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ON THE LEVEL: EUA, Performa merger follows on years of competition in Fox Valley

From left to right: Rich Tennessen, Eppstein Uhen Architects CEO and principal; John Chapman, Eppstein Uhen’s Madison studio director and vice president; Doug Page, Performa president and CEO; and Kristin Dufek, Eppstein president and principal; meet in De Pere on Thursday to mark the merger of the two firms. The merger of EUA and Performa, firms both with strong ties to Wisconsin, is scheduled to take place on Feb. 1. (Photo courtesy of Eppstein Uhen Architects)

Eppstein Uhen Architects’ merger with Performa, a deal the firms announced Wednesday, got its start a little over a year ago with a simple email.

In September 2020, EUA chief executive Rich Tennessen pinged his counterpart at Performa, Doug Page, with the idea. For a decade, the two firms had competed against each other for work in the Fox Valley and shared some clients.

Page was intrigued by the idea, and the two firms began exploring the possibility of coming together. With talks progressing, they pooled their resources on a series of projects to test how their teams would work together.

With the merger approaching at the beginning of next year, Performa and EUA now find themselves collaborating on seven projects, including work for the Howard Suamico School District and the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin. When they merge under the EUA name on Feb. 1, they will be a firm with more than 250 employees and offices in Milwaukee, Madison, De Pere, Atlanta and Denver.

The Daily Reporter reached Tennessen, Page and EUA President and Principal Kristen Dufek on Thursday to talk about their plans. (The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

The Daily Reporter: How did this merger come about?

Rich Tennessen: We both run successful firms and do great things for our clients. We started by asking: Does combining help our clients? Does combining help our employees? Are we better able to deliver in the long term for our clients and our employees?

And the answer every time we got together and looked at it in different ways was a resounding ‘Yes,’ we will be stronger together, we will be able to offer more to our clients.

In terms of how it came about, over the last 10 years, as we’ve done some more work in the Fox Valley, and as Performa has done more work in what has been our traditional geographic area, we competed against each other a lot.

We had some mutual clients and really developed a good mutual respect for our firms and what we do.

TDR: Had EUA and Performa worked on projects before?

Tennessen: We had never worked together before. We had only competed against each other. After the conversation started about the possibility (of a merger), we thought that’s the best way to test, to learn more about each other, by working together. And it turned out great.

Kristen Dufek: It came at a time when we were both looking for a kind of expertise and support for certain projects and certain clients, and it kind of worked out really well. We had a fit that Performa was looking for, and Performa had a fit that we were looking for, too, for our respective projects.

The Daily Reporter: What projects did you work on together while you were exploring the merger?

Doug Page: The initial one that Rich and I had talked about was helping them with the large body of work that they had with the Howard Suamico School District. It made sense. We had a skillset that they needed, and in addition, we had a geographical location that was an advantage.

Another one is: We had a client in the Menominee Indian Tribe up in Keshena. We had a project for them last year, and they introduced us to the next project we were going to be doing for them. It was a large medical clinic.

Performa doesn’t have a very deep portfolio in medical work. So we invited EUA into that project, and really, it was a little bit like hand-in-glove, the working relationship at the project-team level.

In addition to alignment we were finding on the leadership level that had been there, these two projects, plus the others, served as a proving ground of whether our people aligned with each other. The feedback I was getting from both sides of the equation was incredibly positive, in terms of the humility, the willingness to collaborate and listen. It has just been fairly uncommon in our industry and incredibly rewarding for the three of us.

TDR: How did the idea for the merger come about, specifically?

Tennessen: We always look at how we can serve our clients best. We had respect for Doug. It was just an initial thought, I just said, “Doug would you consider coming together?”

I just think it’s perfect timing with Doug and his team to be able to help us in the things we want to do, and us be able to help do things for their team as well.

Page: It kind of came about via email, and I had a lot to think about. We just celebrated our 26th birthday. My former partner had retired four years ago. And for the past four years, I’ve really put the firm on a growth pattern. The vision really has been not to measure the firm by numbers, but more so by the reach and the impact that we can have on people’s lives through architecture.

The initial conversation and the first face-to-face visit, from my perspective, was incredibly exploratory. First of all, I was honored that a firm of the caliber of EUA would even consider having a conversation like that with us. And once the conversations got comfortable, and even a little more detailed, it began to become real. It just felt good because it ultimately served our purpose in wanting to have a wider impact. Certainly by joining a firm of the caliber of

EUA we could do that in a pretty substantial way.

TDR: How do you expect the specialties of each of your firms to align in the merger?

Dufek: One of the things about Performa is the way they truly do integrated engineering and architecture. We thought that was a great model. It was truly an inclusive way to work and bring talent together. We’re excited about that, we’re excited about growing engineering in the same way that Performa has treated it.

I think it’s a good connection between our two firms because we’re not exactly the same. It’s not just about volume and scale, it’s about where is a good synergy.

Page: We’ve always been an AE firm. I would say, over the course of the last decade, we have come to learn that, in the built environment, engineered systems carry as much importance, if not more sometimes, in the owner’s eyes of a building in how it performs.

We’ve elevated engineering in our firm. We use engineering in a way to direct-sell and to lead in a marketing and business-development standpoint. We’ve developed a fully integrated way of approaching the design of buildings and systems.

From our end, there are a lot of similarities from a cultural and value standpoint. But we were looking to increase our footprint in markets that we haven’t had an opportunity to grow in. One of them is health care. We do, on occasion, get exposed to clients that are health-care based and, generally, don’t have the resources to help them in the way we should. This merger gives us that opportunity, specifically in northeast Wisconsin and in the southeast.

TDR: Had EUA previously looked at adding more engineering?

Dufek: We believe in the power of being together. Bringing engineering to that conversation in real time to help challenge the decision we’re making architecturally, we think, is a great way to design and deliver the best projects for our clients.

Tennessen: Culturally, we talked about the E and the A being equal. We also think the C (for construction) is equal. Whether it’s the construction managers or trade partners, cultural alignment is critical because it drives success in our projects. If the contractors or suppliers aren’t successful, the project isn’t going to be successful. Everybody on the team needs to be. And we really value the input from the construction professional. That’s one of the differentiators between our two firms, we really view architecture and engineering as equal, because they are.

TDR: How might your two firms share capabilities after the merger? Do you plan to expand certain offerings, such as engineering?

Page: Right now, of the five offices in the newly merged firms, we’ll have an engineering presence in two of the five. The vision, which isn’t fully crystalized yet, is to have an engineering representation where it’s most appropriate.

And that may be some in Milwaukee, some in Denver, some in Madison.

TDR: Do you expect to maintain your employment at your current locations after the merger?

Dufek: We’re not cutting any jobs as a result of this. It’s not a consolidation. Operationally, this is a coming-together with the intention of growing. We’re adding talent in all locations.

TDR: How do you expect to see the transition to becoming a merged firm to play out?

Tennessen: The advantage is: We’re already working on seven projects together, and that’s only going to grow as we come together as one team. We spent a lot of time studying other mergers. We’ve done this before in Denver and we really want to be respectful of everybody’s talents and skillets.

On Feb. 1, the current clients of Performa aren’t going to see a change. It’s going to be very organic and natural as we help each other with more opportunities.

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