What WATG's new CEO has in store for the global design firm

Anthony Mallows oversaw the development of Abu Dhabi's Masdar City, the brainchild of the Mubadala Investment Company.

When architectural design firm WATG named Anthony Mallows its new president and CEO earlier this month, it added a leader with 32 years of experience in not only architecture, design and city planning, but also in globalization and forging cultural connections.   

Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, Mallows had an interest in architecture and urban design from childhood. Moving to the U.S. for grad school, he left MIT with a dual master’s in architecture with an emphasis on environmental design and in city planning. After graduating from MIT, most of Mallows’ fellow students began working locally—which Mallows, himself an immigrant in the U.S., saw as an opportunity to put his international expertise to good use.

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On the Road

Mallows hit the proverbial road as a consultant, designing small and large projects internationally in more than 60 countries. Among those projects were several hotels, which piqued his multiple interests.

Anthony Mallows

“I became very, very interested in not only the hospitality industry but also in how the world's globalization is involved with travel—not only for leisure but also for business and also for cross-cultural experiences,” he said.

But as he worked internationally, Mallows became aware of some challenges involved with global design, such as developing projects in difficult environments—“particularly in environments which were not heavily industrialized or where the building industry or the design industry was not that sophisticated,” he recalled. For instance, it can be difficult to ship supplies to small Caribbean islands or the mountains of Central Asia. As a result, he began looking to see what resources were available locally—an important quality as “authenticity” became an industry buzzword.

As he learned about different environments, cultures and traditions, Mallows also learned how they affect hotel design—which, in turn, creates memorable experiences for the people who visit, and then encourages them to recommend the destination and hotel to friends. “The hospitality industry, for me, has always been a great innovator of creating cultural understanding across the globe,” he said. “If there is an industry that needs to understand what is happening globally, it is the travel-and-tourism industry.”

The Road to WATG

After 16 years as a VP and managing partner with Boston-based Sasaki Associates and three at Hart Howerton’s London office, Mallows’ international experience took him to the Middle East, where he designed educational facilities in Beirut and Cairo. His work there caught the attention of Sorouh Real Estate, at the time the largest real estate development company in Abu Dhabi, which hired him to plan and design Al Lulu Island, a mixed-use residential and resort community with 12 hotels. The project turned out so well that Mallows became an executive director with the company.

While Mallows was at Sorouh, he met with Ken Rubin, a former collaborator from when Mallows was with Hart Howerton and Rubin was at PA Consulting Group. Back in the day, the two had worked on “a number of very large projects in the Middle East, and particularly in Jordan, developing a strategy for tourist development in an environmentally attractive and sensitive area called Ajloun.” Reuniting again, Rubin suggested leveraging their global expertise and launching a company together, and in 2010, Rubin Mallows Worldwide opened as a development-consulting, planning and design-services firm. “I learned a lot from Ken,” Mallows said. “He's an engineer, very astute businessperson [with a] Ph.D. from Harvard.”  

Mallows stayed with Rubin Mallows for about two years until he got a call to come back to Abu Dhabi and oversee a new project. Masdar City was the brainchild of Mubadala Investment Company, and the project had stagnated during the global financial crisis after launching in 2008. Assuming the project would be something Rubin Mallows would handle as a company, Mallows learned that they wanted him to head up the entire development and finish the delayed project. When he returned to the States to discuss the opportunity with his partner, Rubin gave his blessing and Mallows departed the company he had helped to create. “Ken went on and still runs Rubin Mallows,” he said. His years at Rubin Mallows furthered Mallows’ global education, and also taught him how to develop a business—“what kind of challenges you meet professionally, from a business point of view and competitively, which I think was very good grounding on how to be strategic globally.”

At WATG

Throughout his career, Mallows had competed against WATG, and lost several bids to the Irvine, Calif.-based company. Throughout his years in the Middle East, he said, he would regularly look to WATG as a pre-eminent hospitality architect and designer. While he had planned to stay in the UAE and complete some projects affiliated with the Dubai 2020 movement, Mallows was contacted by a recruiter to join the WATG team, and became interested in joining the group. “Something I've done all my life is to build amazing teams—and not because I'm advising, but because I was trying to find people way better than me,” he said. “And if you've got a team that's really working incredibly well together, the results of that work are phenomenal, far better than a team led by some superstar who then ensures that the others fit within that framework. Super teams really are the way in which the distinctive changes have been made.”

As he went through the interview process, Mallows realized that the people asking him questions were “superstars in their own right,” he said—but they were not driven by ego. “They were driven by teamwork, and that distinctive super-style was the project. So that really attracted me. What also attracted me was after 10 years of working in the Middle East and overseas, the idea of coming home to America and particularly working with a firm that still had that international reach meant that I could get the best of both worlds.”  

Mallows already has several goals in place for WATG. In some of the industry rankings, for example, the company is rated second rather than first. “I’d like to get us to No. 1,” he said, joking that the company could have an Avis/Hertz sense of competition with other businesses. “We are [pre-eminent] in many cases but we need to do more,” he said.

Another goal is to combine his 30 years of experience in architecture, design, urban planning and consulting into a single integrated design. This, he said, would ensure that all disciplines—from the landscape planning and landscape architect to the urban designer or the city planner through to the interior architect and the architect themselves are all working better to achieve a distinctive outcome, he said. “That's the second thing—looking at ways in which incentives can be introduced both within the workplace, and also for clients to realize there's a value in integrated design.”

Experience, Value & Design

Just after joining WATG, Mallows met with Don Goo, one of the company’s founders. “He shared some insights with the board and myself about what the founding principles of WATG were,” he said. “He talked about understanding the client and the need to make money—but to [also] make memorable places.” This, Mallows said, struck a chord, because while creating unique, localized buildings that give guests a memorable experience is certainly important, a designer will not be hired again if his or her projects are not financially successful.

Those values, however, are not necessarily in competition. “Occupancy rates are where it's all at in many cases, and therefore the attractiveness of the destination will ensure its financial viability,” Mallows said. “So the idea that you [have to] create a memorable experience in the guest's mind ties into why integrated design—from the planning to the urban design to the architecture to the landscape to the interior design—creates a seamless experience for the guests.”

At the same time, he said, travel in general has become much more affordable to greater demographics, driving up the competition among top destinations, the hotels where the guests can stay—and the designers who create those hotels. “The ability to create destinations that are attractive and, most of all, memorable, creates value and creates money.”

That, Mallows said, is where the integration of design and value makes money for a hotel. “I never believed that creating a quality experience is driven only by the level of investment,” he said. “One of the things I really liked about some of the early WATG designs is that they were really looking to use materials which came from a place and which were authentic. Not only does that create a memorable experience in the guest perception, but normally sourcing those materials is much cheaper than having to fly them halfway around the world. So I think, to put it in a nutshell, memorable design of a high-quality experience does not necessarily mean spending more money. Don Goo made a great point. He said, ‘Your job as a designer is often to make money for the client. Financial viability is everything’... All you need is one aspect of an experience not to go well and you lose all the effort and investment that's gone into the design and the making of a destination.”

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