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The master of madness - CLT Biz
Saturday , December 4, 2021

The master of madness

     Bill Little is technically the chairman of the board of Little & Associates Architects, Inc., a Charlotte-based architectural firm he founded in 1964. The company employs over 500 people in eight regional offices, and generates over $50 million in annual billings.  He has been described on occasion as quirky, even a little eccentric, but he describes himself as rather shy, fearful of public speaking, and even a pocket protector nerd. Upon meeting him, however, one is quickly taken in by his engaging personality.    
     Little is, more accurately, a creative thinker and earnest communicator with a penchant for inspiring and instilling the same sense of freethinking in those around him. And, while he has respect for the more traditional methods of management, he has dedicated himself to kindling and fostering the same emphasis on creativity and “out-of-the-box” thinking among his coworkers – promoting a sort of madness over method. He hopes that having experienced one of his creative workshops, one might very well need the parachute of the Parachute Room to get back to ground-level.
     William B. Little grew up in Gastonia. He attended public schools and worked summers cutting grass, trimming mops on an assembly line, and most memorably, performing various jobs at the Loray-Firestone Mill where his parents were employed. One of those jobs was to clean the humidifiers on the ceiling of the workrooms without electrocuting himself on the electrical parts; another was to get down on the oiled floor and mop solvent from underside of the textile machines without getting the mop caught in the open motor. In those days before air conditioners, this was hot and sticky work, but Little considered himself lucky to get a job and his family needed the money. Little acknowledges, “I was young then … It’d kill me now!”
     He worked hard and played hard, especially in varsity football at old Gastonia Central High School.  Although he was small and played on the B-team, he was a ferocious competitor, never willing to give up. Little recounts a particular play when he was completely open, running for a touchdown. He tripped over his own feet.  “The coach came runnin’ out there, pulled up this chunk of grass and said ‘I knew somebody was goin’ to get hurt on that!’ He said I had the damnedest pair of legs he’d ever seen – I was bowlegged and on top of that I ran funny – and I was ‘Crazy Legs’ after that.”
     Little was a fair student but worked hard. His first year at the University of North Carolina, he intended to major in business. But after taking an aptitude test that indicated strengths in math and art, a counselor suggested he pursue architecture at NC State. It was known to be an especially difficult program, but Little was accepted and persevered.
     Upon graduation, he had several job offers based on his reputation as an artist and designer. Not wanting to get trapped in a narrow corner of the architectural world, he accepted a position with Richard Gillespie Architects, a small firm in 1958 “on the theory that I needed to understand how to do everything about the architectural business, not just draw pretty pictures,” recounts Little. “I wanted to learn the whole thing. He [Richard] did houses and small commercial buildings with only two people in the office, so I got to do everything.”
     After four years with Gillespie, Little wanted to work on bigger projects and so he sought out his next position. He received four offers. Again, they wanted him for his artistic talent, but he still wanted to learn more so he took a job that actually paid the least. That job was with Cameron & Associates, Inc. Headed by Al Cameron, the eight-person firm was working on big projects. Little was soon invited to become a partner and the company became Cameron, Little & Associates in 1964.
    Known as the Prince of Architecture in North Carolina, Al Cameron built major projects including the American Building in downtown Charlotte. Little respectfully describes Cameron as good-looking and articulate, very talented with a forceful personality. In contrast, Little asserts that he himself was quite the “nerd.” He says he had a flattop haircut and horned-rim glasses, and wore polyester shirts all week long and carried his bag lunch to work. Little thought Cameron was a great designer, but knew there was a huge difference between their styles.
    Quite unexpectedly in 1967, Cameron suffered a massive heart attack at the young age of 42 and died. Suddenly, the nerd was in charge of the firm. “The first thing I did was to question whether I wanted to take charge of the firm. I didn’t know if I wanted to be an administrator. To have your own office was OK, but it wasn’t me,” he recalls. “I was prepared to go get a job. What made me happy was just doing the work. And now I was faced with a different job. The future of the firm was in my hands, and I had never made a presentation or called on a client on my own. And I certainly didn’t know the first thing about running a business.”
    At the time, the firm had about six months’ worth of work. “We had four customers. I went around to assure them that their projects would be completed to their satisfaction. We were going to listen better,” says Little. “Cameron’s philosophy had been the old school of designing for awards. It was my fear factor said that you should design for the customer. We got more business from those customers because we listened to them. That was the turning point in my life.”
     Little recalls his first presentation to a potential client who was the school superintendent and the school board in Gastonia. “I had never presented to anybody. I went out and got me a book. It said that you had to get their attention.  And I thought, ‘We are a company of ideas. I called the office and had a guy make up a metal halo with a light bulb on top wired down to my pocket so I could turn it on when I made my presentation.
     “It came my turn and I stood  up and saw people’s faces – they didn’t  look too good. Needless to say, we didn’t get that job. But the superintendent came to work for us four years later. He stayed for fourteen years and we did $600 million in school construction over that time.
