Cover Story BR> Getting Down to BusinessManciniDuffy's Dina Frank walks the fine line between delivering great design and maintaining her firm's profitability.By Diane Wintroub CalmensonDina Frank, AIA, IIDA, is ambidextrous—in an atypical sort of way. It's not that she can write legibly with both her right and left hands, but she sure can think clearly with the right and left sides of her brain. Frank is that fortunate combination of design professional who has a keen sense of form and function as well as a head for business. Some 10 years ago, Frank was recruited to ManciniDuffy, New York. At that time, the firm was known for getting a job done on time and on budget, but was not necessarily recognized for great design. Brought on board to change that perception, Frank led ManciniDuffy through a decade of award-winning design and now, as president of the firm, she finds that her role is still very much the "change agent." ManciniDuffy, she says, is constantly remaking itself to meet market and client demands. However, one thing never changes—the balancing act between good design and profitability.
"At any given moment, it's so easy for one to overtake the other," Frank says. "Recognizing when that happens and correcting the imbalance is critical. Yes, I am a designer; I live for design. But for me to do good design, my firm must be a successful business."
Frank was born in Zagreb, Croatia, went to school for a few years in Switzerland and then moved with her family to Buffalo, NY, when she was eight years old. She attended Syracuse University and earned degrees in interior design and environmental design. Her degree in business, she jokes, is from the school of on-the-job-training. Likewise, she became a registered architect in an unconventional manner. Some 12 years ago, Frank received her architectural license, without a degree. After having worked under the tutelage of an architect for 10 years, she was qualified to sit for the exams.
"Sad, but true, that architectural pedigree is important for me as a woman," she says. "It has helped me dispel the myth that I call, 'Oh, here comes my decorator.' The client side of commercial design is male dominated, so like it or not, credentials are important."
After Syracuse, Frank came to New York City and went to work for Stanley Felderman (now of Felderman + Keatinge in Los Angeles, CA). From there, she moved to the design firm of Karen Daroff, where she solidified her decision to focus on corporate interiors. Next stop was Gensler, where she stayed for 15 years.
Frank was the 12th person hired at Gensler in New York, made partner after six years when she was only 30 years old, and helped build the office to the 180-member firm that it was when she left.
"Toward the end of my career with Gensler, I felt as if I was on auto-pilot," Frank explains. "It was hard to get excited about designing another corporate office and I knew that I had gone as far as I could in the organization. I had reached the glass ceiling."
As fate would have it, ManciniDuffy was looking to re-image its brand at the time and Frank was brought in to do the job. Under her direction, the firm went from one that was driven by service to a firm driven by design with excellent service. Always one to share the credit, Frank lauds the design directors who worked for her during those transformation years.Back then and still today, Frank adheres to the principle of balance between design and profitability. Actually, this principle was hammered into her while she worked at Gensler. There she learned that design for design's sake is fantasy if you want to stay in business."At the end of the day, you are running a business," she emphatically states. "If design overshadows management, then you are not going to be profitable. On the other hand, if management overshadows design, then you will not be providing a high-quality design product. Balance is critical."The trick, of course, is knowing when your design is "good enough." Frank admits that there are times when a project could be better. However, the objective is to meet clients' expectations because, as Frank cautions her designers, there is no glory in exceeding them. "Most clients cannot recognize whether or not a project is what your design peers would consider important or outstanding," she explains. "Our work is for the client, not our peers. All of us have a project or two that we would rather not have our peers know about. However, if the project meets the client's objectives, then it's a job well done."In 1994, when Frank joined ManciniDuffy, the firm had 80 employees. In 2000, that number swelled to more than 200, and then the walls came tumbling down—literally. ManciniDuffy's offices were on floors 21 and 22 in Tower II of the World Trade Center. On September 11, 2001, everyone in the office that day escaped safely, but their lives and the life of the firm was intrinsically changed.
According to Frank, ManciniDuffy's journey from 9-11 until today began the morning of 9-12. It was the day after the tragedy that Frank and the firm's other partners made the decision to re-open the office. Despite the total loss of everything from computer files and furniture to pencils and coffee cups, the New York office had the advantage of being able to retrieve marketing and promotional materials from ManciniDuffy's other offices (New Jersey, Connecticut, California, Washington, DC, and London). More importantly, they had employees who needed to get back to work.
