Small-Business Success Story: How Flexibility and Diversity Pushed Iron Horse to Award-Winning Profits

by Matt Ball
- Jun 6 2014 - 4 min read
Iron Horse

Iron Horse Architects is a small Denver-based, woman-owned business that has risen above the recession, winning work and raising profits in trying times.

Thanks to revenue growth that ramped from $211,774 in 2009 to more than $1.8 million in 2011, the company was recently honored by the Denver Business Journal as its 2012 Fastest-Growing Private Company among small businesses, and its principal, Virginia McAllister, was named the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Colorado Small Business Person of the Year for 2013, while also vying for the national award.

Denver Union Station

Notable recent work at the firm has included the Denver Union Station renovation project, additions to Concourses A and C at Denver International Airport, and a mixed-use development called The Landmark in Greenwood Village. The firm’s diversity of work ranges from federal, transportation, aviation and science, and technology laboratory projects.

Secrets to Success

“A large part of our success comes from our small size,” McAllister says. “We can change much more quickly than larger firms and can implement decisions much more quickly. The business started with high-rise, multifamily, urban infill projects, and when the recession hit and the bottom dropped out on our entire industry, we started focusing on public-sector projects.”

Staying current on software has been another key factor for success through the recession.

“Autodesk did pretty much everything that it could to help people stay current, with free classes and letting people use the software for free if they were unemployed,” McAllister says. “A real challenge in our industry is that if you weren’t using Revit and its associated programs during the recession and are looking for work now, you’re three years behind the curve.”

Matching more experienced people who have had difficulty learning the new tools and yet are experienced in management and realizing projects with great architecture has also been a core strength. The company mandates Revit classes for all employees so they understand the technology in a fundamental way.

“One of the key factors is that we hired two young people who have only worked in 3D; they’ve never taken out the ink pens and drawn on Mylar on a drafting board,” McAllister says. “They bring this in-depth knowledge of how to draw in Revit, and we combine them with senior architects to define our processes, controls, and drawing standards.”

Iron Horse has been committed to BIM for a long time. This approach has set the company apart, and continues to set it apart as they do BIM even if a project doesn’t require it.

“Most projects today are in 3D, but they’re not BIM because they aren’t intelligent or informed models; they are just 3D buildings used to create 2D documents,” McAllister says. “Until clients are willing to pay the extra costs of viewing the models with data, it’s going to stay that way, and they need to know why they are paying extra for it. We see the benefit in substantially more coordinated work where our team is so much more efficient.”

Rules to Live By

Among the seven business rules and lessons that McAllister lives by are:

1. Cash Flow Is King. In order to borrow money, you have to borrow money. As you ramp up for larger and larger projects, you need to borrow money, put it into an account, and pay it back. If you don’t have a history of borrowing money, even if you have perfect credit, banks won’t lend you the money without a history of paying increasing debts.

2. Analyze Everything. Every decision is made from a cash-flow perspective. Be conservative, anticipating payment on projects four months from the project start rather than within 30 days.

3. Always Do What You Say You’re Going to Do.

4. If You Make a Mistake, Fix It.

5. Deliver on Time.

6. Do Quality Work.

7. Be an Excellent Team Member. Treat others how you want to be treated.

Denver Union Station

In terms of the company’s recent financial success, McAllister credits some tenacity in winning the Denver Union Station project, where she spent two years marketing her firm’s capabilities. This was the first substantial project at the bottom of the recession, and that led to further transit work thanks to longstanding good relationships.

“A large part of our success is having great relationships with our clients and business partners and maintaining those relationships, because you never know who you’re going to work with in the future,” McAllister says.

Getting Going

Starting a firm is a daunting challenge. McAllister says that she had to prove herself all over again, even though she had worked on some very large projects with her prior firm.

“Even though you have 15 years of experience doing amazing projects, people want proven competencies,” she says. “It’s the rare firm that doesn’t start at zero and build itself up.”

For similar small-business success stories, be sure to read How Smart Problem Solving and Rental Software Keep One Environmental-Engineering Firm on Top and Making Waves: Hiring and Running a Business the Oru Kayak Way.

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