Hnedak Bobo Group Made in Memphis, Made for Entertainment

Thinking outside the box with a focus on fun has driven growth, meaningful client relationships and project success at Hnedak Bobo Group (HBG) since the firm’s founding 34 years ago. The 90-person, Memphis, Tenn.-based firm prides itself on being open-minded, technology-savvy and people-focused, and has the accolades to prove the success of its vision with more than 200 design and industry awards to date. HBG has also been lauded for its business approach and cultural environment with an Architecture/Engineering (A/E) industry’s Top 50 Hot Firms award and three national A/E Best Places to Work awards. It’s no wonder why. Throughout the last three decades, Hnedak Bobo Group has proven its commitment to quality, collaboration, innovation and entertainment, the latter being at the core of everything the company does.

It Begins!
Company founders Kirk Bobo and Greg Hnedak met in 1976 while working together on a joint-venture project for separate firms. The two saw an opportunity to pair their strengths and start their own firm in 1979. Their partnership—Bobo with an emphasis on business and management and Hnedak with a focus on design—allowed them to create a unique business model that kept design and business in perspective. “Architects don’t get any training in running a business,” Bobo said, “[and] as soon as a firm grows beyond 10 people, someone typically gets frustrated and they often break up. So we set out to run the business side and the design side differently—that model has been a defining factor in our growth and success over the years.”

That focus on thinking differently began early on when HBG got involved with Holiday Inn Corp. A young Holiday executive gave HBG a shot, hiring the team to create a pool enclosure for a Holiday Inn property. From there it was on to larger projects and brand-development initiatives that set the course for the firm’s future. When the firm landed a commission to develop a new design concept for Holiday Inn’s vertical hotel prototype in the early ’80s, it began to position itself as a force to be reckoned with in the hospitality industry. “Here we were in the birthplace of the branded-hotel industry in Memphis, where the whole idea of standardizing the guest experience and building customer expectations through a hotel brand began,” Bobo said. “We had to approach these projects like hoteliers in terms of making the design function efficiently, but equally important, we had to think like guests, anticipating what a business or leisure traveler was looking for in their stay. We quickly learned what works and what doesn’t in hospitality.”

The focus on thinking like guests and understanding their clients’ business as intimately as they know their own has helped HBG become a leader in the hospitality industry. Of course, being located in Memphis didn’t hurt either. HBG continued on with Holiday Inn Corp. to develop other notable brands, such as Homewood Suites and Hampton Inns.

Holiday’s transition into gaming during the ‘80s and ‘90s brought new opportunities for HBG with Holiday’s acquisition of Harrah’s. This is how the firm “cut its teeth” in casino design. HBG transitioned seamlessly into the gaming industry, continuing to expand the working relationships already established with Holiday’s design and construction leaders. “In our industry, you have to be nimble to adjust strategically to the changing needs of your customers,” Bobo said when asked how HBG had felt upon entering the gaming industry. “We’ve always prided ourselves on being able to make smart changes quickly to adapt and grow—it’s an entrepreneurial spirit that is part of our DNA.”

Embracing this change was perhaps one of the wisest decisions the company could have made. Working with Harrah’s Entertainment was a turning point for HBG. The Harrah’s model of efficient design and customer reward was an ideal fit with the firm’s design philosophy and it went on to work with Harrah’s on 12 properties nationwide. “When that first riverboat casino project came our way, we saw an opportunity to diversify our specialty,” Bobo shared. “Who would have ever suspected Memphis would be such a great incubator of hospitality and gaming industry leadership!”

Making it BigHBG Principals: (Top row, from left) Danny Valle, AIA; Barry Marshall, AIA; Paul Bell, AIA; Tamara Goff, CPSM; Rob Jurbergs, AIA; Mark Weaver, FAIA; Terri Struminger; and Dan Elias, AIA (Bottom row, from left) Dike Bacon; Jeff Bailey, CPA; Rick Gardner, AIA; Kirk Bobo, FAIA; Janet Smith-Haltom, AIA; Craig Conrad, AIA; Rob Lee, AIA; Kelly DeVine; and Geoff Wyonzek
HBG Principals: (Top row, from left) Danny Valle, AIA; Barry Marshall, AIA; Paul Bell, AIA; Tamara Goff, CPSM; Rob Jurbergs, AIA; Mark Weaver, FAIA; Terri Struminger; and Dan Elias, AIA (Bottom row, from left) Dike Bacon; Jeff Bailey, CPA; Rick Gardner, AIA; Kirk Bobo, FAIA; Janet Smith-Haltom, AIA; Craig Conrad, AIA; Rob Lee, AIA; Kelly DeVine; and Geoff Wyonzek

HBG’s big break came when Nashville, Tenn.-based Gaylord Hotels requested the firm develop the company’s first brand expansions of the popular Gaylord Opryland Hotel. The 1,400-room Gaylord Palms Resort and Convention Center in Orlando, Fla., was the first of two properties, followed immediately by the 1,500-room Gaylord Texan located just outside Dallas. The projects, each representing $500 million in value and totaling more than 5,000,000 square feet of hotel, conference and meeting space, propelled HBG to the national spotlight and the firm never looked back. HBG quickly soared to the top 10 ranks of U.S. hospitality-design firms.

