The question I am most frequently asked is some form of “what kind of work do you guys do?” As you might imagine, with a wide variety of markets served, the answer to this question hasn’t always come out as cleanly as I’d like. There may have been a tinge of insecurity in my responses over the years likely for not being a specialist in one particular market, but instead striving to be relevant in many. The team here at Generator knows the old adages of K.I.S.S., or find what you’re good at and stick with it… I mean, there are even quotes from everyone from Plato to Steve Jobs on doing “one thing” …
With all due respect to the lessons of the past, as we begin our second decade, we plan to ignore them.
I know our talented collection of architects, interior designers, marketers, and business folk can succeed across our current spectrum of project types without narrowing our focus. In fact, we believe what we learn in one market sector makes us stronger in another, and so on. Our diverse portfolio of work is tied together by one thing: hospitality. Every space is a unique reflection of the people who live, work, or play there. Each project, local or national, influences the whole of our work.
So, there you have it: my self-affirmation statement about Generator Studio, ten years in. Too long for an elevator pitch, I suppose… I’ll have to work on that; check back with me in 2030.
P.S. Since this series of ten stories was intended to be a retrospective of the first ten years of Generator, I need to give a shout out to my wife for her patience and support. This story would be incomplete without a mention of her. And a heartfelt thank you to my colleagues that allow me to step away with confidence to be a dad.
We’ve had many big and small lessons along the way these past 10 years. We even have a real-time lesson we’re currently grappling with – don’t try to be the general contractor on your own space. Hire it out – its worth the fee. Yeah….that one hurt. But hey if one is not continually learning from life’s experiences and lessons, then perhaps life isn’t being lived to its fullest. I believe we owe it to ourselves to do everything we’re able to maximize life’s opportunities. It isn’t always easy. And it shouldn’t be.
A conscious effort is needed to step out of one’s comfort zone to put oneself into a different situation in order to benefit from life’s lessons. I work hard to do this, and with it comes success and failures and the lessons that go along with them. For me, my biggest lessons are more like ‘truths’, or words that I like to live by that come from lessons learned along the way. Most of this won’t be new information, but they are good reminders none the less:
– Be human. For architects, don’t speak architect.
– Meet someone new at every event you attend.
– To be interesting to someone, you have to be interested in them.
– Do not over-promise. Clients remember.
– Deliver on what you say. Clients remember.
– 95% of new business is by word-of-mouth.
– What did you do with the power when you had it?
– Your health is the single-most important thing. Without it, you can’t love your family or friends. Take care of yourself.
So get out there, and remember to have fun along your chosen path! We have just two episodes left on our 10 Year short stories series. Hopefully you’ve learned a thing or two about us on this journey as we look towards concluding our 10 stories, wrap up construction on our new office (ugghhh) and look towards a bright future with everyone who’s helped us get here, and those we have yet to meet.
Like most parents, my mother and father worked tirelessly in shaping their children. Like most children, I am derivative of the environment I was raised in.
The culture of Generator is intended to provide a platform for individual talent to flourish under the umbrella of a collective that delivers superior service and design that meets the client’s vision. As I sit back and look across the talented team of professionals that call Generator home, I can’t help but feel a bit like a parent.
Our office leaders have been careful about curating our staff growth; we find the right people, not to simply fill a position. Like a family, every new member has a profound impact not only on our product but our culture as well; rightfully so, our team has grown to be protective of what we have.
My biggest lesson over these 10 years has been that you are only as good as your people. Before Tom and I started this venture, I assumed that my voice and my “talent” would be supported by my employees. In fact, that is not at all what has evolved. Instead, the team here is responsible for the outward facing “products” we deliver and deserve all of the credit when it comes to project execution and success. My job, it turns out, is to support the environment within the office walls and protect the culture they’ve built. I am a proud parent.
That noise you just heard was a collective groan and an eye roll from the Generator team. I am often accused of telling “Dad jokes” around here. Everyone has their role, I suppose, and I am flattered by the insinuation.
