Form follows function

De Pere-based architectural firm Performa builds relationships before structures

Posted on Jun 1, 2016 :: Cover Story
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Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

When Performa CEO Jeff Kanzelberger was working with the Carmelite sisters on a design for a new monastery in Denmark, he had to step outside his comfort zone and rely a bit on faith. Early in the project, the Mother Prioress asked Kanzelberger to go to the site and find the place in Brown County where the monastery’s altar would be located. At that point there were no project drawings, no topographic maps, no clear directions about where, exactly, this altar might be sited.

“I said, ‘Mother, how in the heck am I going to find that?’” Kanzelberger recalls. The Mother Prioress assured him that once he was there, it would be obvious.

Kanzelberger went, wandering up a hill chest-deep in prairie grasses, getting ready to make a call on his cellphone. He was about to dial, walking absent-minded, and right where he was about to step was a two-day-old fawn.

The monastery had its altar site.

While this example isn’t typical of how Performa approaches its client projects, it does show how the company values its relationships and works with clients in the way that’s best for them. Performa, a De Pere-based architectural, engineering and planning firm, is also committed to doing what’s best for its clients — even if that means talking them out of building.

Founded in 1995 by Kanzelberger and his partner, Doug Page, Performa has grown to about 33 employees and currently serves more than 100 clients in multiple industries, most of them within the New North region. It counts among its clients Plexus, Ariens, Community First Credit Union, Nicolet Bank, St. Norbert College, Northcentral Wisconsin Technical College, Schneider, Belmark and others.

Additionally, Performa has worked in 42 states and Mexico.

At any point during the year, the company averages

$200 million in planning, design or construction and about 1 million square feet in projects. The company anticipates growing about 10 percent in 2016.

Function before form

The idea of an architect turning down a building project has taken aback a few prospective Performa clients.

When Nicolet Bank Chairman and CEO Bob Atwell enlisted Kanzelberger to design a new downtown Green Bay headquarters in the early 2000s, “we sat down and I told him, ‘It’s time for us to have a new headquarters, we’d like you to design the building.’ He basically said no,” Atwell says.

Instead, Kanzelberger told him Performa needed to better understand Nicolet as an organization first.

“My reaction to that at first was kind of like, ‘You’re an architect. You build buildings. I just called you up with what I thought was a good thing,’” Atwell says. “But in reality, it was a very, very healthy process.”

Kanzelberger ultimately spent about a year observing and learning about Nicolet’s functional workflow as well as the company’s culture “well enough to actually design a building that is a physical manifestation of the mission of the bank,” Atwell says. Performa has also worked on Nicolet’s De Pere, Howard, Medford and Bay Settlement branch renovations.

Kanzelberger calls the process “hyper collaboration.”

“It’s essentially getting to know an organization so well, so deeply, that you basically almost can feel their pain,” he says. “You get a sense of what they’re trying to do for their customers, a sense of their long-term plans. Instead of reacting to initiatives, more and more over the years, our clients asked us to help them paint a picture of the future.”

Brian Netzel, principal and director of design, says Performa walks a company through a series of detailed steps to examine its goals and objectives, project purpose, success criteria and other factors. Taking those steps ensures the end result is what the client needs, which might not necessarily be a new building.

“It may be that you just need to rearrange the inside of your facility to make it much more efficient,” Netzel says. “If you do that, you may not need to build an addition for ‘x’ number of years.”

When the company does need that addition, Performa will be ready.

Birth of a mission

After graduating from UW-Milwaukee with an architectural degree, Kanzelberger went to work for a large insurance company as its facility planner. But it wasn’t the right place for him.

“It is miserable work because you basically wait for a plane to crash, a boat to sink, a building to burn,” Kanzelberger says. “That’s your product. It’s tough. I could not relate to it.”

Kanzelberger would scan the Wall Street Journal want ads and daydream about making a big leap, one day noticing an ad for the Ministry of Housing and Resettlement in Trinidad and Tobago. He and his wife, Kay, had spent some time in the Caribbean, and he went for it.

The job involved building public housing and schools in Trinidad, where the average annual income is $400 or less. Kanzelberger watched families occupy buildings where it might be the first time they experienced running water or clean surroundings.

“That’s when the light went on,” Kanzelberger recalls.

“I said, it’s not buildings, per se, it’s what buildings can do for people.”

Kanzelberger, whose family is from Manitowoc, eventually came back to Wisconsin and became St. Norbert College’s director of facilities. It was the beginning of a relationship that lasts today.

“I got to see how the whole place works,” Kanzelberger says. “That was as much the genesis for our business because you could see how the institution functioned from the back room, and it was just a great way to understand how all the pieces go together.”

Laying a foundation

Kanzelberger first encountered Page and Netzel while working at St. Norbert College. Page, then a young architect with the engineering firm CPR Associates of De Pere, brought a proposal that Kanzelberger didn’t think much of.

“To put it in a nice way, he beat the hell out of me,” says Page, president and COO of Performa. “I went back and did a rewrite of the proposal, and kind of went toe-to-toe with him, and I think he respected that.”

Page won the contract and worked with Kanzelberger

for about five years before leaving CPR. Then Kanzelberger was hired by CPR, and asked Page to come back. They worked together there from 1991 to 1995, and purchased a portion of CPR’s buildings group in November 1995. That became Performa.

The early years were tough, Kanzelberger says, partially because of occasionally talking clients out of building — “Frankly, we just couldn’t do it when there was another way to solve the problem” — and because the company had built a particularly expensive model, he says.

