Sunday, March 14, 2004

Landscape designer listens, and prospers

By Jenny Callison
Enquirer contributor

Gayle Frazer at the Hawthorne Center office complex in Blue Ash, a project she designed. She has distinguished herself in a field traditionally dominated by men.
The Cincinnati Enquirer/CRAIG RUTTLE

LOCKLAND - Michelangelo believed that, in sculpting, he was releasing the form that already existed within the stone.

Gayle Frazer takes a similar approach to her landscape designs.

"I believe that the designer's tasks are to first listen to clients' needs and concerns, and then study the site for it to reveal its own story," she said. "Only then can a designer approach the problem with grounded solutions that are specific to the site and the client."

Frazer, founder of Gayle A. Frazer & Associates, has achieved success in a field that has traditionally been dominated by men. She is a firm believer in the power of teamwork but is often the only female member of a project team. Her ability to hold her own has stemmed from years of experience and growing confidence.

"A lot of my clients are contractors, developers, architects and engineers. I am definitely in the minority," Frazer said. "I just did a project for a large developer in which I was the only woman on a 17-person team. Thankfully, I feel comfortable. I speak their language and ask the right questions. I also listen before I speak."

"She listens to both her client and the site," said architect and land planner L. Brian Huehls, who has been on design teams with Frazer.

Frazer's listening skills were honed when she took a Stephen Ministries course through her church. Stephen ministers volunteer their time with people in crisis and are trained to communicate well.

"When I'm listening to clients I rephrase their statements to make sure that I understand what they are trying to say," Frazer explained.

Because she approaches every job from the perspective of a team member, Frazer insists on getting consensus from all parties involved before the design is finalized. For a residential landscape, that means parents and children must agree on the plan; for a commercial project, the maintenance crew's signoff is just as important as that of company officials.

Frazer's distinctive approach has evolved during her 17-plus years as a registered landscape architect. Since founding her own firm six years ago she has completed more than 1,000 jobs, many of them from repeat customers. One client alone has repeatedly contracted new work for a total of more than 100 projects. For the past four years, Frazer's new work has come exclusively from referrals.

"Gayle has become our only outside consultant for landscape design," said Larry Hatfield of ADCM Inc. in downtown Cincinnati.

Said Bill Mees Jr. of Cincinnati United Contractors Inc.: "For the past two years, Gayle Frazer has been our 'go to' provider of landscape architecture services."

Frazer's portfolio includes some very large projects, such as entire landscapes for country clubs, and some quick consultations that take her no more than 90 minutes. During its first year in business, Gayle A. Frazer & Associates completed $300,000 worth of projects. Six years later, Frazer estimates, the firm will complete between $4 million and $5 million worth of projects in 2004.

Divine intervention

Regardless of the size and complexity of an assignment, she says each is a joy and a creative challenge. She credits her success to experience and a higher power.

"I can't believe how quickly, nicely and easily I can design stuff now," she said. "I often believe that God is working through me." Frazer's faith has sustained her through the sometimes-difficult process of growing her business. On the back of her business card is printed "F.R.O.G.," which stands for "fully relying on God."

"I have done that, and he has taken care of me," she said. "There have been times when the money is short but enough always comes in. We ask ourselves, 'Are we going to meet that deadline?' and we always do. We have a reputation for coming through on time and on budget, even when we're working on tight time schedules."

Adding good staff

As demand for her services has grown, Frazer has added three people to her firm. She now employs a full-time landscape designer and two full-time designer/CAD drafting specialists.

"They are all very talented; I'm fortunate to have good staff," she said.

The challenge that confronts her, and that threatens to limit future growth of the firm, is Frazer's reluctance to delegate. It's a problem common to entrepreneurs and one that Frazer is beginning to articulate to her associates. She's at the point many entrepreneurs hit where she needs to grow beyond her own reputation - right now, she's the one with the name recognition.

"Everybody wants me, but I can't be everywhere," she concedes. "The hardest thing is to say no."


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