How does Casas+Architects keep employees coming back?

Meloy Casas gives sound advice on how to motivate and reward employees

  • Written by Judith Torres

How do you keep your workforce loyal? Meloy Casas of Casas+Architects says it’s by setting high-performance standards, holding people accountable, and helping them succeed.

Meloy, how would you describe the culture at Casas+Architects? Is it informal? Are you a father figure?

It’s a corporate culture because of the systems Charlie put in place. [Editor’s note: Charlie Casas is Meloy’s younger brother and the firm’s COO.] I do profess an open door policy. That’s one of the things I tell people on their first day when I welcome them to the firm. Most of the time, people come in to talk about work. But I’ve been a shoulder to cry on many, many times—hindi mo maaalis yun! Sometimes, it’s personal; sometimes it’s office drama. You know how young people get emotional. In general, I’d say I’m strict. I do get angry, and that’s when people cry! (Laughs)

1978, Carmelo Casas, newly arrived in Hong Kong. Two years before graduating from the UST in 1976, Casas began apprenticing for Carlos Arguelles, and stayed on for two more years before leaving for Hong Kong.

 

What are the top values of your firm?

Excellence is number one! Second is integrity, and third, loyalty. Most of our directors have been with me for 15 years or over—since Recio+Casas days.

How do you instill these values?

It’s better to get people who already have these values. Our role is to mold and to reinforce. You cannot shape and reinforce what is not there. Based on our experience, students who excel are often the firm’s outstanding performers. We favor applicants who graduated with honors and were active in organizations because that shows they have the drive to excel and know how to manage their time.

How do you hire?

We go through a headhunter. We get referrals from our employees, which I prefer. The screening process is rigorous. Aside from passing tests, the applicant undergoes a series of interviews with the HR staff, an associate, a director, the COO, and finally, me. All key personnel of the firm must unanimously vote to hire the staff.

 

What’s the next step? How to do you reinforce excellence?

Daily. We inculcate our values and standards every day until it becomes second nature. We keep stressing excellence and integrity in our day-to-day operations, and through formal training—orientation at the start, and then seminars.

We call in outside experts to train us in the use of software and programs like Revit and, soon, BIM. The training is never just theoretical. In every case, we use actual projects. We call in experts to help us in our leadership training. Management skills are valuable, not just for the firm leaders, but every single architect, because that’s intrinsic to being a good architect—managing projects, being a team leader on site, and cooperation, onsite and here, in the office. Cooperation is another important value. For example, when it’s crunch time, people need to be willing to help out a team in need. Hindi puedeng kanya-kanya, hatakan ng tao.

We make our people go through seminars for speaking and writing English. Alam mo naman, puro nosebleed ang mga bata sa Ingles ngayon. Joe Mordeno, who started Speech Power, is a good family friend, very old school, magaling! He comes here to hone our communication skills. Our people also have to write in English because we do a lot of correspondence with foreign consultants and foreign clients. Nowadays, meetings are conducted on Skype. If you can’t speak English well, mahihirapan kang mainitindihan. Speaking well gives our people added confidence.

Casas+Architects
Meloy Casas (left) with Joseph Sy and Eric Gozar at Eric Cumine, Hong Kong (1978)

 

How do you choose who gets trained?

It’s for everyone, and it’s voluntary. We tell them there’s going to be a talk for two hours on certain days. Since there are so many of us—150 people—we schedule sessions for different groups. 

Do employees appreciate it?

Yes! Attending seminars is a sacrifice, kasi after office hours yan—5 to 8 PM. Of course, we provide meals. They attend because they know the benefits of getting as much training as they can. Kailangan talaga ang firm ang mag-provide ng training, kasi kulang ang CPD ng UAP. And so, without having to tell them explicitly, “Listen, these are our values, excellence, integrity, and loyalty,” all our training sessions communicate our values and the direction of the company. In addition to the day-to-day training and seminars, we conduct quarterly town hall meetings. We gather everybody, let them know what we have achieved, and what we would like to achieve with everybody’s help.

1980-1983, working as design architect at Palmer & Turner Architects in Hawaii

 

In what way do you value integrity, and how do you reinforce that?