“Meaning we have architects, interior designers, mechanical, electrical, structural engineering all on staff. Plumbing. That is very unusual,” Kanzelberger says. “But basically, a client will come to us and we can do all of it.”

“If they can develop an understanding of the depth of care that we have for our clients, they begin to trust us implicitly,” Page says. “That’s just one piece of evidence

that demonstrates the level of care we have about the

clients we serve. I’ll be honest, it’s not all that common in our profession. It’s hard to tell people that you care about them, and have them believe you without actually experiencing it.”

Building relationships

After moving to CPR Associates, and then launching Performa, Kanzelberger continued     the relationship with St. Norbert.

“It’s been literally the case there have been construction cranes on campus the entire time and we have pretty much been partnering with Performa on everything,” says Tom Kunkel, president of St. Norbert College since 2008.

Since Kunkel arrived, he has worked with Performa on the completion of the Mulva Library, building Schneider Stadium and Greis residential dorm, as well as a major overhaul of the Sensenbrenner Memorial Union. Most recently, SNC renovated and expanded the 50-year-old science building that now houses the Medical College of Wisconsin’s new regional program.

Kunkel says Performa worked with the college in developing a feasible proposal for the science center, taking a $60 million project down to a more palatable $42 million estimate, ultimately building it for $39 million.

“It was the single biggest project we’ve ever done, and not just in terms of monetary amount, but in terms of sheer complexity, and Performa was outstanding on that,” Kunkel says.

Kunkel says Kanzelberger is grounded in the college’s values, understanding its ethos and mission.

“He’s very good about keeping everybody open to possibilities, and yet he also knows it’s important to us to keep kind of a St. Norbert look,” Kunkel says.

“Jeff embodies a talent that isn’t very common,” Page says. “He’s able to see things ahead of most people. And he’s got a very strategic mind. … His strength and his gift to Performa

is he’s able to visualize what things look like one, three, five,   

10 years out and make decisions based on that.”

Netzel says he saw the same values in Kanzelberger when Kanzelberger was a client. “I think Jeff’s always been there to have us take a look at something that’s just a little bit different,” he says. “He’s one of the people that has always kind of pushed us. Jeff’s always looking not just a couple blocks up the road, it’s miles and miles up the road, at all levels of what we do.”

That’s important when Performa clients are planning facilities to last 50 years, or 100. Or even longer, in the case of the Carmelite monastery, which had a very particular

set of needs.

The Carmelites are discalced, meaning they wear sandals, not shoes, and are cloistered, speaking to outsiders rarely, such as when they plan to build a new monastery — a process they don’t intend to repeat for several hundred years. So it was very important to choose the right architect.

“I said, ‘You know, Sister, I’m probably not the holiest guy. Probably you could do better on that score,” he says. “And they basically said, ‘Well, Jeff, we think you’re here for a reason. Your firm’s here for a reason.”

Performa designed the monastery with an interior courtyard and a layout best suited to their daily activities. And it was built in the style the sisters requested, built to stand 100 years, with the anticipation it will stand for 400 years.

Spirit of success

Kanzelberger says he’s not the holiest guy partially because of his penchant for practical jokes. As a student he once put a live pheasant in a classmate’s locker. As the leader of Performa, he has shrink-wrapped everything on a coworker’s desk. His employees have retaliated by “downsizing” everything in his office.

Kanzelberger channels some of that energy into bidding on auction homes and refurbishing them. He and his wife are working on homes in Sturgeon Bay and one in Scottsdale, Ariz., where they eventually plan to winter. They have two grown daughters, one who tamed a wild mustang and is featured in the documentary, “Wild Horses, Wild Ride.”

“We were smart enough to channel her mischief into things like that,” Kanzelberger says.

Aside from the occasional shrink-wrap disruption, Performa is very serious about its internal operations, and has been evaluating how to maintain its culture as it grows.

In the past two years, Performa has started training the next-generation leadership team, moving some people into new roles and working with outside firm Pathmakers on leadership development, says Theresa Schroeder, vice president of organizational development. The process includes a focus on self-awareness, improving communication and building internal relationships.

“The old mantra used to be ‘Check your personal life at that door,’ that kind of thing. Well, we don’t believe in that. We believe you’re one person at home or work, and certainly our lives overlap in both those places,” Schroeder says.

“As we grow, we don’t want to lose what we have,” Kanzelberger says. “Because it’s a very personal way of conducting business externally, it’s a very personal way of working with your peers.”

Until recently, Performa dispensed with organizational flow charts, adopting them now only because the company is positioning for more growth, Page says.

“We have a culture here that we’re very proud of, and we have a set of values — not just to run our business by but to run our lives by,” Page says. “We’ve actually exited people for being misaligned with the cultural characteristics that we embody, and it’s all about the behaviors that we value.”

Performa is always hiring, Kanzelberger says, casting a wide net for employees with certain characteristics: Technical expertise, yes, but those who are also highly aspirational, talented and humble and understand what Performa is about.

“We first and foremost need to generally just share a view on life that we’re doing more than building here – we’re involved in transformational events with our clients,” Kanzelberger says.

Likewise, Performa seeks clients that share its values, aiming to build a long-term relationship with them, whether it’s continuing to design buildings as companies grow or setting up long-term maintenance plans to help them with facilities they already have.

“We basically said we’re going to have a firm with a mission,” Kanzelberger says. “And so we’ve been guided by a mission ever since we began, and it’s less about how we do it, and more about what we care about — and we care about our clients succeeding.”