     “I knew that I was not Al Cameron.  This job required networking, selling, knocking on doors, being rejected. I wasn’t prepared for this job. So I needed a salesperson and the first person I hired actually hired himself. He showed up for work before I offered him the job.  He told me he had already quit his other job. He worked real hard, out knocking on doors. He never sold a thing, but he had an idea.
     “His idea was that instead of just working for developers and receiving three percent for designing the property, why not find the property, design the property and be the developer. It sounded like a good idea to me.” For the next six years the firm thrived, fueled by the real estate boom of the early ’70s. Little admits, “I had no idea at the time of the risk involved. We had an economic downturn in 1974, people moved out of the apartments and we owed more cash to lenders than we had payroll.”
     Overextended and about two weeks before bankruptcy, Little turned to a young assistant who had joined the firm the previous year, Ed McMahan, then 29. Ed had a background in commercial lending and real estate investment, and more importantly an idea to help him get out of his dilemma. “I told Ed that he was my last hope. I told him that if he could help me, I would give him 50 percent of everything I made from that point on. We owed about $1 million to First Union and Ed came up with a plan to pay everything back. Over seven years we built and sold shopping centers, paid our taxes and paid the entire sum, principal and interest, back.” That was over 20 years ago and the two men have been partners ever since.
    Little describes McMahan as well-grounded, outgoing, a joiner, socially active, and a consummate consensus builder. “A perfect complement.”  McMahan describes himself as an inside-the-lines thinker and institutional finance man. By contrast, he describes Little as “an outside-the-box creative force known for his bright although sometimes wild ideas. He is a risk-taker, visionary, never-sit-still leader.” He quotes Little as saying, “If you’re stationary, you make an easy target.”
    Little is confident that the two opposing personalities work out well for the firm’s management. For example, when Little was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome some years ago, “I just wanted to quit and sell the company to our division heads. Ed convinced me to give up just 49 percent and keep control of the remainder. “I can’t tell you the number of times he’s saved me from doing something stupid.”
    Little credits much of his success to his continuing  philosophy of putting the client first – acknowledging that, “Our clients know what they want better than we do. So we listen to them tell us what they want, then we design it to meet their needs within a budget they’ve set, and complete the job ahead of schedule.”
    In the mid-1980s, Little restructured the firm to focus on the different types of buildings. There are currently fifteen divisions specializing in twelve different building types including financial facilities, offices, schools, commercial retail, food service, rollout retail, civic, government and correctional facilities, manufacturing facilities and college and university buildings, each division autonomous and led by partners of the firm. The divisions are supported by a core of shared services – administration, finance, engineering, facilities management, and 3D rendering and animation. He says, “The beauty of the structure is that it lets our people focus on designing, serving the client with the specialist they need. The centralized corporate core takes care of the drudge work.”
    At first, the restructuring, which had come to him after reading Tom Peters’ book, In Search of Excellence, didn’t work so well. Little recalls, “In the beginning I was still a dictator. The new structure couldn’t work. Then a funny thing happened – I was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome. It took my getting sick to loosen my grip on the organization and to find out that other people could step up and do the job – as it turned out, much better than I could.”
    Today, Little and Associates is the largest architectural and engineering firm in the Carolinas and 22nd largest in the nation. The firm delivers a diverse selection of related services including strategic facilities consulting, computer-aided facilities management, technology consulting, digital modeling and animation, and land planning. It employs over 500 people in eight locations and has annual billings over $50 million. Little’s strongest desire is to sell more of the company’s stock to the new generation of leaders over the next few years, at least doubling the number of partners.
    His real passion is to develop leadership. He enjoys throwing employees into the fire and letting them do the job hands-on. Although it sometimes results in momentary anarchy, and unnerves more than a few employees, Little has found that it encourages  creativity and flexibility. His design of the Parachute Room – an eight-sided creativity room with brightly colored furniture and toys and a ceiling draped in parachute material, is exemplary of his attempts to “deprogram and reprogram employees to view work as fun and disruption as good.”
    When asked to describe his architectural style, Little responds, “Whatever makes you say ‘Wow!’ is my style. I’ll ask a client, ‘What do you like in a building?  What do you want in a building? What will you do in that building and how will it be used?’ I’ll show you many different styles and designs, and when I see your response, your reaction, I’ll know when I have produced something that makes you say ‘Wow!’ “
    Little doesn’t believe in retirement. He claims to be one of the lucky people.  He enjoys his work. He would like to do more design work, but he marvels in the work of his employees and younger designers who are so talented. He recalls Al Cameron who died at age 42 and is proud that he is so involved with his family, consisting of five children and seven grandchildren all living nearby.
     Little’s great joy in life is serving his customers and making them happy. He also works hard to stimulate his employees to be creative and to target business goals that he hopes will take Little & Associates to new levels of architectural activity and design.
    His management style that fosters freethinking and a bit of anarchy may not be for everyone, but his success cannot be argued with. As Shakespeare put it, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in it.”