"Carl is an architect, Gloria is an interior designer, and Ken was their managing partner. We'd been working with them for many years when they were with Victor Huff and continued to when they went out on their own," Ricca says. "Sometime in the late 1990s Ken approached me and suggested that we put our two firms together because we had such a nice synergy. I loved the idea. Because I'm an architect, I've always thought much broader than just the kitchen. When the show kitchen started emerging, that fell right into my game plan. It's front of the house, a kitchen that's visible and has to be designed not just for flow and function but for aesthetics. Marché and buffets and display cooking and all of the things that we started to introduce into higher education design are the same — they're all aesthetically connected. It felt right to me that we would marry the two pieces — back- and front-of-the-house design. The synergy of being able to market the expertise of both of our firms was a terrific opportunity."
The formal merger of Thomas Ricca Associates and Newmark Diercks Design into Ricca Newmark Design occurred on September 1, 2001 — just 10 days before the 9/11 attacks. The marriage immediately faced a crisis, with much development activity across the country coming to a screeching halt.
"We managed to get through it, but we did so in part by focusing hard on noncommercial segments, such as higher education and healthcare," Ricca says. "We convinced them that in many cases their architects were too busy organizing operating rooms, patient and dorm rooms and lobbies that they didn't have the time, interest and in some cases the expertise to do the cafeteria and the public spaces around the dining rooms. We started using our interior design group, and as marché concepts became more and more prevalent in these segments, it became more important to have the interior aesthetics integrated with the foodservice. That was our strength."
Ricca Newmark is also among the first foodservice design firms to incorporate hot commercial trends like churrasco and tandoori cooking into campus programs. He and his team are adding dim sum to the mix as well, leveraging insights and experience gained through the company's Shanghai-based partner, Anton Lee. "We've always tried to stay on the cutting edge, to push the limit," Ricca says. "I think we've taken a lot of risks in trying to find new and better ways to serve food in appealing ways that are effective for the customer and efficient for the operator."
Gradually, as Ricca Newmark Design sought out more business in segments beyond hospitality in order to survive the lean years, many of the original interior designers who had come on board as a result of the merger drifted away. Their area of specialization had been hospitality. But a core group remained, and Newmark, who retired earlier this spring, did whatever he could to keep from having to downsize further.
"Carl is like me in that he values people so much, and it tore him up when we had to downsize," Ricca says. "In this last recession he went a year without taking a salary and maybe two years at half salary so that he could keep a couple of those key people."
Ricca has done the same. "I treasure having people who are good at their jobs and have good attitudes around me," he says. "That can be both a strength and a weakness. I value that so much that I was never proactive about cutting staff when all of the numbers told me I should. So there were a couple of years, probably in the mid-1980s, when we got down with our billings and other bills and payroll. There was never anything left. I'd go a year and a half without taking a paycheck and basically living on credit cards. That was difficult for my family, but to me there was just no other option. I wasn't about to let people who I valued so much go. Thank goodness I don't have to have to handle that end of the business anymore."
That's because roughly five years ago, Ricca promoted Kathleen Seelye from partner to managing partner of Ricca Newmark Design. The two had met more than three decades ago, when Seelye was a manufacturer's rep in Colorado. She later moved to Houston, working as a dealer designer.
"She eventually contacted me and convinced me that we needed her, so we hired her," Ricca says. "She initially stayed in Houston — that was our first remote office — doing design work on mostly restaurant projects, which we would then support here by doing the production documents."
In a couple of years, Seelye moved back to Colorado and into the home office, where she's helped strengthen the client base and move RND into new territory, including in 2009 establishing Ricca e2, a sustainability consulting practice. She steered the ship through the most recent recession and manages day-to-day operations, freeing Ricca up to do what he loves best — teaching, mentoring, interfacing with clients and, most of all, drawing.
"Drawing something that really solves an issue, finding the simple solution is what I really love to do," he says. "I'm blessed that I can see things and sketch out solutions quickly. The simple solution usually starts with circulation. If you focus on how people and products have to move and get all of the other fluff out of the way, you can solve what seem to be unsolvable problems. I can quickly start with a blank sheet and get solutions down on paper so that everyone else can react to them and make them better."
Though still working more than full-time, Ricca can now also take time for favorite pursuits outside of the office. These include global adventure travel with his wife, Ronnie; spending time with family and hiking with Hat Trick and Zamboni, the couple's basset hounds, near the family's Rocky Mountain condo; and taking in his beloved Colorado Rockies' baseball games. He and Ronnie never miss an opening-day game, and Kunsman jokes that Ricca spends half the year dressed in purple, his favorite team's color.
The company that he's worked so hard to build is thriving. At Ricca Newmark today partners and principals are at work overseeing projects across town, across the country and across the globe. Its Colorado headquarters studio quietly buzzes with a staff of more than 25 architects, interior designers, consultants and other associates — all of whom consider Ricca a mentor who genuinely cares more about their success and that of the company's clients than his own.
There are no walls in the office, just a wide-open, highly collaborative workspace. Ricca's desk sits right in the center, where he works on his own designs and is easily accessible to any associate needing guidance or just someone to bounce an idea off.
"Tom loves what he does, and he's here to make people successful, whether that's clients or employees. That's his end goal, and he puts whatever it takes into that," says Michelle Maestas, a project designer who joined Ricca Newmark seven years ago. "He really sees the value in relationships, whether it's pro bono work he's doing for a cause or taking on small projects in order to build new relationships. So many in this business are all about the numbers and black-and-white facts, but for Tom it's very gray. That's refreshing because he really just values what the need is, what the want is and how to achieve that together. There are no limitations in Tom's world."