It’s 2017 and the office is humming along in all our key markets, and as Mike said in our last story, our culture and vibe is really standing out. Things are about to get more interesting. On the sports side we had been cranking on a bunch of work across the state with the St Louis Blues (proudly now Stanley Cup champions!) Additionally, we started work on renovations at Barclays Center in NYC for Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment, owners of the NBA Brooklyn Nets. The opportunity to work in New York is pretty damn special I might add, and a first for me. And, did somebody say Jay Z?
But then in the Spring of 2018, Tod Leiweke, who we mentioned in story 3 Game Changer, one of the key, pivotal people we credit for our success, is now the CEO of NHL Seattle and reaches out to say he wants ‘to get the gang back together’ for NHL Seattle’s new front office, team training facility and community ice center. Ok that is cool, we are definitely in to help a professional team start from scratch! Then it hit me, sitting there in New York. We might be doing work coast to coast. I should have taken a selfie of the huge smile I had on my face! A few weeks later, we are on the ground in Seattle.
It brings so much joy to me that all the hard work of our staff, who have executed so well, at many levels, has brought about the chance to be a part of many amazing projects, and meet incredibly talented people who have dedicated their lives to the world of sports. I remember the feeling early on of pinch-me moments realizing the glamorous part of our jobs — meeting with owners, seeing players IRL, feeling like a baller … and now I see the team having those moments. The opportunities Mike and I were given 20 years ago to work in sports architecture, we are now paying forward to our staff. Coast to coast is cool. Paying it forward is cooler. THAT is a great feeling. And, oh, we’ve learned some lessons along the way, which Mike will explore in our next story reflecting on our first 10 years.
Yeah, that tussle with Butch was awkward…
So now we have a new home at 1,800 SF, three times the space of our old garage space. With the move came the opportunity for the now six-man firm to create a place that captured not only our growing size needs, but also a space to embody a bit of who we are as an office and to be a reflection of our unique personalities. Gone were the days of awkwardly dodging meeting requests at the office; we now had a place we were truly proud of.
The building itself provided a literal window into our operations as the entirety of our storefront along McGee is glass. Hemmed in between a burgeoning church and a killer DJ and event service, we now had the quirk and vibe we like from a neighborhood standpoint. #kccrossroads
Some of the legacy pieces from the garage days made their way over to the new space, if in a slightly more sophisticated manner. Beer fridge begot a double kegerator; my college sound system turned into a Bose wireless setup; and while the hockey horn made the transition intact, we now had room for a bubble hockey table. In other words, this new office allowed us to grow and celebrate the cultural mainstays at Generator for love of music, love of sport, and love of beer.
To this day one of our traditions is to give complete creative control of the “next keg up” to whoever is willing to go and pick it up. Only two real missteps to date: one in the way of an unbeknownst highly leaded selection which was key in our one beer policy and a “sobering” realization that despite our varied tastes and influences, collectively Generator was not ready for the complexities of a gose; I believe I personally had to take this keg down before we got to replace it.
Music is another medium we take a democratic process towards; while I would love to run the tunes all day and force feed New Wave 80’s, 90’s Brit Pop, and heavy rotation of all things U2 onto the team, instead we have a first come/first served approach; this allows for everyone to have a hand in creating our daily work soundtrack. No real missteps here with sharing such power with the exception of a few hours here and there of the Country genre (thanks, Jared).
For a little window into my personal love of music, read this article about a run in with a legend and to a quote that does truly capture the love I have for my team in how hard they work every day, despite all the beer, music, and bubble hockey!
Still working out of the garage while designing Tampa arena, we hired a few more folks. We were in startup mode, saving money and wanting to be business people – not just architects – to do this thing right. It was tempting to get an office space to ‘legitimize’ our business. Instead, we bought a cheap hockey horn to sound when a new project came in; stocked the fridge with beer; and brought on KC local Cynthia Enright as our consultant-based CFO/COO to help with financials, operational processes like time sheets & expenses, and guidance in running a profitable business.
