Creative lighting … plumbing & heating
KCL Engineering is known for its lighting designs, but it’s what you don’t see that defines the company
KENT DARR Apr 24, 2018 | 10:06 pm
7 min read time1,578 wordsBusiness Record Insider, Real Estate & Development
To find the moneymaker behind KCL Engineering, you have to look behind walls, maybe below ground, even though much of its attention-grabbing work sheds light on iconic structures across the country.
Kris Kunze said the engineering consulting firm he founded in 2008 gets a lot of kudos for projects that have cast a light on the Des Moines’ Financial Center and illuminated Yankee Stadium, but the company is best defined by what most of us don’t see.
“A lot of our marketing centers on lighting solutions only because it’s way more attractive than talking about a heat pump chiller coupled with a geothermal system,” Kunze said. “That all lives inside walls and ceilings and nobody can relate to it. Lighting has an elegance to it.”
Over the last decade, KCL Engineering has grown from a one-man operation created at the onset of the Great Recession in the basement of Kunze’s West Des Moines home to a 30-person shop of “very smart people” whose task it is to help clients find engineering solutions to complicated problems. The firm spun off a second company, Denovo, last year to help those firms through the construction process.
Kunze left a larger firm to focus on family and launch a client-focused business. His wife, Jenny was pregnant. Their son, Kaiden, was born a few months after KCL Engineering was founded. His 10th birthday in March marked an anniversary for the company.
“I saw many firsts after Kaiden was born,” Kunze said. “I was there to see him crawl, his first smile, say his first words, start walking. I wouldn’t have traded one second anywhere else for any amount of money to miss those opportunities.”
Those experiences are behind a guiding a principle at KCL Engineering.
“Our foundation is family first. Work is a means to provide for your family and spend time with your family,” Kunze said. “With me working out of my house, that’s exactly what I was doing.”
The streamlined operation was a key to growth for the business.
“As I rewind the clock, it turned out to be a perfect time to start a one-man show,” Kunze said. “People needed projects completed, big firms were cutting staff, I had no overhead. It was definitely a little bit scary. … I got work that competitors couldn’t touch. They would continue to bleed money and lose money. I was already as streamlined as it got.”
For the first year or two, projects valued at $1 million to $10 million kept him busy. “Then the bigger ones came along,” he said.
In those early days, rapidly evolving technology enabled him to work more efficiently. Rather than wait for a corporate structure to make decisions, Kunze quickly began using SugarSync to link his laptop to the “cloud” of unlimited computer storage, cloud-based RingCentral for phone communications and an iPhone to do much of his work.
He also spent some of those early days trying to recruit Mark LaCroix, a mechanical engineer whom Kunze had worked with at Durrant, to join KCL Engineering as a partner.
In 2011, LaCroix came onboard and at first, the two men worked from their homes.
At the time, LaCroix told the Business Record, “I was looking at the hours I spent commuting and sitting in the lunchroom and in meetings. That was a lot of time that I could be doing something else.”
Family time was an important consideration for LaCroix, too.
“The flexibility of family life requires much more than PTO (paid time off) and weekends,” LaCroix said in the earlier Business Record interview.
Back in 2011, Kunze and LaCroix took their two-man operation to the West Des Moines business incubator. A key consideration was that Jenny and Kaiden, by then age 3, needed that basement office.
“They chased me out,” Kunze said.
The business incubator gave KCL Engineering a place to meet with clients — and grow. Over three years, the firm added eight more people to its roster, including another principal, James Deeds. Kunze, LaCroix and Deeds are the firm’s managing principals.
A key to growth has been finding people who have the talent to work independently, but out of an environment that is collaborative. A main ingredient is to know when to apply brain power and elbow grease; another is to know when to lighten up.
From the business incubator, KCL Engineering took its crew to a second-floor office above Squibbles and Artisan Gallery on Valley Junction’s main street.
