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Banking on KC – Amy Slattery, Founder and CEO of Odimo

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Listen now, and read the transcript below:

 

Kelly Scanlon:

Welcome to Banking on KC. I'm your host Kelly Scanlon. Thank you for joining us. With us on this episode is Amy Slattery, the founder and CEO of Odimo a Kansas City-based architecture firm that has achieved early success with a different kind of business model for architectural firms. Welcome Amy.

Amy Slattery:

Thanks for having me.

Kelly Scanlon:

First of all, congratulations, you're celebrating five years in 2021. And as any entrepreneur knows getting to that fifth year in business, that's just a huge milestone. So congratulations on that. And during that time, during those five years, you've also won industry awards and the company was named one of the top 10 small businesses of the year by the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce in 2019. That's a really big deal. That's a very big honor that you achieve that so early. So kudos to you and your team for all that you've achieved so far.

Amy Slattery:

Thanks. It's been a heady first five years and it's kind of gone by a lot quicker than we all thought it would. I would just say the Kansas City community has been such a great foundation for this practice and our network has really been the key to our success.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yeah. Kansas City is such a giving community. Amy, let's talk about your company's name, Odimo, and that's a verb. It means to navigate. Thank you for putting that up there on your website and you and your team have certainly navigated a traditional profession, architecture in a new direction. Talk to us about that.

Amy Slattery:

Well, I had the fortune of beginning a year in Kansas City at two really great firms so I started Odimo. I was able to really see from early in my career the value of high design quality. And then later in my career, I really understood project management and client management. And what we're really doing here at Odimo is to really combine two ideas that were taught from an early stage in our career. For some reason, architects are taught that we should either be a design firm or a service firm, that those are two different approaches to practice. And what I really want to be doing, and what we are doing with Odimo is to be providing high-quality design, some groundbreaking innovations in design even in a very service forward approach. So the idea of being our client's navigator and being in support of our client's ideas is really core to that concept.

Amy Slattery:

And it's that we are in service to our clients. We are in partnership with our clients and collaborators to help them achieve their vision through what we provide them. So it's not ultimately about our artistic expression and what we leave on this earth as architects or artists, but that what we do is really achieving the goals of our clients. And that's just a fundamentally different approach to a lot of architectural practices. And it's about partnership, it's about being an extension of our client. And it's about a humility that maybe not every client needs a building. Maybe they need a renovation. Maybe they need a new operational approach. We're really focused early on working with our clients to understand their goals for any architectural intervention and then being kind of their advocate for making sure they're making the right investment.

Kelly Scanlon:

Lots of emphasis on relationships, obviously, behind that philosophy. But what do you believe are the keys to true community partnerships? A lot of people talk about relationship building and partnerships, not everybody really does it, though. So what is your secret? What are your keys to really truly forming key community partnerships and getting beyond the codes if you will?

Amy Slattery:

With our clients, we look for long-term relationships. So we look for repeat client opportunities where we can be serving them for many years, which is why we love our work with the universities. And also, why we like repeat work with our development and developer partners. It really has to do with getting to know our community, our neighborhoods specifically before we are asked to look at a project in any part of the city. And it's what we've been just really starting to do particularly, over the last year is reach out to neighborhoods, reach out to community groups and just ask to come introduce ourselves and then listen. Not really with any preconceived agenda, but just to understand the nuances of each neighborhood and what they're looking for and to just literally listen. And then as we continue that relationship building through listening, we kind of come together periodically here in the studio and think about how we can make connections that could potentially be good partnerships to move things forward in the city.

Amy Slattery:

So it's fundamentally still somewhat of a business driver, but we want to make sure whatever project or whatever client we decide to move forward with that it's in the best interest of the communities that we serve. There's been some new ordinances over the last few years about further community engagement for projects when coming into communities. But we really want to make sure that we're even starting from the beginning and helping either a developer or a community neighborhood group vet an idea. So hopefully, we can work together for the right improvements, the right development, the right infill for a lot of our distressed neighborhoods.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yeah. It's interesting that you talk about it in that way, because you're not only forging your own relationships within the community and with your client, but you're helping by taking that extra step and that extra time. You're helping your clients to do the same, to create those relationships, to be a better neighbor. You hear so often about projects that get a lot of excitement built around them only to go before a council and get shot down because the neighbors don't like it, you're doing all that work up ahead.

Amy Slattery:

It's a two-sided approach. We do serve our clients, but ultimately if we understand and can work with the neighborhoods early on, before we even put pen to paper, it could ideally expedite a process and become more of the community is behind the project and an advocate for the project before it even really gets further developed. So that's the goal, particularly with infill housing and affordable housing in Kansas City, community partnership is really key to that success.