"One of our client's, J.P. Morgan Chase, had extra office space that they offered to us," Frank recalls. "So, on that following Monday we were open for business."
Only three months later, ManciniDuffy moved into a new home in Greenwich Village, on 13th St. between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. Wanting to take advantage of the financial incentive the city was offering to ensure the re-growth of business in lower Manhattan, Frank and two other partners began their office search on September 13, 2001, concentrating on office space below 14th St. Now located on the third floor of a loft building, the firm occupies a creative space that looks like the work it produces, says Frank. While the World Trade Center was home for a long time and will always be missed, ManciniDuffy's new offices are more appropriate for the image that the firm tries to present.
It has been a tough couple of years for ManciniDuffy's New York office, though. Nearly 40 percent of the staff had to be laid off, which is difficult for those losing their jobs, for the firm and for employees who are left thinking, "Am I next?"
"When times are good, the tendency is to hire quickly just to get all the work done," Frank explains. "But when times are really tough, a firm needs to have only the best on staff. We have had to be brutally honest with ourselves and with our employees, but I think we are doing better than most of our competitors. We are now at 110 employees and our mission is to grow back up to 150 over the next three years. It's a tough order, but I think we can do it."
That kind of grit and confidence helped put Frank in the president's seat one year ago. Now, as president and design principal, Frank manages the firm with CEO Tony Schirripa, AIA, and steers the firm's design vision. She aims to turn that steering wheel over to her design directors in order to become the face of Mancini Duffy in the marketplace and to focus on the firm's vision. However, believing in the importance of staying involved with clients, she plans to work at the macro-level on design decisions, in more of an advisory capacity. Of course, she did recently complete a 140,000-square-foot office space for a law firm that moved back into the World Trade Center area. Frank confesses that she is lucky to be able to choose how she is involved in a project and which clients get her attention.
In that advisory capacity, Frank has guided the firm toward a more hospitality-like feel in its design of corporate interiors. Trying to stay away from designing spaces that are too contract looking, ManciniDuffy's designers are selecting table lamps, area rugs and gracious upholstery fabrics for their corporate clients. Frank based this design shift on information she gleaned from clients. In turn, the firm designs spaces that are well detailed and commensurate with who the client is.
As for the firm's vision, the plan is to re-grow business by going after a more diverse market in a more diverse region.
"Until recently, we were strictly focused on corporate interiors in New York and New Jersey," Frank says. "Now, we want to win business in the retail, hotel, commercial and hospitality market sectors across the country. Our thought is that with diversity will come security, meaning that if one piece of the market drops then another will keep us afloat."
With the plan already in action, ManciniDuffy is working on a store for Saks Fifth Ave. in Las Vegas; a Kate Spade boutique in New York; a New York restaurant; and Equinox fitness clubs across the country. In conjunction with the firm's push to gain a wider market, it is also pushing itself to gain the latest business expertise. To that end, Ralph Mancini, chairman of ManciniDuffy, gave each of the firm's principals a daily subscription to The Wall Street Journal. In addition, employees participate in business seminars each year learning about new management principles and how successful organizations operate. Never one for too much rest and relaxation, Frank is not only president of ManciniDuffy, but she also is currently president of the New York chapter of the International Interior Design Association (IIDA). Approached by IIDA before taking the reins at her firm, Frank made a three-year commitment to the organization as president-elect, president and then past-president. Her main mission is to increase the chapter's membership.
"New York has such a rich design environment, people here don't need to be members of an association to reap the benefits," she explains. "It's different than a smaller community where professionals are looking to connect. There is not as much of a reason to join in New York. Not to mention that people are working hard and their time is stretched thin already. However, IIDA is a wonderful organization that works extremely hard on behalf of long-time professional designers, as well as those entering the field."
In addition to soliciting new membership and encouraging existing members to donate time to the organization as a means of giving back to their profession, Frank also hopes to gain sponsorships for IIDA from industry manufacturers.
With the title of president attached to her name not once, but twice, one would think Frank is at the top of her "game," especially as she admits to being a competitive player who likes to win. But her work is not a game, she says; the business of design is serious business. And at the close of business, Franks hopes to look back and see not only great design, but also that she accomplished something worthwhile and lasting—yet another balancing act to add to her credentials.
Dina Frank, AIA, IIDA
President and Design Principal
39 W. 13th St.
New York, NY 10011