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Saturday, January 19 , 2019, 3:36 am | Fair 46º


Elisa Garcia Builds a Career Around Lifelong Love of Architecture

She has persevered through the ups and downs, making the most of her windows of opportunity

Sometimes it’s hard to know if one has a calling or if the person simply followed a familiar and well-traveled path. From her earliest memories, Elisa Garcia always wanted to be an architect.

Throughout her upbringing, she watched her father, Gil Garcia, run his 30-employee Santa Barbara-based architectural firm and knew she’d follow in his footsteps. The younger Garcia spent weekends visiting job sites with her dad, and took solace in sketching throughout her childhood.

Garcia attended the University of Nevada, Las Vegas architecture program. Graduating during the recession in the early 1990s, she took an administrative job at a well-known firm in San Francisco. Impatient at having to work an administrative job, she left architecture to oversee the design and construction of cellular communications sites for a project management company. For the next five years, she worked her way up to senior construction manager for Bank of America’s California Data Center buildings.

“I was making great money at a young age, but yearned to be an architect, and didn’t yet have enough experience to qualify for the licensing exams,” she said. “So I took a 50 percent pay cut and returned to an architectural firm.”

A seasoned manager, Garcia accepted a project manager position at a large and prestigious firm, Gensler, in its Newport Beach office. For the next five years, she was largely assigned to fast-turnaround tenant improvement projects and rollouts for bank branches.

“In addition to qualifying for the licensing exams, this time at a large firm also gave me the foundation to start my own company,” she said.

She focused on becoming an expert in project management and hired experts in the design and technical roles.

“Many architects try to be a jack-of-all-trades and end up being a master of none,” she said. “It’s important to know your strengths and hire people to do the other key roles.”

After she became licensed, Garcia started moonlighting on small jobs, which were referred by her father. After the third opportunity came her way, she decided to leave Gensler to pursue it. Additionally, health problems demanded multiple surgeries.

“My health issues changed my priorities,” Garcia said. “I realized I was mortal, life was short, and I needed to pursue my dreams.”

She started her own firm by contracting past co-workers to complete her construction drawings in the evenings but quickly hired full-time employees, having up to a 10-member staff. For the first four years, Garcia lived and breathed work, working an average of 60 hours weekly.

Hungry for work, Garcia initially accepted any type of project, but she ultimately determined that those projects resulted in financial loss. She streamlined by employing fewer people and taking only projects she really wanted. For overflow production work, she outsourced to a drafting firm she trained in her standards and expectations. It turned out to be a profitable formula.

Garcia made conscious efforts to market and get involved in the community. She was a board member of the Orange County chapter of the American Institute of Architects and sent promotional mailers to hundreds of potential clients, which resulted in multiple contracts. To compete with larger and more established firms, Garcia put professional practices into place.

“From wearing business suits to answering the phone consistently, we set up processes and procedures to run the firm like a franchise,” she said. “Image is important to a client’s perception and decision to hire.”

Garcia is an avid reader of business books and biographies across all sectors. She says she’s goal-driven and frequently course-corrects her one-, five- and 10-year plans — advice she gleaned from her longtime mentor, Thom Cox. Looking back, she says she wouldn’t change a thing.

“I put in a lot of hours, but it’s an incredibly rewarding and satisfying path,” she said.

Garcia split her time between Orange County and Santa Barbara from 2004 to 2009, when she permanently resettled in her hometown. Locally, her clients include Santa Barbara Bank & Trust, Bank of Santa Barbara, Our Lady of Guadalupe Church and Snyder Law.

Click here to read her blog, in which she writes about architecture, design, interiors and management.

Noozhawk contributor Jenn Kennedy can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Click here to see more of her work.

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