Using servant leadership philosophy, consulting and design company WD Partners develops a client list with big-name retailers.

A look at WD Partners' client list shows how far the Dublin-based retail consulting and design firm has come since architect Wolfgang Doerschlag founded the company in 1968 and landed his first account, York Steakhouse.

The lengthy list includes several dozen big-name retailers, restaurant chains and consumer goods companies including Walmart, Wendy's, Tim Hortons, Whole Foods Market, 7-Eleven convenience stores, Electrolux, Samsung, Frigidaire and Gap. Add it up, and the company has built a global reputation, having worked on projects in 77 countries across six continents over the years.

That is fitting since Doerschlag was an Austrian immigrant who lived the American dream of working hard and building a successful business, says his son, Chris Doerschlag, the current CEO at WD Partners.

"We have focused on a specific vertical (business segment), and that's the vertical of retail," Chris says. "It's been about understanding what we're good at and constantly trying to evolve our expertise and perspective of the retail market to help our clients with their business model."

Father and son remain close, with Chris calling his father, who retired in 1998, a friend and confidant whose work ethic and leadership style continue to influence him.

"The one thing my father spent time teaching me," he says, "was the concept of 'servant leadership'-that the more authority you have, the more responsibility you have as a leader to serve others. That has really been a cornerstone in my philosophy of creating a very lean organization and always trying to look for ways to destroy hierarchy. In essence, it's about rolling up your sleeves and doing the work that's required."

The work gets done in a number of ways for the multi-unit retail and restaurant companies served by the 400 WD Partners employees. About half work at the Dublin headquarters off Discovery Boulevard with the rest at offices in Irvine and San Francisco, Calif.; Charlotte, N.C.; Providence, R.I.; Toronto, Ont.; Halifax, Nova Scotia; and Mumbai, India.

The staff includes architects, engineers, designers, brand strategists and program managers who provide clients with expertise in the areas of strategy, design and brand consulting, digital integration, program management, consumer research, operations consulting and architecture and engineering.

Doerschlag says it's those people and the company's philosophy of giving them the freedom, flexibility and independence to excel that makes WD Partners successful.

"We've been able to create a culture that allows smart people to do their best work," he says. "It's about thinking freely and bringing up ideas-that no idea is a bad idea."

WD Partners' executives are frequently quoted in national and local media on trends and developments on the retail and restaurant fronts. The firm's research also draws media attention, including its 2013 study, "Amazon Can't Do That," on shoppers' views of online versus in-store experiences, and a 2014 study, "The Next Killer App: Stores," on digital retail technologies.

Given its track record, WD Partners has built an outstanding reputation in the retail industry, says Chris Boring, principal of Boulevard Strategies, a Dublin-based firm that provides retail and economic research and analysis to private- and public-sector clients. He even says two of the firm's executives, Lee Peterson in retail branding, strategy and design and Dennis Lombardi in food-service strategy, are viewed as icons in their fields.

As a whole, WD Partners is known for its strategic thinking on behalf of its clients, Boring says, as well as its ability to help them implement a strategy.

"That's an important skill set," he says. "They design something that is scalable and can be replicated across multiple environments… Anyone can design a pretty store, but you want that store to work as a sales vehicle. That requires strategic thinking."

Doerschlag says WD Partners has been built on innovation that allows the company to remain relevant to its clients.

"Innovation is something that's built into our DNA," he says. "It's something we do on a daily basis and drives our business model and our passion. In today's market with all the change we're seeing, innovation has to be part of our core philosophy… What we do very well at WD is leverage that innovation on behalf of our clients and our own culture. We don't ignore change, we embrace change."

Doerschlag also says he is optimistic about his company's future.

"We're very excited about the innovations that are on the horizon in terms of how we leverage technology," he says. "We'll continue to look at our global expansion and how we can help our clients grow globally."

Jeff Bell is a freelance writer.