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Lawrence Armstrong: Designing an Architecture Powerhouse

Lawrence Armstrong was a young architect when he first joined Ware Malcomb in 1984.

He grew with the company, quickly rising through the ranks from designer to project architect within his first year.

Armstrong led an office in San Fernando Valley before he and his partner Jim Williams were offered the chance to buy and take over the company in 1992 from founders Bill Ware and Bill Malcomb.

“We worked together to form our vision for the company and see what we can do with it,” Armstrong, who goes by Larry, told the Business Journal.

Ware Malcomb has since become one of Orange County’s largest architectural firms, with nearly 800 employees spanning 28 offices across the U.S., Mexico and Canada.

Last year, the international firm made $73.4 million locally in annual revenue and $209 million companywide.

The Business Journal honored Armstrong, who now serves as chairman of the company, on March 20 with an Excellence in Entrepreneurship Award for his leadership at Ware Malcomb. The event was held at the Irvine Marriott with a crowd of more than 300 people.

Ohio Roots

Armstrong is an Ohio native and grew up in a town called Painesville, near Cleveland.

He met his wife, Sandra, while in high school and the two attended Kent State University.
Armstrong, who knew he wanted to be an architect ever since his youth, received two degrees in architecture and spent a semester studying abroad in Florence, Italy.

Armstrong is still involved with his alma mater and has served on the school’s foundation board for the last 15 years.

He and his wife are co-chairs of a $350 million campaign originally launched in 2021 that will help fund scholarships and new student programs.

The campaign has already surpassed its goal, having raised more than $370 million, and will end this June, according to Armstrong.

Creative Leader

Armstrong has been an artist his whole life, but only started to publicly display his work in the last 14 years.

He said that being an artist has helped him think more creatively about growing a business.

“As an artist, you’re unrestrained,” Armstrong said.

“In architecture, you’re creative, but you’re restrained by client wishes, building codes, budgets and all kinds of things.”

One of the first things he did as chief executive was diversify the business, to make it less vulnerable to the economic ups and downs of the commercial real estate market.

Over the years, the company diversified into multiple industries including interior design, healthcare and civil engineering.

Ware Malcomb hit a peak in 2022 when it counted over 1,000 employees and has since “scaled back a bit because of the economy,” Armstrong said.

“We’re still very strong and look forward to growing again soon,” Armstrong said.

Multifaceted Life

Armstrong enjoys living a multifaceted life.

He stepped down as CEO in 2020 in part to pursue other interests.

Nowadays, Armstrong keeps himself busy with philanthropy and other creative projects.

Armstrong is currently vice chair of local nonprofit Orange County United Way and will be chairman next term.

He became involved in the group after witnessing the increasing number of tents and makeshift shelters in Orange County coming out of the Great Recession in the late 2000s.

He met with executives at Orange County United Way, the start of a partnership that led to the formation of the United to End Homelessness initiative in 2018 with Armstrong as chairman.

The initiative, which seeks to provide long-term housing and supportive care, partners with local property owners and landlords to secure housing for people experiencing homelessness with housing vouchers.

More than 1,000 individuals have been housed through its landlord incentive program in the last five years, according to Armstrong.

“We’ve come up with a lot of innovative ways to break down barriers and get people housed faster,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong has also been working on a book titled “Layered Leadership” that’s set to be published early next year.

The book centers around the strategies and concepts that helped Armstrong build a business, as well as some of his biggest influences, such as General Electric CEO Jack Welch and the book “Freakonomics.”

“At this phase of my life, I love being involved in all these different things,” he said. n

Renaissance Approach

When Lawrence Armstrong isn’t working at Ware Malcomb, he can often be found painting in his art studio at home.

Armstrong describes his art style as “modern, abstract and colorful in nature,” influenced by artists Jackson Pollock and Frank Stella to name a few.

His art has taken him around the world, having exhibited in different galleries in Florence, Madrid and in Orange County, where he resides.

Armstrong said he has a “renaissance approach to life” with his background as an artist, architect and chairman of the Irvine-based international architectural firm.

“I have noticed that the many passions in my life similarly manifest through me,” Armstrong said on the website for his art.

As for upcoming projects, Armstrong was recently commissioned by his alma mater Kent State University in Ohio to contribute a sculpture to a sculpture park on campus.

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Sonia Chung
Sonia Chung
Sonia Chung joined the Orange County Business Journal in 2021 as their Marketing Creative Director. In her role she creates all visual content as it relates to the marketing needs for the sales and events teams. Her responsibilities include the creation of marketing materials for six annual corporate events, weekly print advertisements, sales flyers in correspondence to the editorial calendar, social media graphics, PowerPoint presentation decks, e-blasts, and maintains the online presence for Orange County Business Journal’s corporate events.
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