced and competent people,” he says.

And Collins says so far the company has managed the global economic slowdown. “Because of investing early enough and seeing more people and promoting harder in a boom market, we’ll be fine,” he says. “It’s very basic what we solve: design, time frame and price. You have to solve something new with every project. It’s in the ‘How do you do that?’ projects where we have the most chance.” ■

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