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Weekend edition April 19, 2024 | Tom Ballard

Answer comes to the question: “Are we too big to be small or too small to be big?”

Studio Four Design Inc. acquired in late March by Michael Graves Architecture, an award-winning global leader in planning, architecture, and interior design based in Princeton, NJ.

In the fall of 2022, Stacy Cox recalls contemplating this question: “Are we too big to be small or too small to be big?”

As President of Studio Four Design Inc. located in downtown Knoxville, he was leading a firm of 17 design professionals at that time. Cox recalls contemplating the future of the company that was founded in May 2002. “Do we need another office? Do we acquire someone? What’s the right strategy?”

To help answer the question, the architectural and interior design firm engaged Stonemill Partners, which describes itself as a non-traditional mergers and acquisition (M&A) firm with a focus on culture and synergy. What started out as a search for expansion took a 180 degree turn along the way.

“We can help you acquire someone, but have you considered being acquired,” Cox recalls from an early conversation with the M&A firm. “We spent much of last year exploring our options and entered a letter of intent (LOI) with a firm at the end of 2023.”

That LOI became a reality in early March when Michael Graves Architecture (MG), an award-winning global leader in planning, architecture, and interior design based in Princeton, NJ, announced that it had acquired the Knoxville firm.

It was the latest in a series of recent acquisitions by MG that included Maryland-based Waldon Studio Architects, New Jersey-based Jose Carballo Architectural Group, North Carolina-based Walter Robbs Callahan & Pierce Architects PA, Washington, DC-based PGN Architects, and Texas-based practice technology consultancy Parallax Team.

In many respects, the acquisition allowed Cox, who earned his B.S. in Architecture in 1993 from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, to be connected with the legendary Michael Graves, an individual he had admired as an influential designer during his college days. Founded in 1964, MG’s clients range from Fortune 100 companies and global manufacturers to start-ups, from government to cultural, educational, and healthcare institutions, and from real estate developers and retailers to homeowners and consumers.

“This merger leverages the skillsets and experiences at Studio Four Design, allowing us to take our capabilities and offerings to a new level,” Cox said in the news release announcing the acquisition. “We’re eager to immerse our team in cross-collaboration and mentorship opportunities through MG’s vast network. This is a chance to continue developing our presence and impact––supporting our existing clients while expanding our horizons across new industries and practices.”

For the past 22 years, Studio Four Design has been what Cox describes as a “generalist firm,” which he says included work with churches – a considerable portion of the firm’s business – along with the University of Tennessee Athletic Department. Other clients include healthcare, corporate, industrial, commercial, and retail.

Cox grew up in Kingsport and knew from an early age that he wanted to be an architect.

While he’s passionate about the profession, he also is heavily involved with an organization named SEED International and its SEED Collective that describes its focus as being “a community of people with hearts for Hati.”

Cox explains that he was part of a church mission trip to the country in August 2010, months after a magnitude 7.0 earthquake hit Haiti, killing an estimated 222,570, injuring 300,000, displacing 1.3 million residents, destroying 97,294 houses, and damaging another 188,383 in the Port-au-Prince area and in much of southern Haiti.

As an architect, he says he concluded, “Seeing the amount of devastation to buildings was a sobering reminder of the importance of why we enforce building codes in our country.”

On a personal level, a trip to an orphanage in the mountains on his last day changed his life forever when he met a young child who was one of 11 children that her parents had decided needed an opportunity for a better life than they could provide. Today, Cox and his wife have adopted her after having serious conversations with her parents to ensure that giving her that life in the States was what they really wanted.

And in June 2023, Cox joined with Morgan Benson, Andrea Land and Beverly Linkous to launch SEED Coffee Company that moved into a recently renovated 100-year-old church building located at 2558 Sutherland Avenue. A portion of the company’s proceeds go to support ministry in Haiti. Additionally, SEED currently offers support to Haitian immigrants living in the Knoxville area, by hosting Faith and Finance classes and other resources at SEED Coffee Company’s newly expanded venue.

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