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McLarand’s 2-Way Street

Carl McLarand went to China to find a way through the Great Recession.

The veteran architect is spending more time at the headquarters of MVE & Partners in Irvine these days, happy to have the experience and contacts from over there as China’s recent economic gyrations send more business over here.

Last month’s dramatic decline on China’s stock exchanges followed a devaluation of the country’s currency and sent markets around the globe downward. All the more reason for McLarand to value the links he’s established in China, where MVE found new opportunities while its U.S. business had all but ground to a halt.

“I think China in general is facing some real domestic issues that are pretty bad,” said McLarand. “People in China [want] to get … money out of the country.”

McLarand has positioned MVE to provide services to the new Chinese developers looking to invest in projects here.

“The Chinese developers are concerned when they come here because they want to make sure they buy land they can develop and where they won’t get stuck,” said McLarand. “They look to someone like us when they come over here to assist them in trying to get through the bureaucracy.”

The connections continue to pay off.

Wei Lee, an associate at MVE and the firm’s director of Asian operations, said the firm is working on two domestic projects for Chinese developers. One is a 450-unit luxury condominium development in Milpitas that’s slated for a piece of land next to technology stalwart Cisco Systems Inc. and expected to be among the tallest buildings on the Silicon Valley landscape at around 30 stories. The other is a 120-unit apartment complex in Irvine.

McLarand said the firm is working on more, but he can’t disclose the details. He said recent developments in technology have made it easy to communicate with clients in China and elsewhere.

“With online meetings and software we are able to connect with our clients on a weekly or twice-weekly basis in real time just as if they were up in L.A.,” said McLarand. “Having that ability has enabled [us] to do this. [The technology] didn’t exist many years ago, and we just wouldn’t have been able to meet the incredible scheduling requirements these clients have.”

40 Years

MVE has been in business for more than 40 years and ranks No. 5 on the Business Journal’s list of architecture firms with operations in Orange County. The firm reported nearly $30.5 million in billings for the 12 months ending June 30. Its local clients include blue chip companies, such as Newport Beach-based developer Irvine Co.

MVE has done work on every continent except Antarctica, and its work has gained international recognition with more than 800 awards since its inception in 1974.

McLarand largely credits the firm’s ability to obtain—and keep—foreign clients to something less tangible.

“When it comes down to it, people all over the world are the same,” he said. “As a rule here we befriend our clients and that means you are doing more than providing architectural services. You are looking out for them. I tend to smile a lot, too, and people seem to like that.”

His smile got tested during the recent recession—a downturn that changed the landscape of the firm’s work.

“Things were so bad that there wasn’t even development in the Middle East at that time,” McLarand said. “So I went to the only place where I could find cranes in the air, and that was China.”

Dalian

His firm had an existing client in the city of Guangzhou, and McLarand needed to finalize its plans and agreement.

He decided to stop in Dalian on his way home in hopes that he could make some connections, and hopefully “keep the lights on at home.” Dalian is a major warm-water seaport in the northeast part of China close to Korea, making it an important center for exports.

U.S. tech companies had begun to develop a presence there before McLarand arrived. Santa Clara-based computer chip giant Intel built a $2.5 billion plant in Dalian in 2007—its first manufacturing plant in China.

McLarand managed to set up a meeting with an executive of Fizhou, China-based China YiDa Holding Co.

“I had only just met him, but I decided to give him a presentation and try to convince him to hire us,” said McLarand.

YiDa representatives had already heard of and admired MVE’s work in the U.S.

The contract McLarand had traveled to China to secure eventually fell through, but YiDa decided to hire him that day.

McLarand, along with a Mandarin-speaking associate who accompanied him on the trip, took three days drafting the proposal and ended up with a contract to proceed with the design and development of 6 million square feet of office space in Dalian.

“I haven’t got a clue how I was able to convince a guy that I had just met to do that,” said McLarand. “In the heat of the recession, it was a critical client and project.”

20M Square Feet

Since then, MVE has completed over 20 million square feet of development in China. McLarand estimates that about 20% of the firm’s gross revenue comes from clients and developments in China.

The firm just finished the third and final phase of a 7-million-square-foot development called Wuhan First City in Wuhan, China. YiDa owns a 50% interest in the office and residential properties there. The development contains a mix of office, retail, and residential space with three districts, each distinct in design, aesthetic and use. New York-based IBM moved to a research and development facility on the campus in 2013.

McLarand said he was motivated to take a risk with Chinese clients because he didn’t want his employees to lose their jobs and his firm to lose its prestige.

“A concept that we have always had [at MVE] is to keep our eyes and ears open for opportunities so we can deal with recessionary times in a proactive manner,” said McLarand. “If I see an opportunity or a job somewhere, I’m going to figure out a way to get that job. That’s how I’ve always been.”

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