Jerry and Deby Merriman discuss retirement, legacy and changes to the industry

September 1, 2020
AVP_0521 WEB
Grandscape MAA

In mid-August, Dallas-based Merriman Anderson Architects announced the retirement of its founders, Jerry and Deby Merriman, after 33 years with the company.

The couple founded the firm in 1987 and have contributed much to the resurgence of downtown Dallas and the city's skyline as a whole. The company has designed more than 40 projects in downtown Dallas alone including the renovation and restoration of over 20 historic buildings.

The Dallas Business Journal is honoring Jerry with its Lifetime Achievement Award as part of its Best Real Estate Deals of 2019 virtual event on Sept. 22-23.

The firm’s portfolio includes renovations of The Statler, the 52-story The National (formerly First National Bank tower), the old Dallas Public Library, Lone Star Gas Lofts, Cambria Hotel Dallas (formerly Tower Petroleum) and 1900 Pacific Residences (formerly Corrigan Tower).

Last week, the couple spoke with the Business Journal about some of their favorite projects they've worked on, how diversity has changed within architecture firms and what they're most looking forward to about retirement.

Do you have a favorite project you've worked on in your career?

Jerry: That's a tough one. I know a lot of people recognize us for our historic renovations, but that's only been about 25 percent of our practice throughout the years. I'm very proud of the Bell Helicopter headquarters building we did in Fort Worth. I'm also really proud of The Statler renovation project in downtown (Dallas). The Grandscape project in The Colony is also a special one. Those are three that come to mind that are once in a lifetime opportunities. The National at 1401 Elm I think will be another one. We've just had so many great clients and have been really lucky.

Is there one project you wish you had worked on locally and is there anything you wish Dallas had that maybe it doesn't have currently?

Jerry: I know we've missed out on different projects that we really wanted, but I've always thought that Dallas had a really strong architectural community. When we lose a project, we're losing to really great firms. In terms of Dallas, I think what the city is doing both socially and economically has come a long way over the last 30 years. I think we're entering the ranks of those really special cities and that's due to so much involvement from businesses, the local government and the mayor. There's just so many things coming together that are positive. I think we're in a really good place. I wish I had another 30 years because I think it's going to be phenomenal for the city.

How does this latest downturn compare to others you've seen during your career?

Jerry: In 1987 we had the savings and loan crisis. That was a time when everything basically shut down. While 9/11 was tough, it was also very short. Things came back after three or four months. The Great Recession was another one, although we were able to come out of that pretty early too.

This one's weird because the money is still out there sitting on the sidelines and people are still working on projects. Construction may be delayed but in terms of design and acquiring and analyzing sites, that activity has been really strong and has even picked up in the last three or four weeks. For us, the toughest part has been being away from everyone. As a firm of our size, we really feed off one another and work so closely together. That’s been really tough being apart.

How has diversity at your company and in your industry changed over your career and could more be done to address diversity and inclusion issues?

Jerry: I think there are still some things we can do, but I do think that the gender diversity is changing tremendously. I know in architectural programs, at least when I was in school, we had maybe 600 students and five or 10 were women. We always had a pretty good ethnic diversity there because we had people from out of state and from out of the country, but the office makeup today has really changed. Our office is about 52 percent female versus 48 percent male.

For a woman to be able to go to a job site now and be respected, be able to relay decisions, and not be talked down to by contractors, that has changed 100 percent. I think there's a lot of firms that have reinforced this, including us. I think that trend is going to continue. I’m on a board at (the University of Oklahoma) and when you go to the school now, it’s probably 60/40 female verses male. I think that’s happening in a lot of schools. It’s really a positive thing.

We're also sensing more awareness from clients about the social side of what we're doing and where we're doing projects and how we do them. Are these projects relating to the neighborhoods and are we providing the type of housing that is needed? I think that's a big opportunity we're seeing right now and I think that helps the city as a whole.

What are you two most looking forward to about retirement?

Deby: I'm just looking forward to traveling a little bit and spending a lot of time with our five grandsons that all live close to us. Jerry and I are really close to our family and that’s what I’m looking forward to. I'm also looking forward to sleeping in late and not feeling guilty about it.

Jerry: When we started, Deby was not necessarily there by choice, but we really did grow this firm together.

Deby: I knew why he was in a bad mood, because he lost a project, or I knew why he was in a good mood because he had won a project. I think it’s been a great thing for our family because we’ve all been in it together.

Jerry: One thing we’ve spent a lot of time on is planning for this transition. This planning started about 13 or 14 years ago and we’ve developed a system where we can keep the transition going through generations. It’s been a very clean and simple process and we’re really proud of what we’re leaving behind for Milton (Anderson) and the other partners. They’ll hit the ground running and I think our clients have all been aware and prepared for this.

That’s a really big thing. I’ve seen some really good architecture firms in Dallas throughout my career that just kind of faded away. They were really good firms with good reputations, they just lacked this transition. It’s been an important process for us and we’re really happy about it.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.