Two KC design firms share advice from their recent merger.
When two companies execute a merger, they aren’t just combining balance sheets and office space. They’re also uniting their teams. There’s a human element that must be addressed for a deal to be successful.
Just ask Helix Architecture + Design and Blackbird Design Studio, which recently announced their own merger.
It all started with a lunch, and the notion that Blackbird and Helix might team up to pursue a new client together.
“We started talking about partnerships,” said Erika Moody, one of Blackbird’s two founders. “We started talking in terms of our collective skills.”
But Helix, which is celebrating 25 years in business, also wondered if Blackbird might be a good long-term partner, too. Blackbird’s founders had worked on major projects for H&R Block, AMC, Black & Veatch and other clients.
“That was not the first time that thought had crossed Helix’s mind,” said Reeves Wiedeman, one of Helix’s founding principals. “You’re always looking at the talent out there.”
With time, and the help of some outside advisers, the two firms decided they’d be stronger together.
Thinking about a merger of your own? Here’s some advice from Moody and Wiedeman.
When to Break the News
Once the possibility of a merger gained momentum, leadership at both Helix and Blackbird needed to talk to their teams.
While discretion is important in M&A deals, business owners often find their employees have an inkling that something is in the works. (Especially if the owner makes requests for detailed financial reports and other information.)
Blackbird is a team of six people. When the owners left for hours at a stretch for off-site meetings, it was harder to keep the merger secret. So Moody and her Blackbird co-founder, Trevor Hoiland, met with each employee individually over lunch or drinks, giving them a chance to ask questions about how they might be affected.
“There were good follow-up questions from each one,” Moody said.
Helix did something similar. It hosted a company happy hour where team members could ask questions.
One thing most experts agree on: Never lie to an employee about the possibility of a merger. You might have to tell them you can’t say anything at the moment, especially if you’re operating under a nondisclosure agreement. But if you categorically tell a staff member that a deal isn’t in the works, and then it goes through, you’ve ruined that person’s trust in you.
Bringing Everyone Together
It took about six months for Blackbird and Helix to finalize the details of the merger. After it was official, the firms hosted a big group meeting where everybody could meet each other.
They blocked out half a day at a fun, off-site location—Boulevard Brewing Co.’s new visitors center, which Helix designed—and talked about each firm’s history. Everybody hit it off.
“I think that’s because everybody admires everybody,” Wiedeman said.
Helix and Blackbird are fortunate in a couple of other respects, too. For starters, each firm’s current ownership will maintain leadership roles within the merged company. Sometimes employees will leave if they think their boss is exiting.
And the two companies don’t have any overlapping staffing. No employees are going to lose their jobs as a result of the merger.
The combined firm—which will be known as Helix—will be managed by a team of principals (which is how Helix has always operated) instead of making a single person the sole lead.
To foster communication, the leadership won’t have private offices. They’ll be seated together in an open-office environment with staff. “It’s a great way for us to communicate on a lot of things,” Wiedeman said.
Though the newly expanded Helix is still just a few months old, clients have already cheered the merger.
“At Helix, we are always striving to be the best. This merger allows us to offer our clients even greater talent and resources,” Wiedeman said. “We’re excited to watch our teams come together and create great work for our clients and our community.”