Kailangan ang integrity kasi ang daming temptation dito sa business namin. Walang tanggapan ng mga commissions. That’s number one on our list of mortal sins. Mahuli ka, fired ka kaagad. We’re very, very clear about that. It’s policy in the office that remuneration should come from fees, not commissions from suppliers. The industry is small—people know, the contractors and suppliers know the architects who accept commissions. We don’t tolerate that. Offenders are confronted right away, and the consequence is outright dismissal.

Another mortal sin is employees using company resources to do freelance work. Our IT group can tell what activity each employee is doing on his computer. Our employees know that. Time is precious, and we jealously guard the use of company time because that’s what we pay people for—their time. That was our training in Hong Kong—time is money. When you come to the office and have registered your attendance, ayaw na ayaw namin na bababa ka para mag-almusal. Pumasok ka na, e. Give me 40 hours a week. You can live your life the way you want, but those 40 hours are mine.

Don’t people resent that?

No.

How do you know?

Because they have to accept it or leave. We have deadlines to meet. Yan talaga ang buhay ng arkitecto, and they’re compensated for it. If your pay grade is above overtime, you can take half the day off tomorrow if you work until late today.

Do people see you hard at work?

Yes. They see I’m still drawing.

They don’t think all you do is party with clients?

No, even our clients work hard! They pull long hours and call me any time of day. I’m accountable to our people too. For example, today is Friday. They all know I’m bringing work home over the weekend because it’s my responsibility to give them my feedback on Monday. They also know that I’m the one who answers for any blunders they might commit. Hindi naman sila ang sisisihin ng client, kundi ako, diba? I bear all the brunt. Once they understand that, they are pressured to please me. Nothing pleases me more than good work. Dun ako talaga natutuwa because people are the firm’s most important asset. 

So you have best practices in hiring, orientation, policies, town hall meetings, and seminars. Are there other ways you communicate and reinforce values?

This may surprise you, but also through exposure to our clients and foreign consultants—this is always a touchy subject, but for us, it’s an accepted fact of life, matagal na, but more so now with ASEAN integration and globalization. We work with foreign consultants—architects, engineers, planners, and designers from other disciplines. You get exposed to how they work. Their speed is truly admirable! For example, we have a meeting today with a foreign consultant. He’s here in Manila, and we need plans from his team in the US revised. Despite the difference in time zone, tomorrow, for our next session, his team will be ready with the revised plans. So our people are challenged to be just as responsive.

1988-1992, Recio+Casas days in Hong Kong

 

 

How do you deal with underperformers?

Evaluations are done twice a year, and we immediately talk to underperformers. If they are still within the probationary period, we let go of them right away. As early as three, four months, we can tell whether someone is fit for the firm.

If they are regular employees, we investigate with the employee the reasons why. Their work is closely monitored, and they know they are being observed. We follow the law regarding giving them several warnings. If by the second evaluation, the employee is still underperforming, we have to let them go. Charlie has an excellent rating system. The underperformer is evaluated by his immediate superior, the PA3’s or the senior architects and the associates.

You would give a regular employee one year at the most to get up to speed.

Yes. Longer than that would be too much baggage. Asking people to leave isn’t automatic. Sometimes, the company adapts to the employee. For example, when someone told us his heart wasn’t really in architecture but interior design, we tried him out there. We try to be sensitive to our people’s needs because there are many assets to people other than technical skills. By the way, the rating isn’t just for the rank and file. Charlie introduced a system where subordinates rate supervisors as well. Performance evaluation works both ways.

What happens when subordinates complain about the associate in charge of them?

We confront the associate. Is it true? We discuss. Dun nagkakalabasan! Because there is transparency in the system, we can work out improvements.

1999, with the Pacific Plaza Towers team in Japan

What training does management get?

Next week, the directors, associates and project leaders and I will be attending a three-day workshop on effective communication and management skills. This is to help us become better leaders of our people, the most important asset and resource of our firm. The leaders need to have a deeper connection with all employees, which I would like to see translated into excellent teamwork and greater devotion to the firm’s mission and objectives, which in turn results in excellent service to our clients. Tamang-tama, we will soon be crafting the company’s vision and mission again, because we’ve grown. We said, “Teka, luma na yung mission-vision natin, a! Let’s go back to the basics and review it.” From the directors, we cascade it to the associates, so all the leaders of the firm can cascade it to their people.

I know this is ahead of your mission-vision session, but what is your vision for Casas+Architects?

