Lonnie Laffen, CEO of JLG Architects, is a Bison who likes burgers and fries, a big motor bike, but not politics.
By Liisa Andreassen
Twenty-seven years ago, Lonnie Laffen, president and CEO of JLG Architects (#4 Best Firm Architecture and #75 Hot Firm for 2016), established the firm in Fargo, North Dakota. Over time, JLG has grown to more than 100 “blue chippers” and Laffen says he is privileged to work with them each day.
Prior to founding the firm, Laffen graduated from North Dakota State University in 1982 and worked for design firms in Des Moines, Iowa, and in Fargo. He grew up in a small farm town in North Dakota, where he says you had to participate in everything. For example, he played basketball and would stay on the court to play in the band at halftime.
“I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” he says.
A conversation with Laffen.
The Zweig Letter: What are some of the most significant changes you have seen since founding the firm?
Lonnie Laffen: There are a few. These top the list:
- Specialization has created larger teams and more collaboration for each project.
- Sustainability has been a great change, but I think we are just scratching the surface, especially in energy usage.
- The computer has allowed us to better visualize the end product and has greatly reduced the time it takes to get to construction.
- The iPhone has eliminated the need for 90 percent of my desk space.
TZL: What are your firm’s key strengths?
LL: Taking care of customers. Our firm has always had a practical approach to building design including a healthy respect for our clients’ money. We love what we do, we like working with people, and we communicate very well.
TZL: How would you describe your leadership style?
LL: I’m a work in progress and my leadership style continues to evolve, but I try to find great people and let them run. My role is to give them the tools and motivation to excel.
TZL: To date, what has been your greatest challenge and how did you deal with it?
LL: We have had periods of explosive growth where we needed more staff, and attracting top talent to live in Grand Forks, North Dakota, has always been our top challenge. The computer allowed us to form teams from different locations so we spread out to 10 new cities. Not only did that help us to attract new talent, but we found work in all those new locations.
TZL: What is your vision for the future of JLG?
LL: We will continue to grow into new locations. We love improving communities through design and will probably start to develop our own projects. The building process is becoming increasingly complicated for our public clients – we think we can make it easier for them.
TZL: Tell me about a recent project you are especially proud of and why.
LL: The University of North Dakota’s Gorecki Alumni Center. The client wanted a traditional, collegiate, gothic-style building on campus, but also wanted it to be iconic and appeal to the next generation of students. We helped them understand that a more contemporary solution might better accomplish these goals. In fact, the design intrigued donors to step up and make the building a LEED platinum facility.
TZL: How have you helped your firm to outperform some competitors? What do you feel sets you apart?
LL: We learned a long time ago that the key to a successful firm is to have the best people. We have worked very hard to create a place where the best talent will want to work. It’s why we are 100-percent employee-owned. We were recently recognized by Inc. magazine as one of America’s 50 Best Places to Work – how cool is that?
TZL: Do you have any news you care to share about recent projects or anything else?
LL: We recently acquired Studio Five Architects in Minneapolis. Studio Five was a key team member in the new U.S. Bank Stadium project, home of the Minnesota Vikings. We are passionate about sports at JLG and it has been fun to be involved with this project.
TZL: Are you married? Children? Pets?
LL: I married my kindergarten sweetheart – sounds sappy, but I am the luckiest man alive. She is an equal part of the company’s success. We have three grown boys who live in Fargo, Indianapolis, and Austin. We have no pets, but when I retire I am hoping for a black lab instead of a gold watch.
TZL: What’s one thing most people at the firm don’t know about you?
LL: Considering I’m a North Dakota state senator – they probably don’t know that I’m not a big fan of politics.
TZL: Best vacation spot? Dream destination?
LL: We have a group of eight couples that rides motorcycles together around the country. Wherever they are going is my favorite destination. I would also highly recommend Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany.
TZL: What’s the last book you read?
LL: Vanished: The Sixty-Year Search for the Missing Men of World War II. The last 100 books I have read have been about World War II. I still can’t believe it happened.
TZL: What’s the last movie you saw?
LL: Big Hero 6. Disney’s animated movies are all awesome.
TZL: What’s the best piece of work-related advice you’ve ever gotten?
LL: If you don’t love what you do, go do what you love.
TZL: Who is a leader you admire? Why?
LL: Dwight Eisenhower and Mike Krzyzewski: Quiet and meticulous preparation beats everything else.
TZL: When you’re not working, what types of activities do you enjoy?
LL: I’m somewhat of a motor head and find boats, motorcycles, and airplanes very relaxing.
TZL: What’s your favorite lunch?
LL: McDonald’s #2. Two cheeseburgers, medium fries, and a Mountain Dew.