Bohm's pursuit of global sales took off when technology, namely the Internet, broke the geographical boundaries of where the company could do business.
"We can send plans to Beijing electronically in two minutes," Bohm says.
With the explosion in technology making it easier to do business internationally, companies outside the United States are increasingly looking to U.S. firms for their expertise. Approximately one-third of NBBJ's Columbus office business is now international in scope, and its employees can do business in 21 languages to accommodate overseas clients.
"When you walk into our Columbus office, it sounds like the United Nations," Bohm says.
Bohm says the firm has done its best work internationally, but international clients come with real risks.
"You can speak a language but still not understand the culture," he says.
And currency exchange rates and differences in costs pose their own set of problems. A project in India may cost one-third less than a project in the United States, but the money coming in would only be a percentage of what it would be here, making it a losing proposition. That's why NBBJ always teams with a local firm when it is working outside the United States, to deliver the best results and maximize revenue opportunities.
Smart Business spoke with Bohm about the challenges and rewards of running a global company.
Are design-build projects a large part of your business?
We are doing some design-build projects but it's a small piece of our overall work. We saw that design-build was happening in the market but we don't want to be a leader in that market.
Some of the greatest buildings were constructed through design-build. Michelangelo was the artist, architect and builder, all in one person. You can control the management of the project, and it is a method that has been used for years. Only in this century and in the United States did we separate the work.
When you separate the work, there are good checks and balances and better results delivering buildings. Design-build works mainly for simpler buildings. What approach we take depends on the client's needs, timing, etc.
Our strategy is not to become a leader in design-build. We want to be the best-known, high-quality designer. We are concentrating on design; the other services we offer are driven by clients.
What are the pros and cons of doing business on a global level?
With the advancement of technology, it is much easier to do business outside the United States. It is a totally different environment than it used to be. With videoconferencing, we can work together with our consultants and local offices. The biggest problem is the time difference.
Companies that desire complex corporate headquarters have discovered they can get the best architects in the world for the same price as a local firm. The world market has opened up.
The problems are timing and monetary issues. In some countries there is a 30 percent exchange rate -- it is very different, and the value of their money system is different. Construction costs are different. That is why we have formed partnerships with other firms.
We can create the design and concept, then outsource to other firms. We always have a local partner, and how much more or little we can do depends on the value of the money system.
Another risk is cultural. You have to understand the other country's business principles. Legal systems are different, payment systems are different. You have to make sure you are not dependent on the fluctuation of the money system.
One of the advantages of international work is that we can get fascinating projects. We have been able to develop new approaches and methods that we have been able to implement here. We can develop expertise in markets that we don't have here.
And we enjoy international business relationships. I love to walk in to a client's office and not know how to solve a problem, and then find a solution. I love the challenge; it keeps me young.
What are the biggest changes in the industry in the past 10 years, and how have they impacted operations?
First, architecture has been done the same way forever and ever. We're doing things the same way they have been done for 500 years.
We don't have a pencil now, we have a computer, but we are still drawing. Now we can draw in three dimensions, which helps us communicate with the contractor. The projects themselves are bigger and more complicated.
And clients want their projects completed faster, better. Architects are still perceived as smoking a pipe, wearing elbow patches on their jackets and drawing on napkins, and that is not the reality.
How has commercial development changed in the past five years, and how have these changes impacted NBBJ?
Not much has changed. Gradually, the United States has become unique -- it is the only country where land use is controlled by local government. In most countries, the federal government is in control.
In Europe, you can't develop woods. Here, you can tear down woods and plant trees. We are becoming more careful and intelligent about land use and redevelopment of older areas .
How does NBBJ compete on a regional, national and global level?
Our business is divided fairly equally among the three. The key for us is to compete on projects where we can be successful. We say no more often than yes. We are invited to everything, but we say no nine times out of 10. Sometimes we get invited because of our name, or we're invited to competitions to put us to the test, see how we work.
Sometimes we create our own opportunities. We find out someone is trying to put something together and make a proposal.
NBBJ is one of the largest architecture firms in the country. Does that make it harder or easier to obtain business?
Both. Sometimes people say you're too big, we won't consider you, even though we are well-equipped and want to do it. It can be a two-sided sword.
The way we are organized, we have the firm broken down into smaller units, which we combine as needed to complete bigger projects.
In the last few years, our volume decreased, but our market share increased. We were able to get a bigger percentage of the market but the total market was down. Our international projects helped.
What are your biggest operational challenges, and how do you overcome them?
It has been difficult to get the best talent in the world to Columbus. But once people come here, they see it's a great community. It's easy to attract families, but the single person is still a challenge.
Timing is also an issue. Clients want the project done tomorrow. So keeping 650 associates internationally busy and using their time wisely is a challenge.
What are your biggest personal challenges in managing the company?
As chairman, my responsibility is to oversee the strategic direction of the firm, and I have to make sure that everyone is taking that direction seriously and that all of the partners are playing from the same sheet of music.
I have to see that the 16 partners are all marching to the same tune while keeping their individuality. I work at it every day. It's like being married 16 times.
It takes a lot of communication, and you have to build trust -- they have to be willing to trust you, you have to prove you know what you're doing so they follow your advice. To me, that is giving good leadership. How to reach: NBBJ, (614) 224-7145 or www.nbbj.com