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How An Architect Can Set-up Shop In China: Mark Sheldon, GroupGSA

We take a some time out with GroupGSA’a Managing Director, Mark Sheldon, to talk everything from origins, to career challenges to getting a foot in the door of the Asian design market.

How An Architect Can Set-up Shop In China: Mark Sheldon, GroupGSA


April 24th, 2017

1. What sparked your interest in Architecture & Design?

Ever since I was 14 I decided I wanted to be an architect. Something just drew me to the idea of creating in three dimensions through the joy of drawing. This was combined with a clear vision of my own destiny as an architect; from student to ultimately running my own practice.

Architecture and design is a way of life and a way of being. We just look at things differently, certainly more critically. Good design is uplifting, stimulating, exciting and so rewarding to create a wonderful building or space from scratch; a blank canvas as it were. Architecture is certainly art as expressed in 3D. Examples like the work of Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid. During my studies I was also enthralled by the Bauhaus and the work of Le Corbusier and Meis Van de Rohe.

2. What have been the challenges in opening offices in China and Vietnam?

I did the fly in, fly out thing for 10 years in China before we opened our office proper in 2012. Working in China is all about understanding the culture and the expectations of Chinese clients. It is about creating long-lasting relationships. The Chinese are driven by personal relationships throughout life. Then it is understanding that they want ‘WOW’ in their buildings. They are also very brand driven. Brands stand for quality, and that’s why firms like Foster and Zaha Hadid have done so well. They produce great design.

As for us opening offices, you need to understand the processes and have good people and organisations to help you, such as our accounting firm there. China and Vietnam are quite similar in these respects.

3. How would you define architecture in China at the moment?

Defining architecture in China is a reflection of the developer’s achievements, a desire to create great buildings that become a symbol of their owners, the corporations, the city, the destination. However, design and architecture have been changing from a very much ‘look at me’ craziness in the early 2000’s to something more sustainable, responsible. This is also a decree by President Xi Jinping. Great design is still the goal; a symbol of creation and achievement. The best architecture in China is still very much created by foreign firms, both large and small.

Chinese local design institutes, while often quite talented and have created some good work, are there more to support foreign design firms in the delivery of projects. In China you can build almost anything. Chinese resourcefulness is limitless, nothing can’t be done.

4. Are there any lessons that Australia could learn from these other countries in which you operate?

Australia is so different. China and to a lesser extent Vietnam are driven by greater concentrations of wealthy developers that want to showcase their developments.

Australia is by and large much more conservative, restrained and constrained by commercial imperatives, reducing and limiting risk and tighter development controls.

From a design point of view, Sydney is much more conservative than Melbourne. However, with the influx of Chinese developers, paying more for sites and with a longer-term view, mostly private companies, they are looking for something different. They are bringing a different development ethos to the industry. Also making it harder for our local corporate developers to compete on land price.

I don’t think we are learning from China and Vietnam, rather the other way around. Asia looks to the west to bring knowledge, capability, expertise and quality to what they do.

5. Group GSA has experienced rapid growth over the last few years from 90 people to 230 staff today. What has been the main driver / strategy behind of this growth?

We have grown significantly over the last 5 years, more than doubling in size. Like many other firms, our growth has been as a result of a combination of things: A strong market, booming in residential and infrastructure; our strategic planning to address both sectors and geographies; a growing design reputation through winning numerous design competitions; our strength in marketing, great proposals and presentations; the quality of our people; and a desire for clients to continue to work with us.

6. You recently completed Link’s Melbourne offices which features and impressive 10 story high green wall. Link has been a client of Group GSA for over 10 years. What do you believe are the key factors in sustaining such a long-term client relationship?

Yes, Link has been a great and loyal client for over 10 years. There are several reasons for that. Firstly the relationship between our Principal Peter Fordyce and Link’s Chairman, MD and Project Manager, driving an enormous comfort factor. That Peter and his team understand the Link business and their accommodation needs. What the Link brand stands for and how we deliver and what we create.

We like to think what we do for Link has enabled them to grow and perform in their business, also while creating a brand ethos for quality, simplicity, elegance. All this is very much a partnering relationship We are also fast on our feet and Link like that. We deliver their facilities very quickly with great outcomes.

7. What sets Group GSA apart within the industry?

GroupGSA has a number of differentiators, despite the similarity of commercial tier 1 design firms, all of whom design great buildings, make a difference to the built environment, and to their clients and building users. The biggest differences are our collaborative culture and the synergies that exist between our leaders, directors and principals. We have an 80% repeat client rate, and I think that is because clients like to work with us and we deliver on our promise.

If something goes wrong, they know we will be very proactive in rectifying it. Our studios have a warm buzz that clients also like.

At GSA we are not ego-driven prima donnas. We listen more than most, to get what our clients really want. We think a lot about what the underlying issues are, how can we add value, then we create and take the client along a design journey of discovery.

8. What do you enjoy most about your job? What drives you?

I have been doing the same job now for 37 years, from a one man band to 230 staff across 9 studio locations. There is virtually not a day that I am not excited about coming to work.

More than anything, I like to set and achieve goals. I enjoy selling what we do, clients get my passion about GSA and what we can do for them. I am competitive, so winning is always a thrill. That is then followed by creating, designing, solving issues and coming up with something beautiful that our clients will love and we can be proud of. I love working with the great people around me, mentoring, seeing them grow and achieving their goals. Empowering people and in turn, I get so much back.

I am a great admirer of the younger generations who will be our future leaders. I have two children like that, both in amazing roles within the property industry that impress me no end with their fresh thinking and ideas. We have ‘kids’ like that at work, and even some of our leaders, Principals who are very young and are amazing performers.

What drives me is building things together. I don’t mean just buildings, I mean the practice, systems, processes, a great place to work, an engaging work environment, a following, a reputation.

9. Which project to date are you most proud?

There are so many projects we have created over many years. Some I have more involvement in than others, so those are closer to me.

Dominion apartments in Darlinghurst that I worked closely on with our Director Lisa-Maree Carrigan is one example. It was an opportunity to create something different within a heritage precinct. Something very contemporary that would enhance its surrounding environment. Every time I drive past it I think “that is a really good building”. It is contemporary but classic, won’t date, people really like it and it has won several architecture and urban design awards.

10. What are your interests outside of work?

I have a great work life balance. I have many pursuits outside work; sporting, travel and cultural. I exercise quite a lot, used to do triathlons and still swim, run and ride. I am a keen skier, from 5 years old and have skied all over the world including heli-skiing in Canada and Alaska. I love surfing, also from childhood, and have a weekend house at Byron Bay to facilitate that, also as a family retreat. We are a very sporting family. I love travel; anywhere and everywhere, and learning and experiencing new cultures. I love the theatre and ballet, and do this regularly with my wife Suzanne and friends. We have row 3 seats at the Opera House. So I enjoy life to its fullest, at work, home and play.

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