Meet the Multi-Talented Mitch Newman, Owner of Habitar Design and Stratagem Construction

Newman’s whirlwind journey from practicing physician to owner of multiple home industry businesses took him around the globe and back.

You can’t put Mitch Newman in a box. A physician by education, T-shirt salesman by necessity and writer by desire, Newman has traversed the world led only by his curiosity. He was running a theater company when he elected to take up real estate development, the family business. Now the owner of Chicago-based sister companies Habitar Design and Stratagem Construction, Newman draws upon skills gained at every previous career stop to embrace the challenges of running his businesses.

What led you to start a business in the design industry?
When I became a real estate developer, I set myself apart by delivering distinct, highly designed units. My theater background taught me to mesh well with creatives; my medical background taught me to be organized and grew my love for taking care of people. When the housing market crash of 2008 happened, I applied those skills to change direction from real estate development to running a design company and later, a construction company.

Where does your inspiration come from and how do you stay motivated?
There’s a few things that get me excited about the work I do, actually. First and foremost, it’s taking care of people and helping them through a complicated process. When they’re excited by the results, I have chills and am bursting with happiness. I’m really proud of being able to deliver aesthetically beautiful things that are well-built and will make my clients feel good every day. I love interesting design, so it’s great to walk into a place we worked on and see how beautiful the the design work has turned out.

I also love how running a business is a continuous education. As we strive to keep our customers and employees happier and do things better, we come across challenges that sometimes frighten me, but I take a lot of satisfaction as we learn and generate solutions.

How do you make Habitar Design and Stratagem Construction stand out in a saturated market?
Habitar Design is a full-service firm that can compete with anyone in the marketplace, but we stand out because of our integration of great design services with great construction services. Habitar coordinates with Stratagem to make the process from design to construction seamless. It allows us to to deliver our designs precisely and in a more controllable timeline while anticipating problems and designing around them cost-effectively and with strong construction support.

In design-build, clients rarely have the range of choices that we can provide. For us, design is not supplemental service, it’s a core strength. For us, a comprehensive plan down to the wallpaper is essential to efficiency. Providing this dual service results in about 75 percent of our clients retaining us for both design and construction purposes.

What is Habitar’s design philosophy?
Our approach is organized, cooperative and unintimidating. We work to guide our clients, not tell them how their residence ought to be. Rather, we help them discover what’s important to them aesthetically and functionally, then make that work in their space. It can go through many iterations, as good creative processes can, and it gives our clients control resulting in a very high level of satisfaction.

What is the biggest challenge your industries are currently facing?
On the design side, I don’t think there are any. Some companies work remotely and others use artificial intelligence to design rooms to deliver results at a lower price point, but their customers aren’t usually our clients. Those services can’t provide design services or construction integration to compete with our offering.

On the construction side, there is a manpower shortage. There aren’t enough people entering the trades in the U.S. and the gap that was once filled by the immigrant labor force is dwindling. To combat this, we have an internship program to train capable, motivated individuals, but finding good candidates is always a challenge.

What's exciting about the future of the design industry and where do you see the most opportunity?
Technology is always providing opportunities to work more productively. Design and construction require a lot of database management and clear communication, and I think there’s still a lot of opportunity to better integrate design and production. I look forward to the day when programs will price our designs with greater accuracy and speed so we can turn bids around more quickly and spend more time with our clients.

What is your best piece of advice for someone looking to break into the design industry?
A lot of new designers send us portfolios with projects so abstract, it’s hard to get a sense of their aesthetic. New graduates should design a portfolio of bathrooms and kitchens in a program that will render them, like SketchUp or Chief Architect. We often ask prospective employees to design a kitchen in contemporary or traditional style based on a layout and design criterion we send them. I also think practice makes perfect and new designers should spend a few hours each week scanning the internet for ideas and then experiment until they really like what they’re doing.