PRESIDENT / SHIELD CASEWORK
Stephen, previously the Director of Innovation at Dimensional Innovations, has been president of Shield Casework since January 2014, leading the company to great success. When he is not traveling the country on business, you can find him sampling the best local vegetarian fare, running marathons and working on his swing plane.
"Design has never been more important. Nobody is saying we want our communities and buildings to be ugly. The consumer cares more about design than they ever have – realizing it can make a difference in their life. Don’t own the ADA circle in the bathroom. Own the design!"
At Shield you're no longer practicing architecture day to day – ever miss it?
Simple answer, Nope! I say that tongue in cheek, but I also feel that a lot of the work isn’t that different. The things we’re building at Shield are just smaller. And, I feel like the broader education of architecture - thinking through, 'if I make this change here, what are the ramifications down the line for the drawing set, for the cost, or for the build?' My background in architecture has helped me understand things on a more macro level. Before I got my MBA I actually lacked confidence about our education as architects . I wondered if there was a whole other world outside of architecture that I was missing. But, having this business background now and meeting people from different sectors has given me confidence that architecture really is a great education.
What has been the most unexpected challenge in your time at Shield?
You read a lot, or people tell you but you don’t understand, the top is lonely. I wasn’t prepared for that. I’m often the last to hear things – which is fine, but I wasn’t ready for that. Your first year its like you enter that startup valley. I had an echo chamber in my head and was super stressed out and you feel this whole thing is riding on you which is really hard. In my head I’ve always wanted to be the guy that ran the thing – I got there and thought ‘oh shit’. Taking it on was more difficult than I thought. The work wasn’t harder but the stress and magnitude of doing it and owning it was harder. I often think now about when I was at Populous or DI and questioned why leadership was making decisions – when your down in the ranks sometimes you can think, ‘Are you kidding me? What are you doing?’ regarding decisions your boss might make But, being in the position I am in now at Shield I can think back and I totally get why they made some of the decisions they did.
What is your favorite restaurant in KC?
This totally reflects where I am in my life right now – my favorite restaurant is Jun’s Sushi on about 80th and State Line. It's the best sushi in Kansas City by far. It's relaxed and easy which is what I need in my life at this point.
What's one piece of advice would you give someone starting their own business?
Can I do two? First, find a way to disconnect – my nature is to dig in harder when presented with new challenges. That first year it led to this dark valley type place – which often times isn’t always the best fix. Finding mediation or a way to change the channel is important.
The other thing is – and I think Shield does this well – don’t be totally convinced of you are as a business. I love the idea of a business as more of a prototype for the first few years. It leaves you open to more opportunities. As an example, when we first started out we thought we were a healthcare company – this year we are trending towards doing more work in sports. That came about by being open to opportunities around us. Also, this is a very Midwest thing, but we’re self-funded so we have to find ways to make it to the next proverbial gas-station So, we didn’t spend a lot of time in incubation creating a product and then taking it to market – we kind of had to develop project by project. It’s allowed us to develop into who we are.
This is the best part about working in KC:
It’s accessible. Both creative and forward thinking – we pride ourselves on that. But it's not big enough that everything is stratified. You can run into the major players and they are visible. I think the Bloch's and the Kauffman's of the world in terms of design and community have set such a fantastic example for the rest of us and I think that has such a huge impact. If you’re really successful then you just do these really cool things for the city – and I don’t think that’s the case everywhere.
Where do you see Shield in 10 years?
In 10 years our plan isn’t to sell – we aren’t building Shield to sell it. We don’t want 'X' amount of users or 'X' amount of revenue by a certain time. I feel like we will be out of the toddler stage. Now we’re finding our way, walking, but still bumping into some stuff. Hopefully we have set product lines, set market channels and distribution networks established – we’re starting to look like a real business. Part of what is baked into all that is that I always assume were going to be coming out with really great non-developed products. That will always be part of our culture. We’re not going to be the company trying to make the coffee pot for five cents cheaper. We might make a coffee pot, but we'll try to make it better for the user and have a better design. I mention that because at Shield we probably take that for granted – I feel a lot of other companies probably don’t have that baked in.
