The Journey
Part I
There’s a special privilege that comes with mentoring young people, sharing your experiences and sharpening the minds of aspiring artists. Every year, Summerour Architects fosters a group of interns from the Auburn University School of Architecture. They show up eager and unlearned, full of promise and questions. We do everything we can to prepare them for the business world they’re about to enter. 
The questions I field most often, not just from interns but also from friends and associates, are: Why did you strike out on your own? What prompted you to form your own company? And when did you know that being an entrepreneur was right for you?  
The answer is simple, although I’m not sure it’s something that everyone will understand. I started Summerour Architects because I was miserable doing everything else. 
When I first came to Atlanta after studying at Auburn, traveling to Italy, and doing some work in Stuttgart, Germany, I landed an interview with the firm of TVS, which stands for the names of its founders, Bill Thomas, Tom Vintulett, and Ray Stainback. The firm was as big time as it got. Their work included the CNN Center, the Omni complex and the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta, along with the Washington DC Convention Center and the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia. They would later design the Nanjing Expo Center in China, Vision Tower in Dubai, the Georgia Aquarium and Mercedes Benz Stadium.   
My interview was with Mr. Stainback. It didn’t last long. After some standard questions and answers where I exhibited a young man’s hubris while sharing my thoughts on architecture as art and the role of design in elevating the human spirit, Mr. Stainback raised his hand. “Son,” he said, “you need to work on your own.” 
I thought that was a blow-off, a nice way of saying, “You aren’t TVS material.” What I didn’t realize was that Mr. Stainback saw something in me that, at the time, I didn’t see in myself, an independence that didn’t fit within the cubicles of a large architecture firm. 
This was not an inherited trait. My parents were both teachers in Jacksonville, Alabama. In fact, we lived right across the road from the high school and university in town. Growing up, I visited my grandfather’s farm in Duluth, Georgia where we would hunt and fish. But no one ever talked about building a business. We were more concerned about the right shells to use for duck season. 
I studied architecture and ran track at Auburn but also studied in Italy and did some work in Stuttgart, Germany. Once I officially hit the job market, I had visions. I saw myself as a young Bobby McAlpine, a man who went out on his own at age 26 designing classical, European-styled homes. McAlpine became successful enough to open offices in Montgomery, Nashville and Atlanta. But at the time, I didn’t have any contacts or business knowledge, and I had to pay rent and eat a couple of times a day, so I went to work for a small firm doing remodels of cookie stores in malls. It was terrible, the kind of drudgery that beat the soul out of many aspiring artists. Then I did some cut-and-paste apartments, low-end stuff which had the same joyless effects. I hated all of it. 
One day, I got up from my small table at our uninspiring offices in Peachtree Center, and I walked outside to eat a sad lunch in the plaza with everyone else had who came out with downcast eyes, eating takeout burritos like it was a last meal. 
For me, that hour changed everything. 
Just across the plaza, I saw John Portman, a commanding figure with combover hair and a shirt so crisp and white it hurt your eyes. Portman was the architect who developed Peachtree Center. He’d made a fortune and become an architectural superstar by building Marriott hotels all over the world. He’d graced the covers of business magazines and would eventually become one of the models for a Tom Wolfe novel. Portman was the man who created the atrium hotel and the interior glass elevator that gave you the sense you were flying and also triggered more than a few cases of vertigo. 
That midday in Atlanta, I saw Portman and looked at those buildings he had created. The inventiveness of his work touched me. He wasn’t enslaved to classicism or modernism. He couldn’t be put in a box. He had created his own art that he scaled into architecture. And he was not afraid to invest in sculpture in a city that had none.
Little did I know that years later I would do a house for Portman’s daughter Jana. In that process, she would tour me through some of his homes. And John and I would become pen pals. We swapped each other’s books. Even though his style was not approved by the architectural world, I thought it was genius.  
His home at Sea Island is different from anything anywhere else in the world because, even though it’s enormous, you couldn’t really see it and it felt so private and intimate but also exuberant. When I toured it with Jana, I came out saying, “I’m not sure I’m doing the right thing as an architect.” 
She smiled and said, “You keep doing what you’re doing.” 
That first day, seeing Portman in passing, I realized what Ray Stainback had seen. I didn’t have a special gift for entrepreneurship. There was no magic powder, nothing different in my DNA. I had to go out on my own because I would never be happy doing anything else.  
It would be a few more years and a couple of more jobs before I formed Summerour Architects. But that day was the beginning of my entrepreneurial journey. 
That afternoon, I knew that I had to hang my own shingle, because I couldn’t be devoted to the art and craft that I loved doing anything less. 