Kunze said when the Valley Junction location was suggested, “all I could think about were quilts and antiques. I was dragging my feet.”
He came to appreciate the Valley Junction vibe, its restaurants and eclectic shops. In other words, it was a good place to entertain clients and unwind.
Earlier this year, KCL Engineering moved off the main drag, but remained in Valley Junction in a renovated, 100-year-old building that has been an automobile dealership and in more recent times Wicker and the Works retail shop.
It is a large space where KCL Engineering and Denovo have offices. It also earns some attention because an open bar was part of the remodel, along with a pool table and pinball machine.
“We were two hours into the discussion of designing our new space when someone said, ‘Shouldn’t we talk about where we’re going to work?’” Kunze said.
The recreation areas “were added expenses that help frame the culture but don’t necessarily drive the culture,” he said.
In the new offices, with its exposed beams and brick walls and large windows, this is a business where ideas can be shouted across a room or discussed over a beer.
The people, not the place, make the company unique, Kunze said.
“What we have assembled as team members makes KCL Engineering unique because we are a think tank,” Kunze said. “We have the most talented engineers that we can find. It means the problems that are brought to our attention are going to be solved with unique solutions.
“We’re 30 very smart individuals, but we’re extremely smart when we work together.”
All those smarts have paid off with exciting projects across the country, even across the Pacific Ocean in Hawaii.
Its projects have included the Seattle Mariners Safeco Field and the Yankee Stadium complex. The company also has worked on new “tunable” LEDs for Des Moines’ Ruby Van Meter and Smouse schools, with the thought they might help children with special needs adapt to classroom settings.
When the Financial Center in downtown Des Moines is lit at night, that is a KCL Engineering design. And it helped Wells Fargo Arena pick a company and light system to improve the view of the Iowa Barnstormers or Taylor Swift.
KCL also designed an LED light system for a meat processing plant in Omaha, and consulted with Kauai County, Kauai, Hawaii, on an LED streetlight system.
It has been at work at Knott’s Berry Farm theme park near Los Angeles and the Monster Roller Coaster at Adventureland Park in Altoona as well as the Parkside net-zero development in Charles City.
Last year, KCL Engineering spun off a construction management firm, Denovo, after deciding that many of its designs and solutions created unique challenges for owners and the contractors who installed the systems.
“We looked at our own designs and said, we think it will cost this. We do 200 to 300 projects a year and on every one of those projects we see the numbers come back, so we know how much it is going to cost. There probably isn’t a contractor who works on the range of projects we work and sees all those numbers come back,” Kunze said.
As a construction manager, Denovo can help owners keep a handle on those costs.
“It was created so it could deliver those unique projects in a new and different and hopefully better way to these sophisticated owners,” Kunze said.
One of those owners is Mike Whalen, who came to KCL Engineering in search of a way to improve the guest experience at the many hotels his Heart of America Corp. develops and owns.
Whalen was interested in installing geothermal systems for his hotels. He didn’t want guests listening to an in-room heating and cooling system turning off and on all night, and he wanted to control operating costs. A geothermal company suggested he talk to KCL Engineering about the design.
“Mike is a sophisticated owner with a mind for not maybe just first costs, but what does the next 10 years look like. Those are the kinds of owners that get us excited,” Kunze said. “They challenge us on the intellectual side.”
And by challenging one person at KCL Engineering, you’re challenging the whole crew.
“Other consulting firms are shaped like a pyramid, any business is shaped like that,” Kunze said. “I wanted to do the exact opposite. If you look at our pyramid, it is inverted.”
The firm has grown without advertising job openings.
“Originally, there were people I had worked with on other jobs. I refer to it as getting the band back together. It’s like the Blues Brothers. Then it’s who we know and who knows us. They come looking for us or we go looking for them.”
Kunze still likes the lean and mean approach.
“There’s a lot of things that a Titanic type company can’t turn very easily and we’re still a little more of a sport car, a little more nimble than a big ship,” he said.