To be fully prepared for the challenges in the coming years—technically, mentally, physically, and, I would say, spiritually. You cannot stop learning. You cannot stop accepting change. You have to keep adapting. You need to be prepared. Like an athlete, every part of you has to be trained for the fight.

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What fight is that?

The everyday fight to do your work and face challenges excellently. It’s a daily commitment for which we all need to be equipped. After Recio+Casas, we all just felt lucky and blessed to be here, right in the middle of Makati CBD, and with this great view—everyone who sees it is just floored. But my spirit of adventure is very much alive. Hindi ako mapakali. So while I’m deeply grateful to be where I am, and I value what we have achieved, I’m not the type to sit and count my achievements, hindi e. When Bong and I were in Hong Kong, we were always traveling to different Asian countries; we even opened an office in Thailand. Now my big adventure is here in the Philippines. We are opening an office in Cebu to take care of ongoing projects in the Visayas and Mindanao. We are qualified as an ASEAN architect, but for now, that’s on the backburner. For now, my priority is the Philippines. Let’s take care of our country first.

How will you staff Cebu? With people from here?

Both. We start by putting our best people there. It’s voluntary, by the way, because it’s not going to be easy—we’re not going to be offering expat terms! (Laughs) We are interviewing people from within first, who can and want to do it. The directors and I are committed to the expansion and agreed we will take turns overseeing the office in Cebu.

You’ll live there?

Yes. We got a sweetheart deal for 146 square meters of office space, which is in a new building that we’re the architects of—the MSY Tower in Cebu Business Park. We’re still doing projects for the owners in Cebu, so that’s what will sustain the new office initially. Soon, we will hire locals. Charlie wants to start advertising there. The whole idea is to alleviate the Manila office from the constant long trips to the south. We want to show our clients we’re committed to serving them, and for that, our presence is required. We have a major project in Davao for Lyceum University of the Philippines, and we can respond more swiftly to the needs in Davao from Cebu rather than Manila.

 

2013 October 17, a scholarship grant for two first-year Architecture students per year for five years was signed between the UST and CTC Foundation, founded by Carmelo Casas and headed by Director Guia Casas.

 

2015 Outstanding Professional of the Year awarded by the Philippine Regulation Commission

 

 

You’re optimistic about the future of the Philippines.

Very much so! Where are we coming from, compared to Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia? Malayo tayo but they have slowed down considerably. Their construction industries are shrinking—except for infrastructure, which they’re still expanding. Yan ang nakakainggit. But I’m optimistic for the local industry because our economy’s growing and there’s so much work to be done—offices, schools, airports, resorts, hotels—tourism related projects will always be there.

Do you want Casas+Architects to outlive you?

Of course! My directors know that. They will be my successors.

How Casas+Architects brings clients in and keeps them:

How do you find new projects?

It happens naturally in the course of a conversation. Recently, I told someone that I’m going to open an office in Cebu. He said, “A, tamang-tama, meron kaming lote dun. Pakitingin nga.” So that’s the start. You ask him what it is he’d like to do. Sell the lot? Develop? Go on a joint venture? We’ve done a lot of budget hotels, and we have a client who’s always on the lookout for potential sites. When we bring people together, that could be the start of a new project. We do feasibility studies for the clients to know whether their ideas are workable or not. Most our new clients are, in a way, repeat clients, such as the subsidiaries or affiliates of the original client, whose business has grown.

How do you keep the competition from taking clients away from you?

First of all, accept that clients will not remain exclusive to you forever. Clients are sophisticated. They will use three, four or five different architects. Name any of the big developers—SM, Megaworld, Robinsons—they use different architects. The important thing for us is to get a fair share of the work.

How do you do that?

There’s no secret formula. It starts with the very first project, where you show you’re very best, so they remember you. You do that not just through design but also service—the after sales service. During construction, be on top of things. Be there for the client when they need you. Excel. Deliver on time and on budget. When they say, “This is our budget,” don’t design beyond their budget!

