TRO Jung|Brannen survives a merger and divergence to come out on top

In its 50 years of business in Birmingham, TRO Jung|Brannen has focused on health care facility design

TRO Jung|Brannen leadership, from left, Cleo Kathryn Gorman; Grady Black, AIA; Dick Richard, AIA; Paul Langland, AIA; and Doug McCurry, AIA.

If you have driven past UAB’s Kirklin Clinic, or visited Cullman Regional Medical Center’s emergency department, or caught a glimpse of East Alabama Health’s Spencer Cancer Center, you have seen the design work of TRO Jung|Brannen (TROJB).

Located in Birmingham, TROJB is an award-winning architecture, planning and interior design firm with a history of creating spaces for health care and senior living projects.

“Most architectural firms, especially the large ones, do various types of design work. Health care is what we do,” says Cleo Kathryn Gorman, TROJB’s partner responsible for business development and marketing.  “Sure, we’ve designed commercial buildings like our own multi-tenant office building at 2200 Lakeshore, but health care is a highly specialized focus for us where the expertise of our people is a difference-maker for our clients.”

In 50 years of business in Birmingham, TROJB has weathered a merger and a divergence from its parent company to become one of the most enduring architecture firms in Alabama.

TROJB’s work includes designing many projects for Marshall Health on sites in Guntersville and Boaz, and, in Birmingham, the expansion of Princeton Baptist Medical Center’s East Tower. TROJB is currently working on facilities for innovative care at Russell Medical Center, in Alexander City, and at Bibb Medical Center and Nursing Home in Centreville, design work managed by firm Vice President Grady Black.

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Architect and TROJB Partner Paul Langland and his colleague, architect Hal Starkey, were part of the team that designed the 168,000-square-foot Shelby Baptist Medical Center South Tower in Alabaster. For its work, the firm earned merit awards from the AIA Birmingham Chapter and the AIA Alabama Council in 2010.

“Shelby’s South Tower was a phased expansion, a complicated job providing a new bed tower for the existing facility, built to vertically expand over the existing ED (emergency department), with a pedestrian bridge connecting the hospital to the new parking deck and a new central energy plant,” Langland says.

Designing hospitals and other health care facilities requires architects to navigate an extra layer of state and federal regulations to meet specific safety and programmatic standards, from the design of exam rooms and placement of medical equipment to ensuring that doorway widths allow for hospital staff to move patients in and out, Langland says.

TRO Jung|Brannen teamed with the late renowned architect I.M. Pei on design of UAB’s Kirklin Clinic. Photo courtesy of UAB.

In 1989, TROJB partnered with the late, internationally renowned architect I.M. Pei to design the iconic UAB Kirklin Clinic, which opened in 1992 on the University of Alabama at Birmingham medical center campus.

TROJB’s recent work includes its largest project completed in 2019, the freestanding Spencer Cancer Center for East Alabama Health, designed by TROJB Vice President Doug McCurry. It received an Honor Award from the AIA Alabama Council, a local Merit Award and was nationally recognized with a design award as the best outpatient facility by the Center for Health Design in 2020. 

In 2021, TRO Jung|Brannen completed a contract for the Wellstar West Georgia Callaway Cancer Center in LaGrange, Georgia, and has continued work on projects including patient bed tower expansions at Cullman and Marshall, and other projects for East Alabama Health. Moreover, the firm reported earning more than $5.76 million in total design fees that year. 

In 2022, the firm’s largest contract was for the Taylor Hardin Forensics Behavioral Health facility in Tuscaloosa, a $60 million construction project. And, as of July 1, 2022, the firm collected $2.24 million in design fees. Additionally, a new 40-bed ICU vertical expansion recently has been released for construction for East Alabama Health that incorporates creative design solutions in response to pandemic health care delivery.

TROJB’s Birmingham office first opened in 1973, but its origins actually began at the turn of the 20th century. Its story is, in fact, a tale of two companies.

First, back in 1909, The Ritchie Organization (TRO) architecture firm opened its doors in Boston, Massachusetts.

A few years hence, in the early 1970s, TRO’s architect Larry Partridge, traveled from Boston to Birmingham to visit a client who had relocated to lead the Baptist Health System.

“Our predecessors considered opening an Atlanta office, but the client saying, ‘You really need an office in Birmingham,’ determined the fateful move. Larry moved his family south and opened an office here,” Langland says.

By the early 2000s, the Boston-based CEOs of both TRO and the architecture firm Jung|Brannen began discussing a merger to diversify their target markets, respectively, says Gorman. “They imagined it as a good thing for both of us,” she says.

“TRO always had been predominantly a health care [design] firm. Jung|Brannen was focused on offices and other commercial and hospitality projects,” according to Langland.

In 2006, the two firms combined, creating TRO Jung|Brannen. At the time of the announcement, the Boston Business Journal reported that TRO in 2004 had $26.9 million in total billings and 215 employees while Jung|Brannen had $13.7 million and 75 employees.

Besides its Boston headquarters, TROJB maintained three satellite offices in Sarasota, Memphis and Birmingham.

TROJB’s current Birmingham managing principal and partner, Dick Richard, who had joined TRO in 1991, recalls those early days working with Jung|Brannen architects from Boston.

“It took a while to get to know them, but like us, they were architects who loved good design. Our common ground eased the blending of our practices,” Richard says.

“It wasn’t starkly different except for the size of the firm, which expanded resources and marketability,” he says.

Then in 2008, the global financial crisis struck and the commercial side of the business floundered. The health care side maintained its position and flourished. But the expectation of broad market diversification never materialized.

“We survived those challenging years with steady health care work, and, in keeping with national trends of that time, the commercial side of the business started to slide away,” Langland says.

Gorman says the Birmingham office “marched along” until 2016, when the parent company offered Richard, Langland, McCurry, Grady Black and Gorman the chance to purchase the Birmingham office.

“Through decades of leadership by Managing Principal Architect Joe Bynum, our office had continued to be productive, profitable and successful here in Birmingham. But it became clear that executives in Boston were seeking a new future path, so we seized the opportunity to imagine what our future could be here, together,” Gorman says.

Four months after finalizing the split in 2016, an architecture, engineering and planning firm SmithGroupJJR announced its acquisition of TRO Jung|Brannen’s Boston office.

Today, partners Richard, Langland, McCurry, Black, Gorman and architect Hal Starkey manage a staff of 17 at their offices on Birmingham’s Lakeshore Drive and in Tampa, Florida.

“There’s been a constancy of leadership here, and we’re fortunate to have a studio of gifted young people,” says Gorman. “We’re positioned well with technology and tools that enhance the way we do business. Our talented, energetic staff members are enthusiastic about making a difference. Our people are the magic.”

Richard agrees that being an independent firm allows for more control.

“We’ve been able to implement our own philosophy of how to develop projects. We each bring something valuable to the practice. For example, one of the partners is skilled at teaching us all more efficient ways to solve problems, serving client interests. Others of us bring different talents. We’re a good team,” says Richard.

“From the senior leadership’s perspective, we’re training the next generation in TROJB traditions and culture. It always will be a privilege to serve many health care and other clients, and it’s a privilege to build relationships with consultants and other project partners. In 2023, we are enjoying reflecting on the past 50 years, but we’re just as enthusiastically looking forward to the next 50 years.”

Gail Allyn Short and Joe De Sciose are Birmingham-based freelance contributors to Business Alabama.

This article appears in the February 2023 issue of Business Alabama.

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