Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 25
Wednesday, June 20, 2007
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Hillier Architecture Merges With U.K Firm in $30 Million Deal

Matthew Hersh

Hillier Architecture, the 41-year-old architectural design firm begun in Princeton and now headquartered in West Windsor, announced Tuesday that it has merged with the U.K.-based RMJM, resulting in what is now positioned to be the third largest design firm in the world.

The $30 million merger creates what is effectively a "super-studio" with a global reach, housing offices in 16 cities in North America, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. The merger, which will be branded as RMJM Hillier, will employ roughly 1,000 design professionals with a portfolio of projects currently in design estimated at $15 billion.

The deal grew out of a transitional plan in which the Hillier firm was going to buy out Hillier Group founder and chairman J. Robert Hillier over time. That plan, however, became sidetracked by engineering firms who were interested in acquiring the Hillier brand based on prior design reputation. As talks progressed, Hillier principals were directed toward the architectural outfit RMJM, and, Mr. Hillier, a part owner of Town Topics, said Monday in an interview, "they were just like us.

"The program, for them, drives the design of the building, and it was a perfect fit."

The entire process took just about four months, with the details of the merger being completed Monday afternoon. RMJM Hillier will be assembled strictly as a design firm, leaving the engineering component out of the equation. That factor, Mr. Hillier said, was intentional, the idea being to create a design network around the world. RMJM, in turn, was looking to enter the U.S. market. While the Hillier name has a global presence, "Hillier" locally is more commonly associated with Princeton-area projects, most notably the Princeton Public Library, several housing projects in town, and, recently, the concept design for Princeton HealthCare System's Witherspoon campus and its future development in Plainsboro, as well as West Windsor's proposed transit village.

Projects currently underway will remain unaffected, Mr. Hillier, 69, said, calling that part of the deal the most "thrilling" for RMJM. "They see the local projects as such a bonanza because they see it adding so much more depth to what we already have," he said, adding that the merger agreement actually enables the firm to continue projects like the Waxwood on Quarry Street in Princeton Borough and the South's Garage condominium project.

"In the community, there are opportunities to take a sow's ear and turn it into something really special," Mr. Hillier said. "It's for the good of architecture and the community and I insisted that they allow us to continue doing that, and they agreed."

The Hillier firm's impact has also been felt on college campuses around the world, with nearby examples including Princeton University's 40,000-square-foot Bowen Hall, and the University's 60,000-square-foot Engineering Quadrangle expansion. Hillier also designed the 257,000-square-foot Rutgers University dormitory in downtown New Brunswick. RMJM Hillier is now working with schools in Cairo, The Hague, Dubai, and Doha, "but a lot of people still think of us as a local firm, and that's important to point out."

Between the two firms, Mr. Hillier said, "we have worked with all the top 10 universities in the world," quickly adding, "except Harvard." Mr. Hillier, who will take on the role of deputy chairman of the holding company, and whose wife, Barbara, will remain as lead designer at Hillier, pointed to the complementary strengths of the two firms: "They don't have anybody in health care and we have a health care practice; we both have experience in higher education, which extends our reach even further."

Mr. Hillier's new role will be as an ambassador seeking out new projects on a national and international level.

There will be no residual layoffs at Hillier ("to have a merger and no redundancies is really cool") and the Hillier firm will retain its location at 500 Alexander Park, having just completed a lease renewal. RMJM Hillier's base will remain in West Windsor, with other U.S. offices in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington DC, as well as in 16 cities on four continents.

For Mr. Hillier, who, when asked his age offered "69 going on 25," the move is far from retirement. "I'll be spending a lot of time traveling the globe and I never wanted to retire. That's the beauty of this."

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