Looking back on his childhood, Michael B. Kennedy can still recall watching his father design projects in the basement of their family home. In 1980, when Kennedy was just three years old, his father started what would become KAI Design & Build, a leading architecture and construction firm based in St. Louis that was making LEED-certifiable buildings before the USGBC emerged. Kennedy is now president of KAI Design & Build and uses his background in business to foster a company culture emphasizing communication and collaboration.
Up Close and Personal
What was your first job?
I was 15, and I bagged groceries. I actually won my first award when one of those spies came in to see if everyone was doing their job correctly.
If you weren’t in the family business, what would you do?
When I was growing up, I wanted to be the Tiger Woods of NASCAR, so in terms of pipe dreams or passions, that’d be it. More realistically, before KAI I was at GE Capital and was offered a job right out of college. I was told I could one day be president of a division, and I really think I could have.
What inspires you?
Everything I do is for the joy of being able to help others, so the possibility of being able to use my success to help another become successful is inspiring to me.
Describe yourself in three words.
Competitive, strategic, people-person.
What is your hidden talent?
I’m athletic and have been doing martial arts on and off for years. I just started doing taekwondo again, and it’s my goal to get my black belt.
I brought a business approach to KAI Design & Build. I am not an architect like my father. I run the sales, operations, and development side of the company, but I believe architects and artists are driving the sustainability movement. When I started here 11 years ago, I quickly realized that creative human beings are intuitively sustainable; they just seem to be more environmentally conscious. We always assume that new projects are going to be green until the owner tells us otherwise. With this cost-conscious economy, we’re seeing a new trend of clients saying they want a “LEED-like building,” meaning they want all of the LEED elements without the costly certification. People are doing the best they can with the budgets they have.
There are also projects where no expense is spared. Our Arlington Grove Apartments project is part of HUD’s Green Homes and Communities project, and it has a laundry list of sustainable features and other requirements unusual even for very upscale homes. Forty percent of our portfolio is in education. Students are now aware of the environment in a way previous generations weren’t. They want to go to schools that are environmentally conscious. At the Harris Stowe Early Childhood Development Center, everything is green, everything is high-tech. Parents can even watch their children in their classrooms from the comfort of their home computers. We’re able to succeed at projects like these because of our culture of collaboration.
Most design firms have one unique niche, but we do architecture, engineering, and construction in-house and work constantly to do all of these disciplines successfully. We’ve been told we give the most accurate estimates. That’s because everyone within our company collaborates, communicates effectively, and brings their strong suits to the table. In 2006 we gave each employee a copy of Marcus Buckingham’s Now, Discover Your Strengths. Everyone took the tests in the book to find out what their strengths were, and we developed teams around people’s strengths so that we were putting employees in roles they would succeed at, basically creating super teams of people with very few weaknesses. In order for people to be happy, they have to align their God-given talent with what they do for a living, and if we can help facilitate that, that’s what we’re going to do. These types of things don’t happen at other companies in our industry, but I was a business major and these are the types of ideas I try to bring to the table.
I hope we can continue implementing our business plan when the economy comes back. If just a year ago you would have asked me about where I saw KAI in five years, my answer would have been totally different than it is today. In 2010 things were slowing down and we were optimistic things would bounce back in 2011. Now people are hoping for things to turn around in 2012 while others are saying this is the new normal. Our plans for the future depend on what happens in the next 12 months. If this is the new normal, all I can hope is that we remain as successful as we are today. If the economy does come back, I want us to have a broader reach and open offices in new cities. I also want to double the size of our at-risk construction group, so here’s hoping things look up.