Kelly Scanlon:

You mentioned higher education, you've just now mentioned affordable housing. Both of those are areas where you do work, what are some of the other sectors that you are involved with?

Amy Slattery:

Within higher education, we have actually focused more on laboratory work. So you UMKC is one of our key clients. We've done many projects with them, but we're really excited about the opening the spring of the school of engineering expansion. We did the lab planning really with that early on. We've recently expanded into more work with the University of Missouri and are working with actually Burns and McDonnell and HKS on a hospital expansion at Mizzou. And we're very excited to look at expanding our laboratory practice into healthcare. On the commercial side, we do have a lot of experience in office and office tenant fit-out. We're actually doing several projects with the city in both real basic ADA upgrades and kind of facility maintenance projects primarily in their administration's spaces. But then also, looking at sustainable strategies and partnerships with other architects on city projects. And last year, we were really excited to have the opening of the signal theory offices and which was about 40,000 square feet in Westport. We were so excited about that project. It's been unfortunate they obviously haven't been able to enjoy it this last year.

Kelly Scanlon:

I think the time's getting closer, though.

Amy Slattery:

I know, they're really looking forward to moving back into that space, but that was a really exciting office project that really explored the amount and the type of collaboration spaces that would be needed for creative agency. Now, as they move back in, I think there's a whole conversation to talk about how to better use those spaces, given our current condition. And we're in touch with them on some of those ideas.

Kelly Scanlon:

Affordable housing, as you know better than anybody. It's a huge topic across the country. And it's no different right here in Kansas City. What are your thoughts as an architect on solving that problem?

Amy Slattery:

I think first we have to go back to the idea of listening and almost really studying and benchmarking what other cities have found successful. I know there's currently an ordinance in place that has still a comment period that's open, but I think really forming those solutions needs to be a partnership between the city for both incentives and in policy. But also with the development community and with the neighborhoods and the community groups who really are needing and advocating for the affordable housing work. But it needs to be in partnership with the development community as well, because some of these ideas just fundamentally have to be able to be financed.

Amy Slattery:

And there are true limitations, just economically in some of the limitations that are in the current policy. So it needs to be a collaborative approach. I think there should be a task force that is put together with officials, community leaders and with development and finance. It's an urgent issue. I think the more we put our heads together and look at creative opportunities and again, benchmark best practices for what's worked around the country and really come together with the right policy for Kansas City. We've kind of moved forward with an initial idea. I think there will be additional ordinances and conversations needed to really make that implementable, but I'm hopeful that we can think about it in a more collaborative approach.

Kelly Scanlon:

You mentioned the signal theory building, and you mentioned also that you are hoping to be the beacon for innovative practices in architecture. What are some of the projects that you've worked on that you feel have challenged and that have been innovative, that have introduced new things?

Amy Slattery:

I think the Signal Theory project specifically was really a story of partnership with that agency. That when we first started talking with them, they were looking at a very small expansion of their crossroads office and they were actually a different brand, right? They were a Sullivan Higdon & Sink, and we essentially gave them a lot of what ifs and explorations and studied their previous space and looked at the issues with it and what they could do with it. And when they decided they wanted to move on, we were kind of in lockstep with them as part of their team in their site selection. And then while we were in the middle of design for their new space, they rebranded, they became Signal Theory. And we were so fortunate to really collaborate with them on the meaning, the intent, the human-focused philosophy of that brand.

Amy Slattery:

And because we had been working with them already, we didn't have to adjust the design too much to be in align with that new brand. And I think what was innovative about that space, even though on its surface, it's really just a really great creative office space. I think what was innovative was how they are using it and look forward to using again and the opportunities that they found potentially for office culture in the way that they use that space. There are nuances, they aren't groundbreaking new approaches to office design, but they are nuances to some trends that were already in place that really have to do with, again, with collaboration, with different uses of space, different ways of working. And I think now as we kind of get back into space after this pandemic experience, this idea of working from anywhere is going to continue. And so, there will be a reshifting of office space where the space where you come together and collaborate is even more important.

Kelly Scanlon:

You're celebrating your fifth year in business this year. Give me three key lessons that you've learned in this really rather short five-year period.

Amy Slattery:

I think the first thing to remember when you're a few years into a practice or to an entrepreneurial endeavor, to remember why you did it. When I first started this practice, I was really excited and had a lot of ideas and everything was new and great. And then as a practice and an entrepreneurial endeavor grows, there's always hurdles. There's a myriad of issues that we've come across over the last five years somehow we've made it through it. And I think what's enabled us, particularly over the last year with the amount of change we've had and dealing with the economic impacts of everything we're all dealing with.

