Debbie Donley of Vocon
Meet Debbie Donley, founder of Vocon, an architectural firm with offices in Cleveland and New York that creates distinctive, productive work environments for clients around the globe. It is one of the largest design firms in the country and one of the top 40 firms internationally. With more than 120 employees, Vocon’s capabilities include architecture, interior design, branding, graphic design, workplace strategy and change communications.
How did you come to be an entrepreneur?
I started Vocon with the desire to create an architectural/design firm that responded to client needs in a very unique way. Leading with our passion for creative design, we have been able to link our clients’ business strategy and vision to their built environment, which has become a very powerful tool for large and small organizations across the country and the world.
How have you handled your growth, especially with the recent acquisition of Conant Architects?
Our growth hasn’t really been rapid. Slow and steady is how we have been successful over the last 25 years. We have been deliberate about the clients we have chosen to work with and have been passionate about the quality level of people we add to our Vocon family. We have maintained our unique culture and have never allowed ourselves to become anything but humble about the work we are doing.
The addition of the Conant team is a natural progression for us as many of our clients reside in New York. Peter Conant was looking to increase his geographic footprint--which we bring to the table and we were looking to have a stronger foothold in the city, which is where Conant has resided his entire career. We believe that we are aligned culturally with Peter and his team as we share the same passion for quality design and white glove service for our clients.
Are there challenges to being a female-owned architecture firm?
I am proud to be a female-owned firm but have never allowed that to be the brand of who we are. Typically, it never comes up when we meet with perspective clients. We sell ourselves based on the quality work we have done and the many long-standing relationships we have fostered over the years.
What advice would you give to someone starting a company in Cleveland?
I believe that starting a business anywhere is occurring more often than most believe. The younger generation has an idea and hangs up a shingle. They are courageous and less apt to try and map out every detail in order to open their doors.
My own advice to those just starting off is to collaborate with people who know more than you do. Surround yourself with the best and the brightest. Never be afraid of those with more talent. When ego gets in your way, there is rarely a positive outcome.
Cleveland is on a roll right now. For those that haven’t been downtown lately, come. There’s a vibrancy about the city that hasn’t been here for years. It’s a great time to start a business in Cleveland, in my opinion.
Interview by Karin Connelly