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Switching to credit union strategic move for architecture firm

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By the mid-80s, architect James Robbins had reached a pivotal point in his career. He could choose to either pursue a partnership at the prestigious San Diego architecture firm where he was an associate at the time, or he could strike out on his own. Robbins chose the latter option, and by 1992 had formed Robbins Jorgensen Christopher Inc., now RJC Architects Inc.

“The advantage of having your own firm is that you get to pick the team you work with,” said Robbins, who started his business working out of a bedroom with two cats.

Janene Christopher, who Robbins has worked with for 20 years and is now his partner at RJC, was at the top of his list of ideal teammates. Together, they began to build what has become one of San Diego’s leading architecture firms. The company today boasts 23 employees and an impressive portfolio of award-winning architecture, landscape architecture, planning and interior design projects for clients in San Diego and throughout California.

“Janene and I started out working with a secretary and one or two other people,” Robbins said. “Now we’ve grown to the point where we’re trying to move from being a firm where the partners decide everything to a more corporate culture. At the same time, we’re trying to create a way for a group of people to do work that maintains a consistent quality.”

With an emphasis on public and institutional work, the firm’s recent projects include Coronado’s new $30 million City Hall and Community Center. RJC served as master planner, architect, landscape architect and interior designer for the projects. The firm is also the campus master plan architect for California State University, San Marcos.

RJC has earned many of its current projects — such as the $31 million renovation of the historic Del Monte Hotel for use as officers’ quarters at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey — by winning design-build competitions.

In a strategic move that has helped the firm in its efforts to expand into the world of private corporate projects, RJC merged with Turpit Architects in 2003. And recently, the firm made another sound business move to support its continued growth — switching all its financial accounts from a traditional retail bank to USA Federal Credit Union.

The firm was already taking advantage of the credit union’s employee services, such as checking accounts and discounted loans. When USA Federal launched its Business Services division last September, the decision to let the credit union handle all its financial needs was an easy one for RJC.

“We were looking for someone to cater more to our needs,” said Julie King, RJC Architects business manager and associate. “At big banks, they pretty much tell you, ‘this is what we offer.’ USA Federal provided us with a customized plan that was extremely competitive, and their staff is very friendly and attentive. We think this move will help us streamline our banking and give us the flexibility for growth in the future.”

According to Jennifer Ventimiglia, Vice President of Member Business Services at USA Federal, the credit union decided to offer a full range of financial services for businesses after learning through surveys and employee feedback that there was a strong demand for them among members. All services are complemented by the personalized attention USA Federal is known for.

“Many businesses think that if they’re not located right across the street from us, it will be too inconvenient for them to let us handle their financial services,” Ventimiglia explained. “But we come right to your door, so you don’t have to worry about getting to a branch.”

USA Federal and RJC share more than a mutually rewarding business relationship. They also share a commitment to giving back to the community. This year, the companies worked together in Canstruction, an event in which architects and engineers built a giant sculpture from cans to raise approximately 10 tons of food for local charities.

To learn more about RJC Architects, go to www.rjcarch.com. For more information about USA Federal Credit Union’s Business Services, contact Jennifer Ventimiglia at jventimiglia@usafed.org.

O’Donnell is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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