Part II
It’s one thing to start a business – a $500 incorporation fee and some annual payments to the Secretary of State will get you there – but building a business, making a living based on what you love and the principles you hold dear, requires a lot more.

In the late eighties and early nineties, I worked at a large architectural firm and hated every minute of it, which was on me, not them. They were fine people. I just wasn’t fit for that environment. But I did learn how to create big buildings.

I was also able to cobble together some freelance work doing remodels of older homes in the Brookhaven area of Atlanta. Those came about because of two factors: the recession of 1990 and my love of classical architecture.

All recessions have a few things in common beyond the textbook slowdown in GDP. For starters, institutional money dries up. Developers who are freewheeling off of large bank draws have to put the brakes on everything. The other commonality is that, in slowdowns, individuals take stock of what they own and make changes they’ve been putting off. If you look at the most recent recessions – 1981, 1990, 2001, 2008, 2020 - real estate sales have consistently plummeted while home improvement has boomed. Financially and psychologically, people want to fix up their houses during periods of slow economic growth.

The second reason I was able to enter the remodeling market was my knowledge and passion for European classicism. My favorite architecture professor in college hailed from Hungary. He inspired me to see art in classical design. He also opened my eyes to the value and beauty of indigenous materials in construction. There’s a reason stone and thatch are so prevalent in The Cotswolds of England while pine and cypress are common in the older homes of the American South. In both cases, those were the materials nearby.

Brookhaven, one of the affluent communities that sprang up in post-Civil War Atlanta, was full of early 20th century homes built in the Tudor, Greek Revival, and Italian Renaissance styles. That was my happy place. So, I crafted some side hustles in that neighborhood. Word spread, and suddenly I spent every night and weekend working on remodels. I carried a beeper to my real job, and when it went off, I’d head downstairs and find a payphone to call my outside clients.

In architecture, word of mouth remains the most reliable form of marketing. That helped me catch my first big break. One of my clients in Brookhaven recommended me to the daughter of the largest developer in Atlanta at that time who built much of the Atlanta skyline that exists today. She had her pick of architects. Because of the work I’d done with the older homes in town, she chose me.

That project was my big break. It allowed me to make enough money to quit my job at the big firm.

Not long after, I caught another break. In the fifties, sixties and seventies, modernists were all the rage. By 1990, classicists had made a comeback. So, in the early nineties, I submitted some work to a budding new organization called The Institute of Classical Architects. I was fortunate to be selected as one of the Top 100 Classical Architects in America.

That recognition put me on the map. I converted a small home in the Buckhead section of Atlanta into an office and took advantage of a booming Atlanta residential market. I knew I was fortunate, but I also seized opportunities. I worked fourteen hours a day, seven days a week, and I loved it.

One day, a man named Bill Jones walked into my office and asked if I would consider setting up shop on Sea Island. I didn’t know Jones. More importantly, I wasn’t sure I was ready for that kind of move. I had a nice little niche in the renovation market and was designing a few new houses every year. Opening a second office, expanding to a new location, adding staff: these were big decisions that could elevate the business, or drive us into bankruptcy. I wrestled with the idea, and I called some clients that I trusted. To a person, they said, “You need to open an office at Sea Island.”

So, within three weeks’ time, I opened a second office a five-hour drive from my first, and we helped Bill with his development of Ocean Forest, Cabin Bluff, Frederica, the local Methodist Church, and a host of other large homes and hospitality spaces. That work provided the fuel we needed to build our portfolio and move the company to where we are today.

A few months after going out on my own, Summerour Architects had two employees. I micromanaged everything. By 2007 we had 62 architects and a host of support staff in four offices.

None of that came easy. There were plenty of restless nights and anxious days. I questioned myself often. But I never questioned my decision to go out on my own, to form the company that now employs some of the most talented artists and architects in the business and has designs all over the world.

I still love the process - seeing, drawing, creating and collaborating – and I’m still up before the sun, even though I’ve turned the daily operations of the business over to a talented group of professionals.

The old adage is, do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life. That is a lie. I’ve always worked hard and long, and it hasn’t always been fun. But I could never image doing anything else.

That’s when you know you’ve made the right choice. That’s when you’ve lived your dream.