The Inner City 100: Creative Design

For inner-city CEOs, unconventional office space can mean much more than low rent or high ceilings

The inner city. For many, those three words conjure up notions of urban blight, burned-out buildings, and rampant crime. And without doubt those bleak images often are the reality. But that's not the total picture. A number of entrepreneurial archaeologists have unearthed neglected architectural gems in the inner city and strategically morphed them into major assets--and more than just the fixed kind. Those CEOs are using the fixer-uppers to enhance not only their business's identity but their corporate culture as well.

To their denizens, these inner-city discoveries have a distinctly metropolitan appeal and a certain chic unheard of in a modern high-rise or an industrial park. But the real reasons these CEOs chose to locate their businesses in the inner city goes much deeper than charm, convenience, or local color. The members of this urban vanguard see where they do business as an extension of how they do business.

Promoting a lifestyle
Steven Rosenstein, co-owner with his wife, Andi, of Fitigues (#77), a $28-million casual-clothing company, purchased an enormous turn-of-the-century brick building, originally a scrap-steel warehouse, in an old Chicago industrial district that is rapidly becoming trendy. "When I found it, it was vacant and pretty close to being condemned," says Rosenstein. "What I loved about it was the natural raw space, the high ceilings, the exposed brick, the old skylights. I really wanted to keep a lot of that character." So after sandblasting the place, Rosenstein converted the main building into office space, the former garage into a conference room, and the old boiler room into a company fitness facility. "It's very hip," he says. "It has a polished rawness. It lends itself to people's feeling they can dress the same way, with simplicity but with style. And that's what our collection and our stores are all about."

So, to Rosenstein, his smartly renovated warehouse represents the lifestyle he's trying to create for himself and his employees--and the one he's trying to sell to his end consumer. "Everything we sell is based on how we like to live," he says. "The catalog is all casual clothing, with an emphasis on how you spend your time." A typical Fitigues catalog features shots of happy couples at home, playing with their kids. "And it's the same kind of people who are putting those catalogs out," he says. "The whole concept is that we're selling quality of life, and the building speaks to that." Out of 300 staffers across the country, 50 work in the Chicago building. They are mostly twenty- and thirtysomethings, living a predominantly urban lifestyle. "A lot of them live in these interesting loft apartments in the neighborhood. They eat at the local restaurants, shop at the local shops," Rosenstein says. "So our office is in their backyard."

The building's look and feel say a lot about the corporate culture Rosenstein has tried to create at Fitigues. "We designed this big open space so that we could have as much interaction as possible," he says. "There are very few closed doors. You don't feel any hierarchy. To see me running around in here, you'd never know I own this business."

Doing a marketplace makeover
Betsy Dickerson is co-owner and chief financial officer of the Waterworks (#75), a regional plumbing-services company in Columbus, Ohio. Dickerson and her partner, Thom Havens--one of four other co-owners--are trying to take plumbing upmarket, with clean-cut, preppily uniformed plumbers in spotless Waterworks trucks. (Dickerson and Havens even had their employees' shirts designed with extra-long tails, to prevent the infamous "plumber's crack" syndrome.) "We're trying to get our employees to look beyond the fact they're cleaning sewers," she says.

One often hears that one of the benefits of an inner-city location is the price tag. Well, the folks at the Waterworks have put in close to $2 million in renovations, although much of that came from a joint effort with the owner of the building, a former soap-opera star. Still, that money seems to have been rather spectacularly spent. They've taken an early-20th-century schoolhouse and created a neoclassical/modernist urban Valhalla, replete with an eclectic mix of sculpture, paintings, antiques, and tapestries. Two-story palm trees rise out of enormous deep-red urns. As a finishing touch, the slate chalkboards from the old classrooms line the walls of the first-floor bathroom. "We're really interested in helping to turn this neighborhood around," says Dickerson. "This is all a part of that."