By Meghan Hall
When Phil Murphy acquired the GNU Group in 2000, his goal was to grow the firm, then ultimately sell the company once he felt its evolution was well established. Murphy did not anticipate that his time at the helm would span close to two decades, nor could he have predicted that the GNU Group would join Santa Clara-based Impec Group of Companies in nearly record time after a 2020 fraught full of uncertainty.
“I have very personal beliefs,” explained Murphy, who remains as part of the GNU Group team as an active consultant. “The design business is a very, very challenging business…You have to communicate very clearly what separates you from your competition. Short of COVID-19, we’ve been able to beat any slowdown in the market.”
The GNU Group got its start in 1972 under Richard Burns as a traditional branding and wayfinding firm and focused its attention on the commercial real estate industry. When Murphy acquired the company, GNU Group increasingly expanded its offerings and reach. Currently the firm focuses on nine different proprietary offerings: environmental branding, wayfinding design, architectural signage, master sign programs, sign standards, sign insert manager, brand identity, donor recognition and marketing communications. The company has the bandwidth to apply these offerings to a vast range of different product types, including aviation, healthcare, office, entertainment and more.
“Most people in our space–which is called environmental design, branding, wayfinding, etc.–are small firms. They’re all built around the name that is on the door,” said Murphy. “But I built the GNU Group to be a business because I’m not a designer, I’m a businessman. My goal was to build it, to transition it, and to sell it.”
Many of the GNU Group’s clients include Hines, Kaiser Permanente, Sutter Health, Lyft, BlackRock, the County of Santa Clara and more.
Most firms, said Murphy, typically specialize in three to four areas. GNU Group’s expansive portfolio allows the company to pivot at a moment’s notice, especially during market corrections or fluctuations. Such strategies ensured the company’s success: Even during The Great Recession, GNU Group continued to grow its client base and its revenue, making those years some of the company’s best, noted Murphy.
“We have very significant processes that we use to get work out which allows us to have a very viable business model,” said Murphy. “No matter where the economy is at, we can stay busy.”
Prior to Impec Group entering the picture,GNU Group was actually gearing up for acquisition by another company, based in Wisconsin. The potential buyer was an employee-backed ownership company who operated as a sign fabricator–and who at the time seemed like a strategic fit. However, after nearly six months of due diligence and just two weeks before the transaction was set to close, the deal fell through.
Shortly thereafter, COVID-19 hit, impacting bottom lines throughout the industry. Murphy knew the company was still entirely capable of running profitably on its own, and began the search for a new buyer once again.
“When COVID-19 hit, it created all kinds of challenges because nobody knew what was next,” Murphy acknowledged. “For 2020 I had two things to navigate: one, how we were going to get through the year, and two, I began to look for buyers.”
Murphy was in contact with a number of other potential buyers when Impec Group entered the picture. However, once the idea was pitched to Impec Group, the process moved quickly. Murphy stated that previous experience with potential buyers really prepared GNU Group for the acquisitions process once the appropriate buyer was found.
“It wasn’t my first rodeo, so we were pretty buttoned down by the time we started to talk to Impec Group,” said Murphy. “We could put in front of them very quickly what our differences were and what unique capabilities we brought to clients.”
GNU Group and Impec Group began communicating about a possible acquisition in September of 2020. The deal officially closed on January 1, 2021. Murphy declined to comment on the price of the transaction but acknowledged that the pace of the deal was quick.
“We were fairly packaged to sell,” said Murphy of the process. “It was all based on the fact that they deliver end-to-end services to corporate real estate and workplaces in the built environment…It became a really comfortable fit.”
Murphy said that the GNU Group’s ability to concisely highlight what made the firm different, as well as a previous working history with Impec Group, allowed the acquisition to proceed smoothly. Murphy had already transitioned GNU Group to a well-established executive team prior to the acquisition but will maintain an advisory role as both companies become one and gain their footing in a post-COVID-19 world. Looking ahead, Murphy believes there will be plenty of opportunities to be found. Thus far, both Impec Group and GNU Group have funneled business to one another as the commercial real estate industry finds increased importance in communicating building flows, safety protocols and in-office mission statements.
“You do all of that through signs,” said Murphy. “We think that’s a great market for us.”