Walton Encounter Leads Retailers to Harrison French & Associates of Bentonville

Architect Harrison French didn’t set out to attract national retailers as customers, but a happy encounter with some Walton friends led to what has evolved into a strong book of clients like Wal-Mart Stores, Sam’s Club, Walgreens, 7-Eleven, Subway and Sonic.

Harrison French & Associates of Bentonville, with 14 registered architects and 13 registered engineers, stands at No. 4 on the Arkansas Business list of largest architectural firms in the state and No. 11 on the list of largest engineering firms. If the architectural firms were ranked by the total number of staff members, it would be No. 2 with 162, behind Crafton Tull, which has 277.

GET THE LISTS: This week's lists are available in two different formats.

Largest Architectural Firms in Arkansas Spreadsheet PDF
Largest Engineering Firms in Arkansas Spreadsheet PDF

French opened his practice in 1990 in Bentonville, where he grew up. “I figured that would be as good a place as any to start my own practice,” he said. “I didn’t set out to work for Wal-Mart or other national retailers. But I did a project in Bentonville, an office building, for Bud Walton,” or, rather, French did a project for the sons of Walton’s longtime girlfriend. That was in 1993 and one of those sons worked in the store planning department at Wal-Mart.

“At that time the department was dealing with only two other architecture firms,” French said. “They felt like they could use another firm. Even though the firm was small — there might not have been more than three or four total staff at the time, maybe there were five of us — they gave us an opportunity to do some small projects for them. Basically, as that department grew, we grew with them.”

“One thing we’ve learned in dealing with different clients is that as a contact leaves one company and goes to another company, a lot of times they will use you at their new company,” he said. “That’s pretty good marketing; that’s inexpensive marketing. We’ve seen that happen more than once.”

In other words, if one happy customer leaves, say, Wal-Mart to work in the store planning department at, say, Walgreens, he remembers Harrison French & Associates when it comes time to hire an architect to design a new drugstore. That pattern has led to the firm having had hundreds if not thousands of projects throughout the United States, from Bangor, Maine, to Santa Barbara, Calif.

The nature of those projects ranges from simple retail remodeling jobs to major expansions or “ground-up new stores,” French said. Fueling stations and car washes are also in the firm’s portfolio.

Harrison French & Associates is by no means the only firm used by Wal-Mart and other big retailers, but “they generate so much work that it keeps all the firms fairly busy,” French said.

As for problems associated with having these high-profile clients, French said, “the retail business can be volatile. Fortunately, we haven’t experienced much of that with Wal-Mart, but we have with other clients. So you can find yourself in a situation where you have to downsize.” And downsizing, he said, “is kind of a polite way of saying you’ve got to let people go. We’ve experienced some of that in the past year.”

That reality is reflected on a comparison of the lists of this year and last year. The firm’s 162 total staff this year shows a sizable drop from its 249 in 2013. “It’s difficult and it’s unfortunate and we hadn’t really experienced that before,” French said. “We were doing a lot of work for 7-Eleven and it grew quickly and it downsized quickly. They’re changing their approach and even though we’re doing some work for them, they’ve scaled back.”

French is proudest of “the programs that we develop where we work closely with a client and come up with a system that works well for them as far as meeting their production needs. … And hopefully do it in a way that makes their lives easier, makes their jobs easier.”

Harrison French & Associates’ steady stream of work has allowed it to renovate a long-empty National Home Center store in Bentonville to serve as the firm’s 45,000-SF headquarters, into which it recently moved.

French acknowledged that much of the design work is programmatic. “I don’t mind saying it’s different from a lot of firms and it’s not always what an architect aspires to do,” he said. “When I set up my shop I didn’t necessarily intend to be doing work for Wal-Mart on a significant scale, but it’s an opportunity that came along and we seem to be able to do what needed to be done for them and they kept sending us more and more work.”