2015, Casas receiving the Outstanding Professional of the Year awarded by the PRC

How Casas+Architects holds employees accountable so the firm adheres to its standards of excellence:

  • First, management has to do its part by setting clear expectations, proper delegation, monitoring, transparency, and follow through.
  • We are frank about the rewards for achieving and exceeding goals, and just as frank about the consequences of mediocrity and underperformance.
  • Leaders and supervisors must be consistent and pro-active. You cannot ignore poor performance and then suddenly demand excellence. Lack of accountability allows people to develop undesirable habits that are bad for them and bad for the company.
  • Most people put off discussing poor performance with their subordinates, but for the employees and the company to excel, management must be willing to make tough calls.
  • Our firm’s high standards are for everyone—from staff to associates, directors, the COO, and the President and CEO. Leaders are accountable not only for their performance but the performance of their people as well. For example, directors and associates are required to review the work of their staff, the project architects. All directors and associates sign all the drawings of their people as proof of their accountability. Directors and associates know full well that proven negligence on their part can mean outright termination.
  • If lack of accountability for rank and file employees degrades the credibility of management, management’s failure to hold officers accountable is even more damaging to the firm’s credibility.
  • 360-degree performance appraisals allow the firm to address shortcomings in junior and senior leadership. While it can be intimidating at first, employees know that they have a voice and should also demand excellence from their direct supervisors.

 

7 Keys to keeping employees happy

Communication is the master key. None of the keys below will work without two-way communcation.

Career paths. Nothing makes people leave faster than a dead-end job. Regularly talk to employees about their performance and career opportunities. Help them plan their path within the firm.

Training and development. Set challenging goals and high-performance standards for all, and support employees with the training and skills development to succeed. Success breeds confidence and more success.

Recognition and reward. One of the biggest downers is to work hard yet not receive credit, thanks or acknowledgment. Public praise before one’s peers and superiors is one of the sweetest motivation boosts employees can receive. Timely and deserved bonuses and promotions tell workers they are truly appreciated.

Mutual accountability. Not holding an employee accountable for bad performance or behavior offends people’s sense of fair play, causes low morale within the workforce, and loss of credibility of the leaders. A boss who holds himself accountable to subordinates is giving them respect, which goes a long way in inspiring loyalty. 

Inclusion in the vision. Tell the team about the company’s direction and rally them to your goals. Making employees feel they are part of something bigger, and that their contributions can make a difference gives them a sense of purpose and belonging, and fulfills the human need to be needed.

Transparency. Employees appreciate knowing where the firm is going and the reasons for directions and policies. It is frustrating to work in an environment where you don’t understand the rules; you don’t know how to advance, or even where the company is headed.

The personal touch. People need to know who they’re following. It’s hard to transmit values and engender loyalty when the leader is a cold and distant figure. This is especially true in small firms. In large firms, people understand the big boss isn’t always within reach. So the managers who interact with them closely must represent the boss faithfully.

 

Casas+Architects best practices for recognizing and rewarding employees:

  • Our salary increases are based on merit. Every year in May, our supervisors accomplish the performance appraisal of each staff under them. All directors, associates and the COO participate in the ranking of all our production staff from the highest to the lowest. Based on this final ranking, we determine the share of the merit increases for outstanding, above average, and average staff. Below average staff do not get increases. Merit-based increases have proven effective in encouraging excellence in performance.
  • Exceptional performers during the year are assessed every November and are recognized and rewarded instantly. In this manner, we keep the best people.
  • During our Christmas party in December, the firm gives out the President and CEO Award for Excellence and a monetary reward for exceptional performers during the year. In addition to individual awards, there are team awards for which there are also discretionary bonuses.
  • The awards system spurs others emulate the awardees, and promotes excellence in work. Every year, we recognize employees who have been here with us for 5, 10, 15, 20 years and every five years after that with a loyalty award plus monetary reward. We also offer a savings plan, which we incorporate into their benefits, to supplement their retirement funds.
2015 Induction of ASEAN Architects

CARMELO “MELOY” T. CASAS graduated from the UST in 1977 and was Jose Pedro (Bong) Recio’s replacement at Eric Cumine in 1978. He worked at Palmer & Turner (1979), then Architects Hawaii (1984) where he made partner. After opening Recio+Casas in Hong Kong in 1988, Casas stayed behind while Recio ran the Manila office starting 1992. Then Casas opened a third office in Bangkok, but eventually closed both overseas offices in 1996 as more and more Manila projects came in. The Pacific Plaza Towers in BGC, the First Pacific Bank in Hong Kong, Mandarin Hotel Macau, and Thailand’s Stock Exchange Building count among Casas’ most memorable projects from the partnership days. Within five years of the breakup, Casas+Architects has grown to be one of the country’s most prolific firms. 

This article was first published in BluPrint’s The Business of Design (Part I) Special Issue in May 2016.