Lonnie Laffen co-founded JLG in 1989.
Lonnie Laffen co-founded JLG in 1989.
He currently serves as the company's CEO.
When Gary Johnson and Lonnie Laffen launched Johnson & Laffen Architects Ltd. in Grand Forks, N.D., in 1989 they intended to run a small firm focused on improving the quality of life in communities through great design.
Aside from its initial expansion to Minneapolis in 2002, all of the firm's new offices have been added in the past decade, due in large part to the Bakken oil boom, and a lot of it was simply opportunistic, according to CEO Lonnie Laffen.
Laffen admits the firm had never considered opening a location there until the company's chief operating officer, Michelle Mongeon Allen, relocated to Minneapolis.
"Finally the light bulb went on and we said, 'Well why don't we just start an office there?' That really opened the floodgates," Laffen
"Suddenly we had four offices and we hadn't planned on them," Laffen
says, adding that the new locations quickly gained new business in each market for the firm.
Oil Boom Impacts
The firm continued on for several years with those four locations, building a reputation as a desirable employer and as a firm with expertise in multiple areas of design.
But as the Bakken oil boom began to pick up speed, so did demand for the firm's services.
"As North Dakota's oil boom started to take off, we really started to get very busy," Laffen
"We just couldn't get them to move to North Dakota, especially western North Dakota," Laffen
So the firm targeted North Dakota State University's
architecture school and began aggressively working to recruit the best students, courting potential employees as early as their third year of school by offering them internships.
"That worked very well," he
"We've been able to recruit from NDSU
, and most of those kids come from small towns and have a great work ethic."
But before long, the firm's demand for staff had outgrown NDSU's
So earlier this year it opened an office in Brookings, S.D., specifically to tap South Dakota State University's
recently established architecture school for new talent.
"We want to be there and have students involved in our offices and hopefully come to work for us as we get to know them," Laffen
The firm's rapid growth has allowed it to avoid placing specific demands on each location, which gives it the freedom to open offices near talent pools, rather than target markets.
says this strategy would obviously not be possible without current technology.
"[Technology has] allowed us to work on any project, anywhere," he
"We never have an expectation that a new office has to do anything."
's long-term growth plan is to continue using the model that inspired it to expand to Brookings, focusing on smaller communities that have architecture schools in order to recruit talent, and to establish offices where new employees are already located.
It's a strategy with a big end goal.
says the company's growth strategy "has no limit" but will focus on states in the center of the U.S. where he
believes policies are most conducive to growth.
The firm anticipates its reach could eventually stretch from Grand Forks to Texas.
Still Small City
has become a big fish in the region's architecture pool, and plans to grow even larger, Laffen
says the core of the firm remains "small city architecture" in that it intends to maintain a broad portfolio of projects rather than become specialized in any certain type of building.
says the firm learned early on when it expanded to Minneapolis that it can be hard to compete with "big city" firms, which provide expertise in certain areas and can easily snap up those projects in urban areas.
But in smaller communities, having an array of experience provides expertise that is otherwise unknown.
"We have found much more work in Dickinson and Bismarck than we ever did in Minneapolis," he
Having a diversified portfolio has also provided the firm with efficiencies in drafting and other areas of design and helps to attract students, according to Laffen
, so it will continue to be the status quo for the firm as it expands to mid-sized, underserved markets throughout the Midwest.
"And we just like the way we have it set up," he