"The internet’s been a huge part of the success also."
Rhonan’s father had a timber-machining business in Brisbane. Along with his older brother, he would spend a lot of time after sport on the weekends “down in the factory playing around, having fun, mucking around making “things” out of bits of timber offcuts. We’d make things, like planes, trucks or cars, and did it just for fun, to entertain ourselves, and I used to love it. You couldn’t have had me in a more contented place; being able to do what you wanted, with all the equipment available to you; everything I needed.”
The idyllic life was to change earlier than expected. “My dad died when I was 13. My older brother left school at 17 and went to work in the business with Mum who had been a housewife. Neither of them had any previous experience running a business. I then finished my education at Nudgee in boarding school. It was a very tough time, but it developed some resilience in different ways in all of us. We realised we weren’t going to get a handout, or a hand up.”
Rhonan had architecture in mind from the age of 11. When the family home was renovated, he witnessed seeing something material being realised from those simple architectural drawings – that triggered a life-long passion for him. He did technical drawing and perspective at school. They were the only subjects he was good at, and truly enjoyed. He didn’t excel at maths, but wasn’t going to let his marks stop him achieving his goal. “I realised if I didn’t do reasonably well at school, I wasn’t going to get to University which meant I wasn’t going to be able to be an architect and that would mean I was going to be doing something I didn’t want to do.”
As often happens, the path was not direct. “First I did an Associate Diploma in Built Environment Technology which effectively made you a draftsman. I realised later there was no way I was going to draw what other people wanted me to draw. So I applied to change and, having got really good marks in the tech course, I was accepted into architecture.”
Architecture was a six year course and it had to be done part-time as Rhonan couldn’t afford to support himself as a full-time student. He had to work to pay his way and thrived. “I loved it. I had three jobs; working during the day for an architectural firm with a day off a week to go to university plus working for another firm at night drawing perspectives. I also did some part-time contract work, and there were also other distractions like restoring cars and earning money working in a pub.”
In third year of university he met Haig Beck. “He said, if you really wanted to be an architect of any substance, you had to either study at the Cooper Union in New York or at the Architecture Association in London.” The cost for London was £20,000 per year, but Rhonan was determined; he saved his money and managed to fund one year in London. He then returned to Brisbane to complete his final two years, on the premise he’d undertake his Masters in New York.
That was 1985, and the young Aussie student enjoyed life in London. “We were taught by some of the ‘star-chitects’, people who are now considered very famous like Zaha Hadid and Donald Bates, so it was very exciting to be there,” he recalls.
Back in Australia while finishing his degree, Rhonan kept working for a Sydney firm which had opened an office in Brisbane. “Michael Dysaght & Partners are still operating in Sydney, and they were a really good firm. I started to work there when I was about 27. Michael said here’s a hotel in Cairns to do and I was given carte blanche to run my own show. He had a ‘sink or swim’ attitude and I thought it was fantastic. I had 53 flights to Cairns in one year which was during the pilot strike. I travelled on various fill-in planes like Hercules so you really knew what it was like to travel for work!”
Looking back on his working life, Rhonan comments, “I’ve never had a day unemployed that I didn’t want to be. Never had trouble getting work. If you love what you do, you’ll be good at it. One of my favourite stories is about a scrap metal merchant in Brisbane whose mother couldn’t understand him collecting all this rubbish. He loved collecting scrap and junk and now he’s one of the richest guys in Brisbane.”
1990 was, surprisingly, the start of a new direction. “In 1990 we had the recession we had to have and there was no one doing hotel developments and resorts. All the work dried up but a company owned by Noel Robinson picked up a big project for Alpha Hotels. I’d known Noel for years and he asked me to run that project for him. It turned out to be a very difficult job. I stopped work there out of frustration and then someone asked me to design a really large house. Then about four other architectural firms went into receivership and a good friend suggested we should do a house together. The two of us started the practice.”
That was the beginning of Rhonan O’Brien Architects which traded for fourteen years. “We did a lot of mining work because the mines all wanted three-star resorts for the fly-in-fly-out miners and we grew to about 25 people while doing six of those projects. Then we bought our own building in Woolloongabba, Brisbane. We thought it was too much space but we outgrew that and then same again with the next one within five years.”
As Rhonan had grown up in a business environment “I’d seen how hard it could be in business through my father, and later with my mother and brother. I’d seen how difficult it was, and seen the highs and lows, from all sides.”
As Rhonan had predominantly specialised in hotels, resorts and residential buildings, “I brought in two other partners to develop the portfolio. The new partners had done a lot of education and health work in the past so the aim was to diversify the portfolio of the offering. Because there were now three partners we changed the name to Mode Design from Rhonan O’Brien Architects, as that wasn’t appropriate anymore.”
The business now focusses on “five main sectors, multi-residential, urban design and master planning, health, education, and then corrections and community/defence in one.”
The business model runs on the basis of “a large pool of resources in Brisbane then smaller studios like the one in Sydney. The other nine are really big enough to handle a mid-sized project in their own right. If they win a large project they get support from the head office in Brisbane. The growth is limited intentionally but strategically so that they don’t have to miss out on projects. They can deliver whatever scale they like, up to a limit, but without any of the growing pains we’ve had to endure in Brisbane.”
There were, of course, many lessons along the way. “In the very early days we used to joint venture with other companies and we realised that, if we could borrow expertise really freely, then we could deliver large scale projects seamlessly, and ride the ups and downs in terms of staff numbers fluctuating.”
