Retired chief of architecture firm leaves foundation of influence
Jerry Lee stepped down this month as chief executive of the Bellevue architecture firm he built into a powerhouse with a wide-ranging portfolio...
Seattle Times business reporter
Jerry Lee stepped down this month as chief executive of the Bellevue architecture firm he built into a powerhouse with a wide-ranging portfolio that includes boxy retail stores, glitzy hotels and office buildings, and high-rise towers in China.
Lee's calm, easygoing demeanor belies a well of energy that helped turn MulvannyG2 into the nation's ninth-largest architecture firm, based on 2003 billings.
While guiding that growth, Lee made a point of hiring architects from a wide variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, a strategy that created one of the most diverse work forces in the industry and helped MulvannyG2 win substantial international work.
He is also active in many civic endeavors and sits on the board of the state licensing board for architects.
Yet the 55-year-old Lee and his firm have a fairly low profile in the Puget Sound area.
They operate in the shadow of NBBJ and Callison Architecture, local firms that rank second and fourth nationally and gained prominence long ago.
MulvannyG2, by contrast, is new to the big leagues. Before it merged with Gerry Gerron's G2 Architecture in 1999, Mulvanny Architects did not even rank among the country's 25 largest firms in its field.
Chairman and just-retired CEO of MulvannyG2 Architecture, Bellevue
Residence: Mercer Island
Firm's regional offices: Portland; Irvine, Calif.; Washington, D.C.; Shanghai, China
Firm's clients: Clients include Costco, Target, Lowe's, Nike, Best Buy, Safeway, Romano's Macaroni Grill, Anthony's Restaurants, Ikea
Board member: Homestead Capital, Washington Education Foundation, Communities in Schools of Seattle, Washington State Board of Registration for Architects. Advisory Council member, Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation — Puget Sound Affiliate
MulvannyG2's work ranges from hundreds of Costco outlets and dozens of Nike Factory Stores to the Grand Hyatt Seattle, the Tacoma convention center and high-rises overseas including the Shanghai Fudan Hotel, which is under construction.
Locally, the firm also designed Boeing's one-time world headquarters across from Boeing Field in Seattle, and MulvannyG2's corporate home, the One Twelfth @ Twelfth office campus in Bellevue. The firm beat out marquee players NBBJ and Portland-based Zimmer Gunsul Frasca in a competition for Redmond City Hall.
Mulvanny Architects hired Lee in 1975 as its fourth employee. He became its principal shareholder in 1993, when founder Doug Mulvanny retired. By then, the firm had 40 employees and a solid client base, but it was not doing large amounts of work for each client, Lee said.
Designing warehouse stores is not the stuff of most architects' dreams, but Mulvanny found a dream client in Costco. It has worked on most of the chain's 400-plus stores, beginning with one of the first warehouses, and Costco now represents more than half of MulvannyG2's billings.
Costco CEO Jim Sinegal said he has stuck with the firm because "they keep their word; they make a commitment and they get it done."
"They took a chance working with us in the beginning, and I'm sure we did with them," Sinegal said. "They were hiring people, and they didn't know if we were going to stay in business."
Besides growing with Costco and other retail clients, MulvannyG2 expanded into international markets and has done an increasing amount of work on high-rises, mostly in China.
Lee makes a point of seeking out talented architects and designers who tend to be overlooked because their English is not native and may be far from perfect. That has led to greater diversity at MulvannyG2 and to more non-U.S. work for the firm.
"Because of their language skills, these people got turned down," Lee said. "We wouldn't be doing work in Japan if we didn't have people who spoke Japanese."
"That's the whole fun of it. One of the guys hardly spoke any English at all, and was certainly turned down by other architecture firms. We took a look at it and made it a positive," he said.
Women and minorities now make up more than half of the firm's work force.
Lee was born and grew up in Portland, but his first language was a Cantonese dialect because his mother — a picture bride for his Chinese immigrant father — did not speak English.
MulvannyG2 got into the high-rise and international business in 1999 during a collaboration with architect Ming Zhang, who had been designing high-rises in China on his own and whom the firm quickly hired.
"I immediately knew it was the right firm to work for," said Zhang. "He has a very down-to-earth attitude and is always willing to cooperate."
Zhang is one of three senior partners running the firm since Lee stepped down as CEO and became chairman on Jan. 1. The other senior partners are Mitch Smith and Ron Maddox.
Steve Arai, a principal at Seattle-based Arai Jackson Ellison Murakami Architects, is one of the few local architects who know Lee well.
Back in the 1970s, Arai said, "he'd interviewed with our firm, and our partners didn't hire him. He went to Doug Mulvanny and was hired there, and the rest is history."
"Jerry tells me this all the time," Arai added.
Donald King, who owns the architecture firm DKA in Belltown, marvels at the way Lee has grown MulvannyG2 into a large architecture firm that also has a diverse work force.
"He's actually a phenomenon in the industry," King said. "It's a lesson for a lot of us."
Lee loves the work but said his decision to step down as CEO is guided by a lesson he learned eight years ago when his first wife, Patricia, died. They were married for 22 years.
"There were a lot of things we were going to do that I put off," Lee said. "She wanted to show me Greece, and I said, 'We'll do that later.' I was building the business, and later never came."
The ordeal spurred Lee, and Patricia before she died, to become active with the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, one of many causes to which he devotes time and money.
During one of the foundation's Race for the Cure walks several years ago, Lee became better acquainted with the woman who is now his wife, Charlene.
Now he figures that after 30 years at the firm, it is time to take a step away from work and see what else life holds.
"I think there's an opportunity to get to do something new," Lee said.
Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or firstname.lastname@example.org