“Before I say anything, will you filter this, so I sound reasonable?”
Any conversation that starts off this way is bound to be interesting. But when that chat is with SHP partner and Vice President of Operations, Ron Hicks—who retires at the end of the year after 27 years of service to SHP—it’s pretty much par for the course.
After all, when new teammates join SHP, they no doubt notice the “CAUTION: Now Entering the No Spin Zone” doormat at the threshold to Ron’s workspace. It signals that you’re entering a safe space, one where no BS is dealt. What you see is what you get.
“Dad was a Teamster and always straight to the point. It made for a very candid household. Everything was bluntly spoken and out on the table. Nothing left to the imagination,” he said, fondly. “I didn’t realize how much he influenced me until he was gone. Sometimes my mouth gets me in trouble, but it is who I am.”
Compliment or Criticism? We’ll Never Know…
“I came to the business very differently from most,” Ron recalled with a chuckle. “And it turned out to be a better fit for me than I ever would have dreamed.”
The year was 1974. Young Ron, as a newly minted high school graduate, enrolled in a two-year technical school, a branch campus of the University of Cincinnati called the Ohio College of Applied Science (OCAS). While the campus no longer exists, Ron credits the program with jumpstarting his interest in what would eventually become his chosen career: construction fieldwork. He’s known for tackling—and enjoying—the sequencing, detailing and oversight of SHP’s projects, especially the more complicated ones.
“I didn’t get accepted into design school, initially. But OCAS focused on the concepts I understood architecture to be: design, detail and construct,” he said. “I enjoy design, but what I really enjoy is figuring out how all the pieces fit together. ‘How are you going to build this? How are you going to make this happen?’ I liked asking those questions, I liked focusing on the most complicated details and figuring out the puzzle.”
Ron was committed to becoming a licensed architect, so after two years, he transferred to UC’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning (DAAP). There, he learned the finer points of expressive, aesthetic design… and, perhaps, a few lessons in what not to do.
“At my first design critique, I came in and I’m watching all these other students present their ideas and I’m thinking to myself, ‘What the hell are they trying to do?!’” Ron explained. “It was just a little too off the wall for me. I’m realizing that I was different. I was expecting that I’m going to be criticized because my design wasn’t out there. The professor came over, looked at my design model—and he said, ‘Wow. It looks like you could actually build this one.’ I don’t think he meant it as a compliment, but I took it as one.”
“I was the guy screaming my head off.”
To understand the origins of Ron’s attitude, one must first understand how he came about it.
“I was a scrawny kid and a terrible athlete. I was a slow runner, very weak physically. The classic 98-pound weakling,” he reminisced. There’s not a trace of irony or contempt in his voice, no jokey-jokester or wistfulness. These are the facts, and he’s here to relay them, albeit fondly and with perhaps a touch of self-deprecation.
“I played Knothole Baseball for four years, though I mostly rode the pine. But I could still contribute. So, I was the guy screaming my head off, cheering my teammates on… to the point that my coach saw me as that leader. He would say, ‘C’mon Ron, get ‘em going!’ I cheered because they needed a cheer, and I truly believed that my encouragement from the bench had an impact on many games that we won.”
This enthusiastic team player mentality makes for a great problem-solver and buoyant co-worker… but not a “starchitect” that so many architects seemingly aspire to become.
“A lot of people want to lead the design. Some architects have a reputation for being very self-serving. Architectural programs tend to promote this aura that we seem to revere, but to a lot of people, it isn’t very appealing. There can be ego—a lot of ego, and it bothers me a lot,” he said.
Ron continued, “That’s not me. I never felt the need to be the superstar, probably from my days in Knothole. I realized fairly early on that there are more talented designers than I am, but that doesn’t mean I can’t recognize good design. I can be just as effective executing someone else’s design—maybe even better, I’d say. I like to drive the design concept down to the detail level. Those little details affirm me. It’s not highly visible, but I’m ok with that. I’m here to serve everyone else. That’s what my career has been.”
The Very Things You Never Dream Will Be of Any Consequence Will Be the Most Consequential
Ron began his career in 1980, moving between architecture firms for a few years before finding his footing in private development. Along the way, he racked up some pretty cool additions to his portfolio, including St. James at the Park, a 15-story high-rise overlooking the scenic Ohio River and historic Eden Park.
Designing a luxury condominium complex—not bad, for someone who claims there are more talented designers than he. “I always wanted to design a high-rise,” he allowed. “Now I can say: been there, done that. I got it out of my system, which allowed me to move on to the work that was a better fit for me.”
