Tulsa-based KPI Architects Inc. traces its roots back 50 years to one of the city’s most influential architectural firms, but it has been nearly a quarter of a century since the firm has designed a local project.
Working out of 20,000 SF of offices on the top two floors of 7040 S. Yale Ave., the architectural and engineering firm is busy designing and modernizing $100-200 million a year in school projects for the California market, said David A. Kindred Sr., owner and chief executive officer.
A survivor of the oil bust of the early ‘80s, KPI, which was then known as MPI Architects, “stumbled into the school business” while working on a facility for The Brinks Co. in Los Angeles, Kindred said.
Now KPI has 85 employees, with 50-55 working in the Tulsa headquarters, and the balance working in offices in Corona, Huntington Beach and Roseville, Calif., he said
Training for Business
Originally started in 1957 by Gordon and Murray McCune, as McCune, McCune & Assoc., the firm joined Murray Jones Murray Inc. and HTB Inc. as the big three architectural firms in Tulsa, “as far as I was aware,” Kindred said.
“When Murray McCune passed, Gordon McCune took on myself and a couple of other architects and formed a company called McCune Partners, which later became known as MPI,” he said.
Kindred, who started as a “draftsman and print boy“ in 1968, said he “gives a lot of credit to Gordon because he spent his time mentoring a bunch of guys who had no clue how to do business and how to be professionals about doing business. About 7-8 years later, he retired and we were able to continue with the company.”
As a result, the older generation of architects at MPI is training the younger architects in business skills.
“We are mentoring this group of young individuals that someday will be doing what we did,” Kindred said.
The Call of California
Before the oil bust, KPI’s predecessors were busy with local and national projects.
McCune, McCune & Associates and its subsequent firms designed the Farm Shopping Center, Southland Financial Center, the old Woodland Bank building, Western Bank, the Union School District sixth- and seventh-grade center and the former Telex facility in the Cherokee Industrial Park.
“For 17 years we did all the buildings on the University of Tulsa campus, Kindred said. “We did the School of Engineering, the Student Union, the alumni center and the Catholic Student Services Center.”
“We were doing all of the Brinks work all over the nation – we did Brinks projects in 27 states, Canada and France. We did more than 200 Men’s Wearhouses and retirement centers all over the United States,” he said.
The oil bust brought most of those job opportunities to a close.
MPI got its toehold in the California market when “I just happened to go to California to do a modernization project on the world’s largest Brinks facility, which was in L.A., and we just stumbled into the school business,” Kindred said.
“In Oklahoma, particularly at that time, it was post oil bust. We were hungry, and we could produce the projects so much faster and develop the way to get them funded through the state, and we became popular. Whereas it’s a huge market, it’s a very small community (of architects). Either you do a good job or you’re done. If you do a good job, you get references,” he said.
It was while growing business in California that the firm last changed its name.
“Everyone wanted to know who was the M in MPI, so we elected to change the name to KPI, Kindred Partners, which made that a lot simpler to explain,” he said.
With KPI’s growing popularity in the California market, “We were quite busy and so we lost focus of the clientele here in Tulsa,” Kindred said. “We would like to do some work in Tulsa, but the West Coast – they keep calling us and keep wanting us to do more work.”
He said KPI is one of the top four architectural firms used in California.
“Today, every client that we have called us – not one of the clients did we do a cold call or did we respond to with a request for proposal,” he said.
“We have absolutely no marketing department. We don’t have a brochure. We don’t have a video. It is strictly word of mouth,” he said. “There have been times, we actually had to turn work down, because we do not take on more work than we can do.”
Their Signature: Listening
Kindred credits the firm’s success to it talented designers and architects.
“Most of the people who are here have been here anywhere from 15 to 30 years. As projects have developed, we have been able to capture the tremendously talented people we have,” he said. “This company is successful not because of David Kindred but because of the people that are involved in the projects. The pay scale here in the firm is what it would be if they were in California. I have five to seven people who go out to California every other week. They walk in the door and they are recognized, and the clients don’t want to give them up. I don’t run it – they run those projects.”
“We have a phenomenal design team and a phenomenal bunch of architects that are extremely creative and have the unique ability to listen,” Kindred said. “That is the difference between us and other firms – we don’t have a signature. You can’t look at one of our buildings and go, “Well, that’s a KPI building,” because we listen to the client. The seasoned staff we have is what makes the difference.”
Kindred said KPI does all of its production and design in Tulsa, and that most of the architects have come from the University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State University or Kansas University.
“There is a joke in my office that I don’t hire anybody unless they have gray or no hair at all because we don’t want to go through the learning curve,” he said. “Our clients love the fact that the people we have visiting them have gray hair. When I say there is a younger group coming up, even the younger group has gray hair. We call it the ‘younger group’ because they are 30 years from us, but they are in their 30s, they are not in their 20s.”
His sons, Scott, who works in design, and Alex, who is in the engineering department, are among the younger generation of employees.
“I am real proud of them,” he said. “But I am proud of all of them in this young group. They are phenomenal.”
Kindred said economics and the method for selecting architects on projects have kept KPI in the California market.
“In California, it is what we call an image and quality conscious client,” he said. “The clients in California do not want the cheapest mechanical system. They do not want the cheapest flooring. They don’t want the cheapest roof. They don’t want the Rolls Royce, either, but they want to evaluate and do some value engineering and will pay a little more for it to last an extra 10 years.”
In Oklahoma, because of funding constraints, school districts have to bid out projects and take the low bid.
“They are more cost conscious rather than quality conscious,” he said. “I am not criticizing – that is just the way it is.”
In California, the state sets the maximum that a contractor can charge for any project funded by the state.
“I have never been asked what my fee is,” Kindred said. “They know I am going to charge the maximum. That allows them to pick the architect that can best do the job. We get to compete with talent rather than fees. It’s a great way to pick an architect.”
The fee scale in California makes it economically advantageous to work in the state, he said.
“On modernization work, it starts at 12 percent and, based on the size of the project, graduates down. New work starts at 9 percent,” he said. “In Oklahoma, modernization work starts at probably 8 percent, and that would be unusual, and new work would start about 6 percent. And it is 6 percent on $125 per SF vs. 9 percent on $300 per SF. It’s not hard to figure out.”
Take Me Back to Tulsa
KPI was recently given an opportunity to again make its mark in Tulsa when it was asked to create a master plan for the Tulsa Air & Space Museum.
“We went out and did some programming and are putting together a package for them to review. They have asked us to help them develop where they are going.”
That project allows KPI to begin to address a deficiency Kindred has seen for its younger generation of architects.
“One of the things that I noticed, which is one of the reasons we went ahead and decided to work with the Air & Space Museum, was that the older generation that has been here for 30 years, we can drive five miles in any direction and see a project that we did.
“This younger group has nothing that they can drive by and show their family and say, ‘We did that.’”
“Yes, I am interested in the Tulsa market. We are excited about the direction Tulsa is taking,” Kindred said. “Am I interested in getting in a bidding war with other architects to go after this work? No. Am I interested in projects where the clients are interested in at least exploring the better mechanical system for the longevity of the project. Yes, I am interested in that.” ?