Because finding the right design-build team members is vital to the success of projects, DBIA created Industry Match, the nation’s only online tool designed to help Owners and practitioners find qualified design-builders by region, market, specialties or project type.
Moreover, DBIA is committed to helping America’s design-build teams find and hire Minority, Women and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (MWDBE) firms. MWDBE firms bring value to a project by ensuring design-build teams look beyond the surface of a project and consider relationships, partnerships, interaction and other aspects that can increase project success and address the implicit bias present in the industry.
Brano Design is one of many MWDBE firms that can be found in the Industry Match database. DBIA checked in with firm owner Betty Brano about industry challenges, the Industry Match program and what it means to be a MWDBE in the industry.
Getting to Know Betty Brano
Betty Brano didn’t begin as a designer. She started her career in the fashion industry. Later, Brano worked on Wall Street as a systems analyst. Now, she owns Brano Design, a New Jersey-based multidisciplinary design firm. Over the firm’s 17-year history, Brano has pulled from her own multidisciplinary background to provide support on numerous projects in innovative ways.
Brano’s career began with Associated Merchandising Corp. (AMC), where she learned how to spot trends, choose colors and patterns, and anticipate the expectations of consumers. AMC was a trend-spotting, product development, apparel sourcing and consulting organization that supplied major department stores. When Target Corp. purchased AMC in 1998, Brano made her first career pivot – to Wall Street.
During a time when computer technology – specifically Microsoft – was just beginning to make its mark in the business world, Brano was fortunate enough to receive the training to become a systems analyst for Merrill Lynch. Eventually, she and her colleagues were tasked with training their own replacements, leading Brano to reassess her career path yet again. She recognized a connection between her background in fashion, love of design and impeccable organizational skills. So she thought, “Why not design?” She then embarked on the path that led to Brano Design – but that path was not without its obstacles.
Her second year in business was 2008, and the Great Recession took its toll on the relatively new firm. She worked in residential design, and she saw the pipeline for her work diminishing as people cut back on spending. Brano said, “I didn’t know how I could go talk somebody into parting with their money so their house could look pretty in the middle of a recession.”
Luckily, the firm survived the downturn and Brano began doing research for an organization set on increasing minority and women representation in architecture and construction. Based on what she learned in that role, Brano decided to transition from residential to commercial design, which is what Brano Design does today.
“Even though we’re small, and given all the industry challenges, we’ve still been able to keep our head above water,” Brano said in our sitdown. “We’ve managed to get bonded now, and we’re using some of the technology that is out there in the construction industry.”
DBIA: What are the biggest challenges for a firm like Brano Design?
Betty Brano: Apart from not getting financing, you also have the challenges of the bigger companies not wanting to hire smaller companies, possibly because they prefer to work with firms where there is already trust. And sometimes, when you’re too small, you may have a hard time finding a project where they’ll break down the RFP enough to include your company. The general contractor will break it down and say, “Okay, we can do administrative stuff ourselves, but we need the electrician, HVAC – maybe some other trades.” Then, the numbers go down from a $10 million project for the general contractor to about $2 or $3 million for the smaller firms. Smaller women and minority-owned firms still can’t get in because those are still too big for them.
The bigger companies can and do give smaller companies jobs based on good faith, but we still get dropped because it’s easier for them to go with a company and people they know. That’s where I come in. When we do get a job, big or small, I then act as the project manager to make sure the job is done well, we stay on schedule and we’re within our budget.
And now we’ve grown to the point where we don’t just do construction but work with architects at the front end with design, research and product sourcing. We’re currently working with the federal government, where we work with the architect as the interior designer of record and focus on sustainable design services. We are in the early stages of working with a science engineering firm in sustainability for rivers, removing dams so the fishes can swim upstream. We do all the feasibility studies for those.
DBIA: How is being an MWDBE important to the current and the future landscape of the industry? What’s the payoff for working with a diverse business?
Brano: Well, it hasn’t been easy!
For example, let’s say a developer decided to build a hospital or an airport in an urban area. Will the people involved in the build live within the community? They should. Local MWDBE firms are better equipped to explain how the community might use those facilities. Local MWDBE firms can give developers a pulse of the neighborhood. They will also have associations with the local community to overcome trust issues and conduct feasibility studies to assess how residents might use the facility.
A couple examples with a hospital might be making sure patients can find their way to where they need to go and that the spaces are intentional in every way. In an airport, it might be asking residents about traffic patterns and the best routes to the airport.
Also, they know more about the common traits of their neighbors, so it’s easier for people who live in this area to be able to anticipate problems within a plan or ask questions that might lead to a better outcome.
In general, there are some functionalities you need in certain places and they need to be taken into account. I think functionality is better addressed with diverse voices, so being an MWDBE, we lead with that in mind.
DBIA: Let’s talk about your experience with DBIA’s Industry Match Program now.
Brano: I have my listing there, and I get invitations through it. I’ve subscribed to a whole bunch of databases with varying degrees of success. But in terms of DBIA, I particularly like it because of the courses and webinars I can take.
Usually, I look for topics of interest within my networks and within New York and New Jersey. And then I’ll take those courses so I can be knowledgeable about new technologies in the industry. I inform industry members I am a DBIA member and I’m on Industry Match with the hope they will understand we are prepared to be included on design-build teams.
It’s good to be listed as the firm expands. We’re hiring a civil engineer so they will handle the civil work we’ve not been able to go after before. Having that listed in Industry Match will position us as well-rounded and not just for interior finishes – where we are often brought in at the tail end of projects.
Being listed in Industry Match and taking courses with DBIA, we will increase our project involvement. DBIA has helped – and with more people on board at the firm – we can get even more involved in DBIA.
DBIA: What is one piece of advice you’d give to someone studying design, construction, anything related to the industry that you wish someone had given you?
Brano: What has surprised me is how important it is to do research and learn about the industry – get a pulse of what you are entering into. I came in thinking, “Oh, I know how to run a business,” and, “I’ve done interior design.” But commercial design and residential design are very different, and running a business looks different depending on what that business does. You have to be willing to develop an understanding of how the system works, how the apparatus is put together in the context you’re working in.
So do your research. Learn all you can and never assume you know all the answers.