More local work started coming in, the result of a lot of hustle and happy hours. We created a niche in non-profit architecture, helping clients like the Northland Early Education Center, local Alzheimer’s Association and Child Protection Center. A pivotal moment was winning an international design competition with The Nelson-Atkins Museum. Yet another holy sh_t moment for us that instantly changed our course – now contending on serious design opportunities with serious local architects.
Another hire later and we’re at six people, two dogs, a large plotter, cables everywhere, multiple phone calls simultaneously over music and a client meeting in the kitchen. It was time. Generator truly needed a space.
It was an easy decision to move to the Crossroads. Its diversity, creativity, experimentation and boldness was exactly what we wanted in our own culture and locating there would help us attract talent that shared those same values. Butch Rigby, who had acquired the old Star warehouse at 17th and McGee, had the space we wanted. Anyone that knows Butch knows he’s passionate about saving old buildings and is, well, just passionate – a great fit from the start as we share that passion. At one point during the construction of our space, Butch and I got a little heated and we stepped outside. There might have been some yelling— i.e. passionate conversation— that moved into the middle of the street. Butch started laughing and in his good natured way did a ‘fake’ stranglehold on me to just make up for our misunderstanding. We then realized we had the construction workers looking out the windows at us, wide-eyed, thinking Butch was taking me down while two cars stopped in the street started honking! We laughed our asses off.
Our new digs at 1701 McGee couldn’t have been more timely…
Still working out of the old garage, and now a formidable three-man firm with the hiring of Peter Baird (still with us, btw), we received a phone call that changed the very DNA of Generator and set in motion a series of related projects that continue to shape our office even today.
On the other end of the line was friend, mentor, architect, and all-around good guy, Ray Chandler. He was calling to ask if we would be willing to “help out” on a project down in Florida. The project was the complete reimagining of the twenty-year-old Amalie Arena, and the client was The Tampa Bay Lightning. Ray had been hired as owner’s rep to make sure this transformation was successful.
In an instant, Generator Studio was in sports, again… only this time, we were on our own. Both Tom and I worked for many years at Ellerbe Becket and later Crawford Architects. Working on some of the most influential sports facilities in the US, and beyond. At Ellerbe, Tom and I worked for the Seattle Seahawks and were a part of the design team for CenturyLink Field. Then, at Crawford, Tom and I were the senior architectural leaders of Virginia Mason Athletic Center, the practice facility and headquarters for the Seahawks.
The then CEO of the Seahawks, Tod Leiweke, had just been named CEO of the Lightning. Circles of influence, old friends and past experience were merging into a once in a lifetime opportunity and Generator was ALL IN!
Landing our first project as Generator Studio in 2009 (thanks KMG Hotels!) was the ‘sh_t just got real’ moment: We had to get it done on our own. Where we once relied on folks at our previous firms to help draw & coordinate, it was now just Mike & me. Welcome to entrepreneurship 101.
KMG founders Jay & Sanjay Koshiya were starting their hospitality venture along with Jim Ecton at Level Builders. The five of us in the office of a beat-up hotel we were renovating was a special time and one I won’t forget. Had to dig deep to set aside my life of sports project globetrotting to grind out smaller—but as it turns out—very personally rewarding projects. I had disliked biz networking, but that goes out the window when launching a business. Learned how to hustle and loved the connections I was making.
Projects floated in: Kelly Manning at Tavern In The Village; Owen Buckley at LANE4 Property Group with Jeff Berg (Colliers) renovating Corinth Square. Driving out to Dodge City for their historic downtown master plan when we needed to be back at the garage drawing. Crazy times. Stressful. Exhausting. And absolutely worth it.
I became a better person and architect, better listener and connector, better at giving back. But the sports world we left didn’t forget about us. Mike Kress back to you.
Generator Studio’s first office was the former poker room above my garage.
We put away the ashtrays and decks of cards to make room for a simple 2′ by 8′ folding table that served as the working desks, drafting table, reception area and lunchroom for both Tom and I. Remarkably, this 16 SF plastic tabletop served as the intellectual and functional home of Generator for the first two years.
One of our first clients liked our low overhead and frugality so much he stated, “If you ever move out of here, I won’t hire you again.”
Check back soon for the rest of the Generator story.