Minneapolis architecture firm Miller Dunwiddie, designer of some of the Twin Cities most prominent buildings during its 50 years in business, has drawn up a blueprint for its future.

The plan names six longtime employees as associate principals who eventually will succeed today's leadership team. The firm also has initiated an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP), laying the foundation for employee ownership in later years.

Acquisition offers from big national firms, primarily ones specializing in engineering, spurred discussions of a succession plan back in the early 2000s, Miller Dunwiddie President Craig Lau said.

Lau and other leaders decided then that staying small and independent was the best way protect Miller Dunwiddie's culture, based on the core concept that "people always come first," both clients and employees.

That philosophy, Lau said, also has shaped the firm's work — on such well-known projects as the design of Terminal 2, formerly the Humphrey terminal, at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and extensive work on the State Capitol, the Cathedral of St. Paul and the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis.

Succession talks, put on hold during the recession, resumed in earnest over the past year as the firm marked its 50th anniversary, Lau said. The ESOP also came together over the same period as a way to "reward the entire firm."

The firm, with 2013 revenue of $9 million, has 40 employees, including 23 architects. The staff, which has grown by several hires over the past 18 months, is about 20 percent smaller since the recession but through greater efficiencies produces roughly the same gross revenue as before.

Miller Dunwiddie offers architectural design, interior design, historic preservation, construction services and "building envelope" services, or roofing and other exterior projects focused on protecting buildings from weather and improving their energy efficiency. Roughly 80 percent of its work is with longtime clients representing education, transportation, commercial buildings, religious institutions and landmark structures.

Lau and his fellow principals — vice presidents John Mecum and Chuck Liddy and chief operating officer Mark Miller, son of co-founder Bill Miller — began identifying their successors about a decade ago, based on their contributions to the firm and leadership they already had shown.

The associate principals, however, didn't know of their selection as the firm's third generation of leadership until the principals called them together to discuss the succession plan.

"As architects, our job is we're problem solvers," Lau said. "This was a problem we needed to solve: How do we transition this firm?"

Urgency drove plans

Yet a sense of urgency and some stress were building, because of the recession-related delay and, as Lau noted, because three of the four principals are in their 60s.

"We wanted to be sure that we could incorporate them into this transition but we didn't want to saddle them with that as part of the recession," Mecum said. "It took us to get to a point of comfort coming out of the recession to make sure it was on the way back up as we did this transition. I kept worrying that some of these folks were going to get tired of waiting, and go off and start their own firm.''

The associate principals are architects Daniel Green, Denita Lemmon, Joel Stromgren, Monica Bettendorf Hartberg and Paul May and certified interior designer Kathryn Hunsley. Their average tenure is nearly 15 years.

"We were all pleased to be able to look forward," Green said. "We're prepared but we're also ready to learn more."

"I'm honored to be a part of this group," Bettendorf Hartberg said, referring to the "group of 10" as the principals and associates view themselves. "But it's great to be part of a culture and a group of people that we can all believe in and trust."

Jim Litsheim, senior architect at the U, where Miller Dunwiddie has been handling projects since 1990, said he anticipated no problems in working with the firm through its succession.

"The new principals are longtime project architects that we have worked with for 20 years or more," Litsheim said. "They have shown their mettle all the way through.''

The expert says: Thomas Fisher, dean of the College of Design at the U, said a key to a successful transition, and to keeping a firm going for 50 years, is cultivating leadership from within. "It's not just the partners but every person has to be leading," Fisher said. "Leadership is something that has to infuse an entire organization. Good firms, like any good business, know how to do that, to empower everybody to see opportunities.''

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail address is todd_nelson@mac.com