Technology has had an impact here too, as in most industries. “The internet’s been a huge part of the success also. We’re using a program called Revit, which is fully three-dimensional; every single door, chair and fitting is designed and built in the 3D model. That means massive files, so the speed of the internet is critical to the success of our work, and being able to work in two locations on the one project.”
International growth has resulted. “We tender for projects all over the world, and the whole idea of opening in Saigon was to enable a hub like Brisbane to establish across Asia. It will effectively be the Brisbane of South East Asia, and it will service Vietnam, Malaysia, India, and, if it works out, also Indonesia.”
The 2016 plan “is about consolidating for Australia to about 160 people; we don’t want it to go any bigger than that. Over the next five years we expect the whole group should go to around 350, but that’s all growth out of Asia.”
The challenges are exactly the same but just on a different scale; it’s just like buildings, says Rhonan. “If you can design a really good house then you can design a really good hospital or office building because the concepts and the strategies and the competencies are exactly the same. It’s just a different scale.”
Why do clients use Mode Design? “We’re the only first-generation firm to be national, and have international presence in Australia.” Being of the new generation, there are considerable innovations and new approaches as part of the Mode Design offering, enabling them to provide a better outcome for their clients. Mode Design has a slightly different approach to architecture, utilising a concept they’ve developed called Innovation Capitalisation.
“The Innovation Capitalisation idea is about Architecture getting environmental, educational social and economic returns. They’re the four key pillars. The more successfully we integrate each of those, the better the project.”
Rhonan cites the example of “a project we did in the Northern Territory for a municipal pool complex. While we were there, we discovered truancy from school was a major issue. This was linked to ear, nose and throat infections with the kids. We came up with the concept of “no-school, no-pool”, which meant that the kids only got a pass to the pool if they went to school all day. To go to the pool, they had to have a shower, which we over-chlorinated to help the infections. The truancy dropped by over 80% and the ENT issues improved by 50%. The bonus is that the pool is now one of the few buildings in town which doesn’t get vandalised. No increase in cost in our budget, or fees, but a slightly different approach which delivered great results.
“We can deliver the same optimisation of projects across all sectors in which we work, which is a very different approach to architecture. It’s great to change people’s lives, and it’s not that difficult. Because we work across all the different sectors we can more easily see an opportunity. Depending on the way you bring them together, you can have an incredible optimisation of a project that isn’t normally realised.”
As in all businesses, there are highs and lows. “The highs are consistently being able to be looking at the drawings in the office, securing the tender and then 12 months later going out to the site and here is a realised object exactly as you imagined and drew it. Seeing the building in place that wasn’t there before is the magic of it.”
The low “is knowing you can do better than a competitor, and they win the job for the wrong reasons, like they’ve been around ten years longer. After four or five of them in a row, you start to struggle. That’s the difference with our firm and a lot of others which have folded; we don’t give up easily. There’s a competitiveness we instil in all our staff which says we can all punch above our weight and get the business.”
How does Rhonan keep himself and his staff motivated? “I haven’t got time to not be motivated. We’re now sending highly-skilled staff to other environments, to run new projects. They then get a new team to run the project and that’s an architect’s dream.”
Rhonan’s highly self-motivated. “The reason I love being an architect because there’s always a new challenge. You’ve never completed your education, never done your best-ever building – there’s always another challenge. That self-competitive spirit that says you want to do better than yourself is what drives me.”
At this stage, Rhonan sees himself “as a facilitator more than running an architectural business. Over the next five years my prime strategy is to delegate that responsibility and become an architect again. There’s really good talent in the office who understand the business of architecture who will do it better than I can anyway, so you don’t have a dog and bark yourself!”
Risk is still a factor as the business continues to grow. “I love risk; we’re just relocating our Brisbane office to fit 95 people now, and that’s a risk for me, as we’ve always been so constrained in numbers.”
Real success would be “when we don’t have to market ourselves anymore and we’re so well known that people come to us, knowing what we can deliver. Success would also be seeing the concept of innovation capitalisation taken up by Government projects with every one being tested on those levels. That would be my ultimate dream.”
Rhonan says he has good work-life balance. “I’ve got two kids, I’ve seen 95% of all their sporting events. I’ve got a hobby in classic cars and love that. I also spend a fair bit of time with my wife overseas and enjoy that. You might be not working, but you’re always looking at architecture and how things might apply.”
As an architect, Rhonan is always learning about other fields and industries. “Education as an architect never stops; I can tell you about nuclear medicine, longwall mining, F18 aircraft and other military information and the latest technology, all through architecture. It’s not that you have to learn those things but you get the opportunities, across geology, science, computer technology and other areas.
Education in the field is also important for an architect. “Frank Gehry has been one of my favourite architects of the last 30 years, and just last year I went to see the Louis Vuitton building in Paris. It’s not about borrowing the ideas; it’s about understanding the strategy and learning from the great masters. That’s how they taught art in The Renaissance.”
Rhonan also admires Malcolm Turnbull. “He is self-made and is very inspiring – he’s done it all himself. He is now delivering for Australia, and he can demonstrate that to every entrepreneur in the country.”
Rhonan says he expects a lot from his staff and they know it. “It’s the ones who understand that, who are so committed, who are amazing. Sometimes I have to tell them to stop!”
- “If you love what you do, you’ll be good at it.”
- “Those simple architectural drawings… triggered a life-long passion for him.”
- “It’s not about borrowing the ideas, it’s about understanding the strategy and learning from the great masters.”
Introduced to a love of timber by his father who died when he was only 13, Rhonan O’Brien is more than just an architect. His vision is for a firm on a global scale which can deliver life-changing outcomes for every member of society they touch. He’s already proving it’s possible through some high-profile, inspirational community and government projects.