Amy Slattery:

Coming back to the core of why I started this and what I'm excited about doing for our clients and our community has been really central. So remembering the why in everything I think is really central. The other ideas I think are really about staying focused on what we're good at. I think we've explored different paths of different types of architectural design and work, and we really have success in our core market areas. We work on complicated projects, that's where we're best suited and celebrating that as a strength and really focusing in on those and knowing when to say no has been really great for our growth.

Kelly Scanlon:

Oh, and that's so hard as a new company to say no, because you want those clients.

Amy Slattery:

Yeah. I think it's what are you saying no to, if you say yes to this? If you think that way, then it helps you better vet those opportunities. And another way I've looked at it and read about is really, if I hadn't been asked to do this, would this be something I would want to pursue? And that's a really good way to think about it because sometimes you'll just say yes, because it's billable work and it's a new client, but you kind of have to understand where it's going to take you long-term. I think I've said it before, the third thing is really about clients and relationships. And that has been core to our success here in Kansas City is building on the relationships I'd already established and continuing to stay focused on that. And that'll continue to be our success strategy.

Kelly Scanlon:

Let's talk about that continuation of that success strategy. After five years, you've grown up as a company and you're obviously looking towards the future, a better future, even. What does that look like for you?

Amy Slattery:

Since the beginning, I've been honestly looking for either a partner or another principal to share what I've been doing. And I'm very much one who likes to bounce ideas and get feedback on where I would take things. I also recognize that architecture is incredibly complicated and we can't all know everything. We've recently brought on a new principal. His name is Jesús Torres-Sosa, and his experience and talents really dovetail well with mine. Architecture is incredibly complicated and there is a balance of the technical and design talents that are needed to make great work happen as well as the marketing and management side of a business. And Jesús's technical experience and knowledge of just architectural detailing and project management is going to be such a great resource for us to continue to grow, to grow the studio and the work that we do.

Amy Slattery:

The other side of it I'm very excited about is we'll be looking to expand more in healthcare work, building off of our work with the University of Missouri healthcare system, also bringing Jesús's experience. He comes from a healthcare background. He's been a Director of Architecture at Pulse for the last four years. And we're really excited to look at the opportunity to expand both our university work in healthcare and our commercial work in medical office through his knowledge and his relationships. So I'm excited both from a practice standpoint of deepening our technical knowledge, but also from the market standpoint of how we can serve more clients with health-focused work.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yeah. Congratulations on that. Bringing on a new principal in any business is such a huge step. As we head into this post-pandemic world, and hopefully, that is going to be happening sooner rather than later. What assets does Kansas City have going for us that will allow us to bounce back and move forward more vibrant than ever?

Amy Slattery:

I think this is just such a great town with so much to offer. I think one of the things that we continue to find appealing about this city is the talent of our local arts scene, a number of architects and engineers that are here and that are working on work not only here in Kansas City, but around the world is really impressive. And I think that combination of art and technical talent is really unique for the scale of our city and the way that that influences our city. So I think that is really where we can look to focusing more opportunities as a small city neighborhoods and access to parks and everything that the city can offer, I think is really what's going to continue to make us a great place to live.

Amy Slattery:

And I think the opportunities that we have in front of our cert to make sure that everybody has equitable access to those kinds of amenities. And I think the civic community, the design and leadership communities in this city are really focused on those ideas. And I think that is going to put us in a really great space going forward.

Kelly Scanlon:

Wonderful work that you're doing. Congratulations again on your fifth anniversary. And we wish you lots of success with your new partner and in moving forward into the next five years.

Amy Slattery:

Thank you.

Joe Close:

This is Joe Close president of the Country Club Bank. Thank you to Amy Slattery for being our guest on this episode of Banking on KC. One of the benefits of being an entrepreneur is the ability to influence, whether it's your associates, your industry, your community, or in some cases, the world. Amy and her team at Odimo embrace a business philosophy that is shaking up the architectural industry and moving communities forward. They are committed to forging long-lasting relationships and understanding the nuances of each neighborhood in which their clients have projects. At Country Club Bank, a commitment to community building has been a driving force since our inception. Come talk with us about how we can help you finance your entrepreneurial dreams and spread your influence to make Kansas City a better place to live, work and play. Thanks for tuning in this week. We're banking on you, Kansas City Country Club Bank, member FDIC.