By Phil Roberts…
In almost 60 years of existence, Lemay has evolved from parochial architectural firm to international integrated practice. In early October, Lemay acquired 3 of IBI Group’s Quebec-based business units, Daniel Arbour et Associés, Cardinal Hardy Architectes and Martin Marcotte/Architectes, making it the 4th largest firm in Canada and one of the top 100 in size worldwide.
The synopsis of the evolution of the Lemay brand begins in 1957, at the dawn of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution. Historically, many of the renowned firms in Montreal were of British background, so when Lemay started it developed its brand as a traditional, reliable French Canadian firm. By the 1980s and 90s, it became a larger, more corporate firm able to do complex projects, offering complementary services in interior and urban design. Today, Lemay offers the best of both worlds, able to do large scale urban projects with the complexity of a corporate firm, yet have the outside the box imagination of a boutique practice.
Lemay’s Chief Creative Officer, Michel Lauzon, has been the driving force behind the latest iteration of the brand. He founded of a firm called NOMADE in 1999, known as one of the first Quebec firms to explore 3D rendering in a creative, unorthodox way. When NOMADE ended operations in 2009, Louis Lemay had the foresight to recruit the young maverick as partner to tweak Lemay’s DNA and give it a more innovative twist.
Named as one of Canada’s 50 Best Managed Companies by Deloitte in 2013, Lemay operates with a very involved management style in dealing with clients, staff and the community. With its 6 senior partners, including André Cardinal, Pierre Larouche, Marc Bouchard and recently added Éric Pelletier from Québec City, the executive team led by Louis Lemay can afford to be hands-on in ensuring that all projects embody its values and mission, as well as surprising clients with original and smart designs.
“We walk the talk,” Michel describes about the firm, “and we are proud of it.” Company principles and standards aren’t simply words in a mission statement, neither is creating sustainable architecture simply a matter of adding a green roof to a project. Lemay leads by example when it comes to practicing what it believes.
“As a firm, we know our ecological footprint and we try to reduce it every year,” explains Michel. For example, Lemay reimburses 50% of its staff’s monthly transit passes to encourage transit use. They also have a vegetable garden for employees that is supplied from the compost generated by their own coffee and food leftovers. And they have a hybrid shared automobile available for use to all employees.
“Creativity doesn’t have to mean chaos. We’re structured and methodical, but not bureaucratic, and we’re supple enough that we can still be creative.”
Though Lemay has grown to be quite large, with projects as far as North Africa and Asia, its Quebec roots have meant that it still has a strong presence in English Canada, except for Toronto. “We’ll be re-evaluating our Canadian presence in the near future,” declares Michel.
With many opportunities around the globe, Lemay have been diligent in not only accessing the financial viability of projects, but also the reputation of clients. In some countries, how projects are realized can often require payments made to dubious actors.
“We’ve been prudent. We’re selective on competitions and clients,” Michel explains. “Ethics are very important to us. There’s so much corruption in the world that we have to do our due diligence on projects.”
With the joint venture it formed with IBI Group in China, Lemay now has a partner to help navigate the world’s largest economy. Whereas IBI have an even larger offering and established international reputation, Lemay brings a fresh design approach featuring branding, interior and environmental design to the partnership. “We have common interests,” describes Michel.
“In China, you can’t be sporadic. They believe in guanxi (gwan-shee), business done with a strong interpersonal connection. They want to know you as a person, your beliefs, values, principles and what your background is,” describes Michel.
The Chinese desire to know who they do business with is very advantageous to Canadian companies, because as Michel says “Canadians have a great reputation internationally, especially in China.” He feels that our acclimatisation to living in multicultural urban centres has contributed to our favourable reputation.
“Are Canadians always like this?” is the question that Michel hears a lot abroad. “Canadian architects are more sensitive to different cultures than their European and American counterparts.”
Sensitivity to community needs is a strength Lemay imparts on its clients as well. With its R&D department, LemayLAB, it endeavours to come up with solutions around the theme of a triple bottom line of creating value for clients, community and projects. For the STM, Montreal’s transit commission, the client wanted a typical bus depot, but Lemay encouraged them to strive for a project that gives more to the environment and the community.
“We did a bus depot, but changed it into a prototype of the bus depot of the future and the postcard of the STM brand,” explains Michel. “When we met with the STM, we told them they could have a depot with barb wire and fluorescent lighting OR have a building as an extension of the brand.”
For the Masterplan of the new city of El-Menia in Constantine, Algeria, Lemay are convincing local developers to embrace sustainable development right away. “Local developers like the 1970s style of urban planning. We encourage them to leap over the mistakes that we’ve made in North America, but they’re trying to imitate us. We want them to go straight to transit oriented design and go straight to a zero carbon footprint.”
For the headquarters of Astral Media in Montreal, Lemay’s interior design and branding solutions reduced employee turnover, created pride in the brand, and increased employee satisfaction.
“The Lemay brand is about using architecture, design and environmental design as a vehicle for communities and corporations to express their brand and/or identity,” explains Michel. With a staff of outgoing, self described “architecture and design junkies” who passionately exemplify what they practice, Lemay proves that even a large firm can be agile and interested in going beyond delivering a mere return on investment. Just like it impresses upon its clients, they can do better than that.