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Frank Dittenhafer, co-founder of architectural firm: Focus on the heart of your business

Frank Dittenhafer, co-founder of architectural firm: Focus on the heart of your business

  • Frank Dittenhafer, President of Murphy & Dittenhafer Architects, says entrepreneurship can’t just be about making money. "It has to be driven by passion."
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When Frank Dittenhafer sat down with his business partner Michael Murphy more than 35 years ago, they made a list of the three things that would guide their business:

1. They would produce excellent architecture.

2. They would be fairly compensated.

3. They would enjoy their work.

While they added a few things to the list over the years, those three goals have remained the backbone of Murphy & Dittenhafer Architects since 1985.

Today, the firm has grown to include a staff of more than 25 employees, with offices in York and Baltimore, and their commissions regularly receive design award honors from multiple chapters of the American Institute of Architects.

“One of the things I’ve always considered to be very important when you’re starting a venture is to pursue what you’re passionate about and what you enjoy doing,” Dittenhafer says. “We looked at it as, ‘What do we want to be known for and what would keep us in pursuit of that.’ It can’t just be about making money; it has to be driven by passion.”

Staying authentic

Dittenhafer recognizes that making money is part of running a business. “It’s not a hobby,” he says. “You have to be profitable and have the resources to operate and grow.”

But he has never been tempted to be one of the “fastest growing companies” or to surpass competitors in staff size or revenue.

Focusing on fast growth usually requires taking on a range of commissions quickly, often bidding on ones that could carry them away from some of their primary goals.

Stretched too thin, they can’t produce excellent architecture.

Taking on projects for the sake of work, they may not be fairly compensated.

Rushing to reach arbitrary growth goals, they may not enjoy the work.

“There is part of me that rejects the popular business philosophies of ‘accept almost any commission and grow quickly, pursue failure as a learning experience, increase profit margins and become as big as you can,’” he says. “For me, the heart of our business and Murphy & Dittenhafer’s brand has always been about excellent architecture. When your goals become about the money, you sacrifice the other things that make entrepreneurship worthwhile.”

At M&D, the way business is done reflects a lot of the way designs are created. They are authentic. They are genuine. They lean into their craft and talent, and they attract people who feel the same way — both employees and clients.

“I have found that being thoughtful in business brings me back to those three goals that we continue to reflect on today,” Dittenhafer says. “We wanted to be authentic to ourselves then, and that’s what the business should continue to be today.”