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April 03, 2012 | Tom Ballard

Red Chair Architects based on “Principle of the Three V’s”

I’m a firm believer in what I call the “Principle of the Three V’s” – shared values can lead to a common vision that results in a joint venture. In the case of the newly named Red Chair: Architects, the first two V’s led to a merger of two previously independent firms.

In a recent interview with, David Cockrill, Red Chair’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO) related the evolution of competitors to partners and the selection of the name for the combined company.

“I belonged to a group called C12,” Cockrill said, explaining that Knoxville had a chapter of the national organization that is composed of faith-based CEOs. The invitation-only group meets monthly for a day where they share their individual business strategies and discuss case studies. Membership is limited to one person from a specific business sector so that opportunities and challenges can be openly discussed.

The Knoxville chapter decided to host an event for members and non-members in October 2010, and Cockrill was asked to give a seven- to eight-minute testimonial.

“The meeting was running long, and I had to be in another city for a meeting,” he recalled. “I kiddingly said to Don Shell and Bill Vinson of Community Tectonics that I had to leave to visit with one of their clients.”

About two weeks later, Shell and Vinson called Cockrill and invited him to a lunch. The latter thought it was to learn which client he had visited. Was he ever in for a shock.

After the normal conversation that occurs, Cockrill said he finally asked, “Why are we here?” Shell responded that “I’m here to invite you to be our new CEO.” An obviously surprised Cockrill recalls that he responded, “Do you realize that I already have a firm?” Shell, in turn, said, “Yeah, that’s a problem.”

The driver for the luncheon was the first V – values. Cockrill recalls that Shell said, “When you stood-up and spoke to the C12group, we said that you were the guy we were looking for.”

The top leaders of the two companies realized that they possessed the same values so, instead of talking about Cockrill joining Community Tectonics, they initiated intense discussions about merging Community Tectonics and Cockrill Design and Planning.

Cockrill had two requirements – a combined firm would not require new investments and he would need to be the new CEO since “I don’t make a good employee,” he said.

The exploration started in November 2010, and the merger was announced in January 2012. The year-long discussions were intense, demanding and focused.

Cockrill and Shell maintained a standing Monday evening meeting for the better part of a year, most Saturdays and parts of Sundays. “It was like having two jobs,” Cockrill said.

By August 2011, they had developed a document, Seven Points of Merger Agreement, which captured the basis of agreement for a merger. Shell’s partner, Vinson and Cockrill’s partner, Margaret Backhurst, were then brought into the discussions in hopes of gaining their acceptance of the merger. Once reached, the four pursued the second V – consensus around a common vision.

Cockrill said that they addressed the second V by having each individual review the other three’s comments about each of the seven merger points. “Remarkably, we were very much on the same page” said Cockrill, “The only point of difference was which of our offices would house the new merged firm. At somewhat of an impasse and needing an address for the January 3 launch, I was forced to make an “executive decision” only to reverse that decision weeks later with input and consensus from the total firm” Cockrill said.

On September 9, the principals in the two firms made the decision to merge – the third V. “It was based on “no recourse, no retreat” after that day, Cockrill added.

Consistent with his faith-based principles, Cockrill said that “we developed a covenant between us that governs our relationship and goals going forward,” combined our separate firms into a single holding company, assigned ownership shares, and launched our rebranding plan.

Like the other steps in the merger, the new name was pursued methodically. Mary Beth West, a Maryville-based public relations consultant, was engaged to help. She, in turn, brought three other companies to the table – Locomotion Creative in Nashville, Bryant Research in Knoxville, and Blue Media Boutique, also of Knoxville.

Cockrill said the creative team had less than two months to do its work. He asked them to explore firm names “as iconic as the Nike swoosh, McDonald arches or the Apple ‘apple’.”

The team interviewed every employee of both companies in small group sessions. They also talked with the top 20 customers of the two firms. The words that customers used to describe the firm with which they worked were trustworthy, integrity, ethical, focused and creative. The employees used descriptors like family, work pride, collaborative environment, and relationships and friendships with clients.

As the October 31 deadline for selection of a new name approached, the name suggested was Red Chair: Architects. Cockrill remembers telling Shell, Vinson and Backhurst to take 10 minutes to think about the name before commenting. He got two favorable reactions, but the group waited for a few days before reassembling where there was unanimous agreement.

Cockrill describes the name as symbolic of the firm’s values. “The red chair is a place of honor and comfort where we focus on our clients’ needs,” he said, adding that “we never sit in the red chair.” The color red is strong. In the logo, the “modern but comfortable” red chair depicted next to the name also includes an iconic colon which Cockrill explains is a way to graphically symbolize “something to come.”

The very last decision involved company location. It was initially to be Community Tectonics’ building on Coward Mill Road but, at the last minute, the management team decided that Cockrill’s location in the Old City was best even though it is smaller than the Community Tectonics building which is now for sale.

So, less than 15 months after trying to convince Cockrill to leave his firm and join another, the two companies combine because they successfully navigated the three V’s – having shared values that enabled the development of a consensus vision that led to a joint venture (aka – merger).

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