The musician you are embarrassed you love?
Blake Shelton or Taylor Swift. I heart both of them. Every Friday while I was at Populous we would play Neil Diamond at 3:00. When Sweet Caroline came on it was beer drinking time. At Shield we started a different tradition – we have a guilty pleasure play list. Only two rules: you have to feel guilty about and feel pleasure about it.
The best professional advice you ever received?
One that comes to mind is ‘The Work Always Wins’. Meaning the project is always bigger than the people and that’s more of a comment on some of the drama and politicking that can happen on project teams.
Moving from Populous to Dimensional Innovations I had a fair amount of trepidation about leaving an architecture firm. It was hard going into a different world , but it was the best thing I ever did. It tested my boundaries and challenged my assumptions about how I thought a business ran. It also introduced me to a different set of people, and broadened my horizons in a new way. It was more than just a move to a different firm, and I’m totally glad I did.
What’s your favorite TV show of all-time?
The Wire. It’s untouchable.
You co-authored a Fast Company article a couple of years ago about the use of the word Architect. You wrote,
‘the effort to criminalize alternate uses of the word, and to chastise those
designers who use it (without being licensed), is a desperate grasp to retain relevance. And it utterly fails, conveying instead a false sense of superiority
that only matters to other architects.'
I loved the article and thought it was spot on - what is the biggest thing in your mind that you think architect’s need to do to remain relevant?
Don’t use my words against me! My favorite part of the whole thing is we got some nasty-grams from Daniel Liebeskind’s PR firm. The Fast Company editor picked that title, but we got the nasty-grams, which was pretty funny.
Same advice as I said earlier about starting a business - that notion of digging in and saying we’re architects and we make drawings and we’re close to the owner and that’s the only way it can go. Well, that’s how its gone – that doesn't mean its going to go that way forever. Architects do so much damage digging into who we are or who we’ve been. We've lost relevance with contractors owning BIM models, the rise of owners-reps have also diminished architect's role. The hard part for me is that I feel architects have just tried to abdicate any sort of risk. And, I think we’ve totally forgotten that with risk comes value! Doing something that has value has some risk, and if it doesn’t you just get pushed into this smaller and smaller corner.
Another thing that drives me crazy about architects is that we don’t want to take risk for means and methods, structural, mechanical engineering – anything. But then, when someone says okay, 'you’re an architect – you make the buildings pretty.' We say ‘Whoa, whoa we do way more than that.' So, we don’t want to own design either- what the fuck is wrong with that? Design has never been more important. Nobody is saying we want our communities and buildings to be ugly. The consumer cares more about design than they ever have – realizing it can make a difference in their life. Don’t own the ADA circle in the bathroom. Own the design!
What was the first place you ever had a ‘real’ job?
Learfield, which is based in Jefferson City. I was the board operator for Wisconsin basketball and football during high school and college. It was 10-15 hours a week, but it felt like a real job.
I am trying to disconnect as much as possible, but I am committed to learning Spanish in 2016. So, I have started using Duolingo. It’s 10 minutes a day and it helps quickly build your language proficiency.
KC could do this better:
Ignoring the state line. We’ve done some really cool things in the last 10 years – I’m proud of who we are and I hope we don’t rest on that momentum. And, can we just build a downtown baseball stadium already! Call it the K, make it just like Kauffman, but just build it downtown already!
Favorite Building in Kansas City?
I love the Andrews McMeel Building at 12th and Walnut. It’s one of those first curtain wall buildings. They did a really nice job restoring it and did a really modern interior, which I always love.
If you could spend a day with anyone – who would it be?
This is a totally time and place answer, but I would love to just spend a day with my wife. Moments are fleeting and everyone is so tired with two kids under 5.
KCI; new or remodel?
I would love - and this will never happen - but I would love it if KCI was at the downtown airport. It would be so fantastic to be right there. So, I guess new and move! I would love a renovated Wheeler.
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