Helle Søholt, Gehl Architects

How did you survive the COVID-pandemic? Case of Gehl Architects

By Yoko Inoue — a Republikken member

Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year, businesses around the world were forced to adapt to the new normal. As Republikken values sharing knowledge to support the growth of people and companies, we decided to launch “Republikken Talk”, a series of talks where 10 selected people would share how they have been responding to the pandemic by rethinking their business to survive the crisis.

On September 2, we welcomed the first extraordinary entrepreneur, Helle Søholt (CEO of Gehl Architects), who kindly shared her inside story that was rare to hear. How she managed to land at the other end of the pandemic as even stronger, more value-oriented company was insightful, but her talk touched upon much more.

Helle Søholt, Gehl Architects

Helle Søholt CEO of Gehl Architects — photo Oskar Cornelius

Leadership skills that prepared us for the COVID-19 crisis

We started Gehl in 2000, and for the first 8 years, it was all about innovating and creating a field that did not exist. There was not a market in the world for the services we provided. My leadership role was very much about supporting innovation, and when something popped up, I created a new role. I didn’t pay much attention to cost reduction, cost management, and lean processes, the stuff that a leader also should do.

Then the financial crisis came in 2008. We lost 30% of our work over about half a year and I had to let go of people, which I had never done before. That’s when I learned the hard way to manage costs and cash flow. I had to find another side of me. Ever since I have been balancing those two parts of leadership — cost management and expansion leadership

Widely international business hit hardly by pandemic, at extremely bad timing

We have been working to change the paradigm of the city to be people-centric. We did lectures and keynotes in conferences around the world, we were working in 35 countries at the same time. But in 2018, I realized that our purpose no longer fit the market situation. The paradigm had already changed. All the other companies were doing it already.

So we brought everybody to Copenhagen on a week-long off-site where we simply discussed our future. Making cities for people is about ensuring that cities are equitable, healthy, and sustainable places globally. We changed our approach to our ten-year strategy with three phases. We were fired up and started our new financial year 2020 with a new strategy and then boom! In January, SAS closed all trips to China and we couldn’t go there to do our projects. In March, when the lockdown started, we closed down three offices.

Running an international business with 85% of our turnover from outside of Denmark, and not being able to travel to our clients, nor to do any on-site analysis, was pretty tough.

Cost reduction and business expansion at the same time

But I was calm because I’ve been here before. I knew how to do cost reduction and expansion at the same time.

First, we showed extreme care for everyone. Within a couple of weeks, monthly newsletters were turned into weekly and continued for four months. Everybody got emails from me with financial updates so they were not worried so much.

Then the cost management side of me asked everybody to be really diligent on reporting hours. It was intense micromanagement. Check-ins with staff became daily rather than weekly. No more newspapers, no Christmas party. We centralized decisions on what we could afford right now.

Helle Søholt, Gehl Architects

Helle Søholt — photo Oskar Cornelius

At the same time, to protect the core of the business, we tried to reposition our brand closer to urban management and disaster relief. We helped to rethink how to use public spaces under a pandemic. We also started to be extremely local. That was new but we needed to find out where we can start new projects and grow new relationships. The third strategy was digitalization. We quickly managed to do a public life survey of city life under COVID. Only 3 weeks after the lockdown, we were out surveying in 4 different cities in Denmark. I was invited to Deadline News, to the BBC, to Italian news to talk about what was happening to public life. All of a sudden, we were experts on the changes in public spaces in cities. It didn’t give us a lot of money but gave us a lot of publicity. In December, we made a survey supported by 40 cities in the world. We had about 1,000 people engaged online. We wouldn’t have dreamt that we could pull that off.

Use both sides of your brain as a leader, and show extreme care for the people that you work with. Our overall purpose has guided us to find our clients in this world right now.