When he joined SHP as a project architect in 1994, however, it wasn’t with aspirations to design and build Cincinnati’s next iconic landmark. He wanted—rather, he needed—stability and a steady paycheck.
“I was going through a divorce. I had three-year-old and six-year-old daughters at home. And the firm I was with at the time was struggling. I came here for a job,” he said plainly.
After establishing himself as one of the staff, he was presented an opportunity to move into the field service group and manage a large construction program in the field.
“I was reluctant. But I quickly realized I could use more field experience, and that this would make me better technically. It would get me out of my comfort zone. So, I thought, ‘Why not? Let’s give it a try. It’ll make me a better architect for when I come back to design and project management.’ I never came back.”
“It turns out, the very thing you never dream will be of any consequence will be the most consequential.”
Ron is an architect with a builder’s mindset, uniquely positioned to understand the challenges of implementing great design during construction. He earned a reputation: when there’s trouble, give it to Ron, and it’ll be solved. So, when his field services manager left SHP in 1998, Ron took the reins. That led to the opportunity to be at the table with the leaders of the firm, which in turn led to him becoming an owner in 2003.
“It wasn’t just a paycheck, just a job anymore. I said to our leadership team [at the time]: ‘I don’t want to be an employee; I want to be a critical part of this business. I don’t need to be a superstar, but I need to be a critical part of this business,’” Ron shared. “I’m very passionate about my craft. I expect excellence in the part that I do.”
Soon after becoming a full-fledged partner, Ron faced one of his most ambitious challenges. In the summer of 2004, Cincinnati’s Summit Country Day School desperately needed SHP’s help when an ongoing construction project—the addition of a new Lower School in the east wing of the school’s main building—suffered a significant collapse. A 30-foot portion of the rear wing caved in when excavators removed too much of the underlying soil adjacent to the existing building. While no one was hurt, the collapse was headline-making news; the school fired its architect and turned to SHP.
Ron was assigned as the new architect to lead the charge in completing the project, which was already four months behind schedule, before students returned to campus in the fall. The timeline? Just five months.
“It was a once in a lifetime situation, and I never felt more certain that I was the perfect fit for this job. It challenged me to my limits, but what a ride!” he recalled.
Architecture and Acumen
Over the last 15 years, Ron has influenced all manner of our firm’s operational best practices: developing design, project planning and production standards, implementing a long-term vision, and elevating the business function of what we do.
“I feel like I’ve had a lot of influence over making sure we’re a successful business. You can be a great designer, but if you don’t have a good business model, what then?!” exclaimed Ron.
Risk management is another piece of Ron’s role that he described as, “fulfilling and enjoyable and challenging.” He described one of his first brushes with navigating tumultuous waters.
“It was one of my first projects as manager of the field services group,” Ron admitted. “And there was a significant design problem with the site work. It scared the hell out of me, how we’d get it fixed without damaging our reputation, especially since the building was in the middle of construction. I rolled up my sleeves and figured it out: the insurance, the lawyers, how to execute the corrections while the building construction was moving forward all around us. We got the project corrected, we finished on time—which was no small miracle—and all with minimal impact to our reputation. It was a proud feeling.”
The experience proved to be a seminal moment in Ron’s career. An advocate and staunch defender of the industry, he literally wrote the book on which party assumes different liabilities—legal, financial and otherwise—in the field. The Change Order White Paper has been adopted by other firms and seems to have been upheld as an industry standard since it was first authored in 1998.
His most recent venture is inventing and taking a new building product to market: a junction box specifically designed to provide a seamless wiring pathway for electrified door frames. FrameFrog has the potential to become a new building standard for access control design solutions.
But for all his business strategy and savvy, it’s the difficult conversations—the ones where an eager young architect or project manager must accept that there is a flaw in our design—in which Ron’s true colors shine through.
“I would like to think I’m a calming influence when things are at their most stressful. I enjoy reassuring people that we’re not a punitive firm; quite the contrary, in fact. We rally around each other. I’m not here to pass judgment, I’m here to solve the problem. So, let’s figure out what the problem is and how to solve it, and then let’s go get it done,” he said.
He continued, “One of my favorite lines—of which my colleagues know there are many—is from Apollo 13. Gene Kranz, played by Ed Harris, says to Mission Control, ‘Let’s work the problem, people. Let’s not make things worse.’ In other words: don’t become the problem. I want to be the guy that calms the storm and everyone can depend on. That’s how I’d like to be remembered.”