Established firms sometimes forget why they were born and where they came from. So while his firm is gearing up to celebrate its 90th anniversary, CEO Jared Nesje is using lessons from its past to plot the future.

“I think we’ve renewed ourselves,” Nesje said of the full-service integrated architecture, engineering, and planning group. “Our company is old, but our culture is new because of the people we have today. The youngest architect in our office believes we do it different here. We’re designing with you, not for you. We care about our communities, and that comes through in our work for clients and how we care for one another. We say it’s a family, and we mean it.”

Across nine decades, much has changed in the industry. A great deal of that innovation is driven by how companies understand and apply new technologies. Other transitions come from within, starting as ideas to make the work smarter, faster, better. It’s what it takes to make any business last so long.

TSP has thrived by carrying forward the best ideas and recognizing its people as its legacy, just as surely as the buildings they create together. That’s why many of the events planned for this major anniversary year focus inward. Every 90 days, team members will have the opportunity to participate in a different themed activity. The 90-day time frame ties into the firm’s use of Traction, a business tool that applies the same span as a metric for accomplishing key tasks known as “rocks.”

This summer, the group’s 90 Days of Kindness will encourage team members to start a ripple effect with small acts for others. It’s a reminder to live the slogan that hangs at the employee entrance: “When you do good, you feel good.”

Modest beginnings

Harold T. Spitznagel launched his company on June 30, 1930. He had $20 in capital and a $15-a-month rental bill for his spot on the third floor of the downtown Western Surety Building. His first job was designing a storefront for a local bakery, and he received his fee in baked goods. His first major commission, Sioux Falls’ art deco-inspired City Hall, still serves his hometown.

Throughout its history, the company has held true to Spitz’s founding principles and carried his name: The TSP stands for The Spitznagel Partners. He’d also recognize the brick-and-mortar bones of the local office, where he relocated his firm in the early 1970s. Remade from the inside out during an award-winning remodel in 2011, the building has adapted to fit how clients and designers best work together.

The business has done the same, growing from a one-man shop in tough economic times to a full-service planning and design firm. It’s changed locations in Sioux Falls and beyond, opening offices in communities to strategically align with like-minded groups or fill a need in emerging markets. Today, TSP has South Dakota offices in Sioux Falls, Watertown, and Rapid City—as well as locations in Omaha, Neb., and Rochester, Minn. The latter celebrated a half-century in its home community just last year. The Rapid City office will reach its 50-year mark in 2023.

Growth and growing pains

“When they were planting new office locations in the late 1960s through the early 1980s, they did it because—with rare exception—people in the core firm wanted an opportunity to lead and grow the company,” said Tony Dwire. A principal and senior engineer, he recently took on the role of COO. Over time, sites adapted to foster their own local cultures, methods, and microstructures. They functioned a bit like franchisees in the retail world. But that model can make it hard to hold the center and share a singular vision.

“So in 2005, we brought that all back together again under one banner. One name, one firm, one stock,” Dwire said. “Now in 2020, 15 years later, my gut tells me we have a closer bond today than we’ve had at any other point in the 32 years since I started with this company. I feel that.”

TSP is keeping pace with some stellar company. Living like a family is one of the 12 tests that Harvard Business Review found among Centennials, its term for winning organizations that reach the 100-year mark. “Most businesses focus on serving customers, owning resources, being efficient and growing—but the Centennials don’t,” HBR summed up in a recent article. “Instead, they try to shape society, share experts, create accidents, and focus on getting better not bigger. They’re radically traditional—with a stable core, but a disruptive edge. And that’s what keeps them ahead.”

Spitz embodied many of those 12 tests, long before they were named. He was a forward-looking sole owner who took fierce pride in what he’d built—and knew its survival depended on others. He recognized the need to integrate form and function, bringing full-time engineers and interior designers into his practice in the early 1950s. He later invited a select group of colleagues to invest in the company as principals and become his partners.

New directions

TSP will evolve yet again in this milestone year as it offers an Employee Stock Ownership Program (ESOP) to team members. The move will make employees eligible to own a stake in the privately held company as current principals, associates, and others gradually redeem their shares. Firm leaders believe the change will further strengthen team members’ sense of ownership. The shares employees receive from the company will create an additional retirement account-type benefit. Dwire calls it “a natural fit for how we’ve developed, especially over the past five years.”

Ron Mielke sees it as coming full circle. He’s been with TSP for more than 50 years and is the only current employee who worked with Spitznagel. He recognizes the founder’s spirit in today’s company, and he’s excited for the ESOP to expand the idea behind the first-generation partnership to a broad group of team members.

“To be successful over time, you need internal leadership to manage the day-to-day, but you also need that element of getting out in the community,” said Mielke, who led the firm as CEO from 1982 to 2002. A mechanical engineer by trade, he now focuses on project management client services. “It’s not just letting people know your firm does high-quality work or that you’re responsible and ethical. It’s letting them see who you are and what you stand for.”

To that end, TSP’s 90th anniversary year also will include outward-facing elements. The goal: further strengthen the firm’s core value of community. Group volunteer efforts at local nonprofits will be part of the mix. Digital and online efforts will drive home the firm’s passion with connections to past and ongoing projects that continue to shape the local landscape. Opportunities are being developed to involve the public, including a self-guided tour of Spitznagel-designed houses.

Above all, TSP will highlight how its people funnel teamwork, service, and passion into creating legacy buildings—just as Spitz and his partners did.

“This firm has always done things because of our people, and it’s up to all of us to make it happen,” Nesje said. “That’s the flag I carry. I have to lead our company with our people in mind.”