Founding principal of Kudela & Weinheimer (Houston, TX), a landscape architecture firm that has produced beautiful, exceptionally built environments for more than 25 years.
By Liisa Andreassen
Kudela & Weinheimer first got its start in a laundry room where a washer and dryer doubled as a drawing table and a single desk was a shared workspace. Amid the 1991 recession, Thad Kudela and Darin Weinheimer saw an opportunity to start the foundation for a passionate landscape architecture firm that fulfilled the need for functional design while meeting clients’ budgets and goals. With sacrifice, long hours, and endless support from their families, they grew the two-man company into a leading landscape design firm. Today, Kudela oversees all design. He believes there is “design’” in everything we do.
“Professional development is very important,” Kudela says. “We maintain awareness that they’re people and not machines. We have a good track record with our employees and have minimal turnover. It’s all about being flexible and working together. Oh – and there are tacos too.”
A conversation with Thad Kudela.
The Zweig Letter: How has COVID-19 impacted your firm’s policy on telecommuting/working remotely?
Thad Kudela: Historically, K&W has been a very collaborative, in-office, firm. We did not have flexible policies on working from home or other locations. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, our firm has had to rethink the structure of our office. The health of our employees is paramount so K&W was immediate on implementing the work-from-home arrangements. Over the weekend of March 14, the firm prepared everyone’s workstation for VPN and Sharepoint. By March 16 the entire firm, all three offices were strictly working from home.
TZL: How much time do you spend working “in the business” rather than “on the business?”
TK: My partner, Darin, and I tend to split duties up. I’m the design principal and Darin is the construction principal. It’s always a challenge to divide time working in the business versus on the business. We both love landscape architecture. It’s what we do and the business end sometimes gets pushed to the side. As we grow, Darin is more focused on economics. In January of 2019, we started working on strategic planning. We’re closely examining where we want to focus and grow, and regions we want to be in. We’re doing that together.
TZL: What role does your family play in your career? Are work and family separate, or is there overlap?
TK: Much like the working “on” versus working “in” business question, Darin and I are a little different here. I tend to separate the two. My wife has no desire to work in the design business and I don’t talk about it too much at home. That said, she’s supportive of whatever I do and that accounts for a lot. For Darin, it’s different because his son works for our firm. Darin also grew up working in a family business, so it’s nothing new for him to combine work and family life.
TZL: Artificial intelligence and machine learning are potential disruptors across all industries. Is your firm exploring how to incorporate these technologies into providing improved services for clients?
TK: We’re committed to keeping up with changing and emerging technologies. Everything we do is computer-based. We do 3D visualization and use Revit. We work with many AEC firms that use a great deal of high-end technology and as part of their design team, we need to be up to speed. We’re open to AI for areas that tend to be more labor intensive on the administrative end – the drudge work so to speak.
TZL: It is often said that people leave managers, not companies. What are you doing to ensure that your line leadership are great people managers?
TK: I would strongly agree with this statement. We do a lot to train and mentor our project managers. We don’t tend to hire many people from outside of the firm, but rather grow the people we have and have them move up. They know the firm and understand what it takes to be a good manager.
TZL: How has COVID-19 affected your business on a daily basis?
TK: Working from home has certainly been an adjustment. Our teams have been using Teams, Zoom, Go-to-Meeting, and other technology to stay connected. Communication has been crucial during these days. Our teams meet on a daily basis in the mornings to discuss action items and deadlines. Of course, as expected with the uncertainty of the economy, some projects have gone on a temporary hold, and/or have slowed progress.
TZL: How are you balancing investment in the next generation – which is at an all-time high – with rewards for tenured staff? This has always been a challenge, but seems heightened as investments in development have increased.
TK: We’re currently working on succession planning. Darin and I are sole owners and we’re looking at offering financial incentives for additional principals. It’s a difficult business to learn and we’re often the “experts in the room,” so training and mentoring is a big part of succession planning. We recently promoted two people to vice president positions. One woman was instrumental in raising awareness about the firm and we wanted to reward her for that. Another staff member made a real difference in running one of our satellite firms in San Antonio. That office is not just growing, but flourishing. We wanted him to know we recognized what he was doing and promoted him accordingly. There are several other people on the edge and staff know that opportunity exists. That provides motivation and professional fulfillment.
TZL: Does your firm work closely with any higher education institutions to gain access to the latest technology, experience, and innovation and/or recruiting to find qualified resources?
TK: Recruiting for landscape architecture is difficult. There’s not a big pool to choose from, so we work closely with universities and have developed relationships with some key schools. For example, we have a great relationship with Purdue and hire interns who tell their classmates and so on. We also teach on campus. Trying to find that five- to 10-year person is the most challenging. We do a great deal of professional networking, and encourage employees to spread the word too. We have a reward program where if an employee referral is hired, a finder’s fee of a couple of thousand dollars is provided. It makes for good chemistry.
TZL: When you identify a part of your business that is not pulling its weight in terms of profitability or alignment with the firm’s mission, what steps do you take, and what’s the timeline, to address the issue while minimizing impacts to the rest of the company?
TK: If something is broken, you need to jump on it and fix it. Much like a kid who you want to be independent and give freedom, when that kid flags, you need to step in. For example, our San Antonio office was struggling. We had an employee here who wanted to help as he was originally from that area. We moved him there and now the office is doing great. Failure is usually due to inexperience, so we mentor as much as possible.
TZL: They say failure is a great teacher. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve had to learn the hard way?
TK: Letting managers do their own thing without enough oversight. Also, not listening to complaints. We’ve had people complain about managers for one reason or another and did not take them too seriously. It turned out they were right.
TZL: In one word or phrase, what do you describe as your number one job responsibility as CEO?
TZL: Diversity and inclusion are lacking. What steps are you taking to address the issue?
TK: We’re pretty diverse. It’s a niche profession so we work with many foreign students in university programs and support them in getting their visas. We have a large number of women here too, so I think we’re well balanced.
TZL: A firm’s longevity is valuable. What are you doing to encourage your staff to stick around?
TK: Professional development is very important. We maintain awareness that they’re people and not machines. We have a good track record with our employees and have minimal turnover. It’s all about being flexible and working together. Oh – and there are tacos too.