Stefan Antoni talks to Stonehage FlemingPublished on 22 Jul 2020
Acclaimed architect tells his story and how he almost failed to enter the profession at all
Award-winning architect, Stefan Antoni joined Stonehage Fleming for the latest webinar in our My Journey series. We spoke to him about his 35-year career in architecture where he shared many insights into his success.
Why did you become an architect?
I was meant to study engineering but had a change of heart at the last minute. As a child on holiday in Poland, I was playing in a cathedral and shards of light were coming through the windows. I am a visual person; it was that image that came to me and inspired me to study architecture.
Tell us about the early years of your career.
When I finished studying in 1985, it was not a great time for business. We were in the middle of the Cold War, there was apartheid in South Africa and there was very little work. I did a few private jobs to make an income while I was pondering a possible change of career.
I moved into an apartment in Sea Point, Cape Town, with a storeroom needing to be cleared out. In it, I found a book, The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand - the ultimate architectural hero story. I saw it as an omen that I should continue with architecture.
I started small. One of my first jobs was an addition to a bathroom. I had to run to the corner shop to make photocopies, colour them in, meet the client, make tea and coffee. I started at the very bottom.
What were your biggest challenges starting out?
The technical aspects of architecture are usually easy. The challenges come with everything that comes with it, like the negotiations, learning when to say no, having the guts to push back when a client takes a project in a direction you know it shouldn’t go. Those are the things they don’t teach you at university.
What was your breakthrough project?
There was no one pivotal building but the accumulation of many projects – that and loyal, supportive clients over the years. The first ten or so years felt like swimming upstream. Then things started to change slowly. But it was hard work – there are no shortcuts.
Today, we work in 86 countries, 193 cities, on 6 continents and have only one office in Cape Town. We team up with architects in every city we work in. They are the people on the ground and make the project ‘real’. It takes years finding these firms and building relationships, but we nurture them as we understand the crucial role they play in our success.
To what do you owe your success?
The people who joined me along the way are a huge part of it. In 2008 we changed the name of the company from Stefan Antoni Architects to Stefan Antoni Olmesdahl Truen Architects, after the three directors, changing it again in 2014 to SAOTA, incorporating more directors.
But if I had to pinpoint another thing, it would be our ability to use sites well, using spaces to the max. Not all architects get that right.
If you can describe your business in one word, what would it be?
Relentless. Architecture is not an easy field. It’s not just design. You also have to master the technical, contractual and financial side of things, as well as manage HR, marketing, building information management, IT and facilities. You have to be relentless to manage it all.
What is your business philosophy?
A successful business is like a great marriage. You need the utmost trust, to be like-minded and push in the same direction but you also need to be challenged.
We encourage our people to challenge senior staff. A stupid question is often the seed of a great idea. That inquisitive culture keeps a business growing and improving.
What makes a good leader?
Leaders bring out something in people that they would not have achieved on their own. Their presence creates a dynamic that facilitates everything coming together at the right time. They make people want to exceed.
Any last pearls of wisdom?
Write down your midnight thoughts; I send emails to myself! When I work on an exciting project, it is the last thing I think about before I go to sleep and the first thing I think about when I wake up - often with new ideas and solutions.