Zaha Hadid


Succession planning: What happens when a business founder dies

Businesses are told to prepare for unlikely events – a supplier going bust, a change in the economy or a new competitor emerging. But what to do following the passing of a charismatic founder? In the design industry it’s especially challenging, given that person’s unique creative leadership and their iconic influence on staff, clients and investors. 

13 Oct 2016

Many design houses find the loss too big to bear, while others appear to channel the vision of the founder, and often evolve under the stewardship of someone close to the founder.

When David Collins (pictured below), architect and owner of the practice of the same name, passed away in 2013, his business partner Iain Watson faced not only personal grief but a rare and perplexing set of commercial challenges. Here, he shares his experiences.

‘David was a brilliant designer but he was also a great businessman. His illness came quickly but he had a succession plan, leaving me with the business. He knew it was important to have clarity. 


We decided to form a management team of six people.

In the face of adversity, it’s been a great opportunity for people to grow and take David’s legacy forward. We’ve worked more as a collective.

After a three-month grace period we came back with a very clear statement that it was business as usual. We put on events and met clients and partners one-to-one to give them a clear sense of what was happening and what would happen next.

Continuity was very important; the creative vision and the voice of the studio didn’t change. All aspects of the business had to be on brand and still be us. There’s still that core sense of design, hunger for innovation and immersion in culture; it’s all part of our DNA.

You have to acknowledge and celebrate the heritage, but also look to the future. We’ve evolved as a brand; emphasising the studio and changing the logo. Now there’s a new generation of projects, signed up and executed now. In our business, you’re only as good as your last meal. Once you have that, it’s very powerful; it gives people something real to hold onto, and builds a buzz around the brand.

It was the same at Alexander McQueen – there was a real championing of the studio. I knew him and worked with [current creative director] Sarah Burton. It was interesting to see how the studio expanded; she understood the brand, the name above the door, and wanted to continue that. Now it’s her own projects that people are looking at most intently.’


Interiors by David Collins at the Wolseley.

Life after death

Two world-famous British companies have had to cope with the death of their founder in recent years.

Alexander McQueen 

Alexander McQueen was a superstar in British fashion at the time of his death in 2010. His second-in-command, Sarah Burton, was appointed as creative director of the business. Burton continued McQueen’s signature darkly theatrical style, yet crucially also began establishing her own distinct identity, soon notching up high-profile commissions, including Kate Middleton’s wedding dress. A sell-out V&A exhibition in 2015 about the designer’s work, Savage Beauty, has helped further immortalise the brand. The company was led through the transition by CEO Jonathan Akeroyd before he joined Versace in May this year.

Zaha Hadid 

‘Starchitect’ Zaha Hadid’s death in March 2016 was unexpected. Internationally renowned for sweeping curved designs, her eponymous London-based firm had 36 projects on the go when she died. Luckily, there was an obvious candidate to succeed her; Hadid’s right-hand man, Patrik Schumacher, who had worked with the architect since 1988. The architecture world is now watching to see how Schumacher and the rest of the company steer designs without the dominant personality whose eye and prolific output brought in a succession of big projects.

This story is taken from Courier Oct/Nov 2016.