Gina Brinegar and Costel Coca embarked on their leadership of Webb Foodservice Design in a time of stress and sorrow. Company founder Jim Webb had carefully set up a succession plan to help prepare for his death, but there was no way to really be ready to shoulder that kind of responsibility.
“Jim was sick for two years,” says Brinegar, managing principal, who handles the business side of the firm. During that period, she began sitting in on client meetings and attending professional conferences, in part to “have time to start promoting the company as a brand instead of Jim Webb as the brand,” she explains.
Brinegar, who had her own bookkeeping business before joining Webb as the company’s operations and financial manager, was perhaps an obvious choice to move up to the top. But Coca, the design principal who had joined the firm as a 19-year-old draftsman in 1999 and never left, had to be slowly persuaded that he was management material.
“Jim saw something in the two of us that we didn’t know about ourselves — what I could become, what Gina could become,” Coca says. “He had been really mentoring me from a design perspective. I had technical ability; what I didn’t have was a leadership vision.”
Coca says he spent his first year as a principal “literally pretending to be Jim Webb.
“I was miserable,” Coca confesses. “I was so dependent on what Jim used to do that I didn’t think I could have my own vision for design. But I learned that it would look different but would be okay. I could honor Jim for his work, but I needed to drive the vision and push forward.”
Both Brinegar and Coca give a great deal of credit to their long-tenured team for stepping up during and after the transition. “Everybody pitched in, and everyone stayed,” Brinegar says. “We all had to prove ourselves that first year, but we weren’t going to skip a beat in providing our clients great service and design.”
Once past the initial transition period, the partners identified business diversification as a key goal. “When Jim Webb left us, Webb Foodservice Design was known for work in higher education,” Coca says. “One of the things Gina and I knew right away — one of the things we had learned from the Great Recession — was that we had to be open to different opportunities.”
The company has since parlayed skills learned from college and university projects into an impressive portfolio of clients in K-12, healthcare, government and corporate dining (including relationships with Google and with Intuit’s QuickBooks and TurboTax divisions). Coca estimates that higher education, which represented 80% of the firm’s business under Jim Webb’s leadership, now accounts for no more than 25% of the portfolio. Expanding the client base “has helped us tremendously,” he says.
Related to that evolution was a change in the firm’s hiring philosophy. In Jim Webb’s day, most hires joined the company with experience in kitchen equipment contracting or computer-aided design. In the new era, “we focused on getting people who had a design mindset, who had been to design school or architectural school,” Brinegar says.
“We wanted to be a design firm that just happens to be in the foodservice space,” Coca explains. “We brought in design talent to help us tell our foodservice story graphically. Our relationships with architects blossomed after that shift, and now we’re seen as trendsetters. We possess both technical ability and design ability; we speak architecture, dining, interior design. We help lead projects, versus sitting there and waiting for our little piece of the work.”
Growing the company’s expertise also meant developing the staff’s skills and expanding the leadership team. “Gina and I could do some decent work, but the firm wouldn’t be where it is without our people, and we realized we didn’t want to do it all alone,” Coca says. “We have two other principals — Daniel Roberts and Carri Sullens — leading teams now, and that’s really changed the way we do our work day-to-day. We have more bandwidth, take more initiative, think beyond the services we’re providing to take more risks and enter other markets.”
Although Webb Foodservice Design has completed major projects around North America, it still does the majority of its work in its home state. “California is so progressive that it has forced us to be at the forefront of foodservice innovation,” Coca says. “Our focus on health and wellness is well beyond a trend. Sustainability — by the time our peers in the industry were talking about it, we were five years ahead and already code-driven. Or the shift from gas to electric power, which is changing the way people interact with equipment. California has forced us to be flexible; there’s no set design, it’s a fast-paced environment, and everybody expects change.”
Translating that change mindset into a foodservice layout for a client means “designing flexible spaces that change over time,” Coca adds. “That’s really our secret. What brings people together in the context of a campus, a company, a healthcare setting, is foodservice — it’s a getaway, a place of social interaction. It may look different over the years, function differently, but its purpose is not going to change.”
Advice and Inspiration
Q: What was the first job that meant something to you (and why)?
A: Brinegar: One of the first clients I was involved with at Webb was Cal State University, Long Beach, my alma mater. I interviewed four teams for a project involving two dining halls. They were small, dank spaces, both technically challenging, but the redesigns were very successful, and the client was very happy. It was really fun to leverage relationships from my own school.
A: Coca: Webb Foodservice Design is my first real job, and it means the world to me. I’m still here 21 years later. I was born to be a project manager. My passion is having the opportunity to navigate the client toward the right design strategy, toward something that will make the world a better place.
Q: Where do you find inspiration?
A: Brinegar: Watching people on our team grow and learn. I love learning and think it’s important; I read business books all the time. If you’re not learning, life is kind of boring.
A: Coca: The day-to-day business: coaching our staff, getting peer-to-peer experience, understanding what other businesses are going through. From a design perspective, architecture, especially minimalism and midcentury modern — I take inspiration from those ideas and bring the craft into our practice.
Q: What advice would you give your younger self?
A: Brinegar: The advice I give as a mentor: get as much as experience as you can, try different things, find out what you like.
A: Coca: Don’t try to do everything on your own. And don’t try to turn everybody else into you, because everyone has different gifts.
Q: What is a lesson you learned from a project or while working with a client?
A: Brinegar: Certain clients are a little more high-maintenance and need TLC from the principal involved in the project. Not that I don’t trust the team, but there were situations where I should have checked in with the client more often to make sure things were going well.
A: Coca: You have to be okay about walking away from a client. Even if people don’t see your value, you still need to care for their success. A potential client came to us, we put together a proposal, he said it cost too much. I told him that was fine, gave him some practical advice about what to look for, told him he could call me anytime. He has since turned into one of our best clients. He comes to me for almost all his construction advice because we’ve built that level of trust.