“The architecture, especially the multi-acre atrium design, is completely unique at the Gaylord properties we designed and we are very proud of that, but what makes both projects such important success stories is how guests have reacted to them and how they have performed for the owner,” said Rick Gardner, AIA, practice leader and principal-in-charge, who oversaw the Gaylord Texan project for HBG. One such example of guest response is the Gaylord Palms’ consistent seven-year run as Florida Monthly magazine’s winner of the prestigious Best Florida Resort Hotel Award. In a state known for Disney and other extraordinary resort properties, creating a seven-time “best resort” winner is a notable achievement. On the operations side, the Gaylord Palms has won more than 30 industry awards, including a Gold Key Elite Award given to the top five meeting and conventions properties in the world. The equally impressive Gaylord Texan has won 15 industry achievements, including its own Gold Key Elite Award. “For our team, it all comes down to focusing on the guest experience and drilling into our client’s business model,” Gardner said. “That’s how we create value.”

HBG Founder Greg Hnedak, CEO of DreamCatcher Hotels
HBG Founder Greg Hnedak, CEO of DreamCatcher Hotels
Taking Leadership to the Next Level
As HBG grew its project base, it also mapped its future within its internal organization. In fact, for the past two decades, HBG’s Board of Directors has been actively engaged in succession planning by elevating firm principals to key roles within the organization and adding new shareholders and principals in preparation for effective leadership transition. That transition reached a milestone this summer when Hnedak stepped down from his role at HBG to serve as CEO of DreamCatcher Hotels, a separate hotel brand and development company born out of HBG in 2010.

With Hnedak’s departure, the leadership team of Bobo, Gardner, Dike Bacon and Terri Struminger now oversee the firm’s business and practice operations. Bobo continues on in his role as president and principal of HBG, but assumes expanded responsibilities as the firm’s business leader in charge of business strategies. Gardner takes the post of practice leader overseeing HBG’s project design and delivery. Struminger has been named chief operating officer, charged with managing the firm’s corporate operations. Bacon oversees leadership of HBG’s business development efforts. The firm’s new leadership brings a unique combination of industry knowledge, design acumen and management experience. “I’ve been fortunate to work with this talented team for the majority of my career,” Hnedak said. “This team is continually focused on helping our staff become better leaders, initiating best practices and finding the latest interactive technologies that help HBG work smarter. I believe it’s the right time to pass the leadership baton.”

While these key leaders have taken on new roles at HBG, the concept of a management team structure is nothing new to the firm. “We believe one of the reasons for our successful growth and ability to lead market share can be attributed to our unique management team structure,” Struminger said. “It’s perhaps unconventional, especially for a firm our size, but we have always believed our firm has been and will continue to be more successful using this business model.”

HBG’s management team structure was designed to allow architectural practitioners in the firm to remove themselves from day-to-day operational concerns and focus their attention on client relations, design excellence and continuously improving project delivery. Management team leaders take full responsibility for running the firm’s daily operations and the staff who support it, with an emphasis on creating a “best place to work” environment for HBG’s employees every day. “HBG offers employees the opportunity to challenge themselves and their abilities,” added Rob Jurbergs, AIA, principal and one of the firm’s design leaders. “You can practice what you love in an environment that encourages new approaches.”

JMadhavi Tunuguntia, AIA, Collette Reid-Rice and Mark Hinrichs, AIA, review documents.
Madhavi Tunuguntia, AIA, Collette Reid-Rice and Mark Hinrichs, AIA, review documents.
azzing Things Up: New Initiatives
The success of DreamCatcher Hotels as a separate business entity can be attributed to HBG’s focus on thinking outside the box. The hotel brand and development company was born of the sluggish economic environment of 2010. Taking their cues from the slowing economy, Hnedak and Bobo, together with a hand-selected HBG team, set out to create a new hotel concept envisioned for the “new normal” economy. “I sat down with owners who, despite the fact they could no longer get banks to finance hotels at $200,000+ per key, still had an increasing demand for more guest rooms,” Hnedak said. “They needed rooms that were of decent quality that wouldn’t burst their budgets—that was the seed that got us working on this idea.”

Designed to be a turnkey solution for hotel owners, the DreamCatcher premise is to create a four-star guest experience with five-star amenities at a three-star price, with costs per hotel room below traditional development. The DreamCatcher Hotels company completed its first project in 2012, the 401-room Seven Clans Hotel adjacent to the Coushatta Casino Resort in Kinder, La., and in partnership with the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana.

HBG’s latest launch is an original comprehensive design and delivery system called CasinoNow, a unique approach to planning and design that results in a custom-designed, high-quality casino delivered to the market at lightning speed. “This system allows us to provide clients with a ‘head-start’ to realizing gaming revenues,” said Gardner, who has led the initiative within the firm. “Working across the country, we’ve seen many projects that were once financeable suddenly become no longer feasible. We needed new thinking to help solve this issue and get clients with reduced budgets building again. With CasinoNow, we’ve created a way to deliver a well-conceived project that gives owners higher value for their investment.”

When asked if CasinoNow was still in its infancy, Gardner said it is actually well past the experimental stage. “We started developing it in 2009, and we’ve put over four years into research and development to further refine the approach,” he said.

Venturing into Indian Gaming
After growing comfortable in the commercial gaming industry, HBG began to grow aware that an expansion in Indian gaming would be necessary, and just more than a decade ago, the firm made the decision to enter that rapidly expanding market. “Given our position in hospitality and commercial gaming, we saw a strategic opportunity to leverage our unique specialization in the rapidly expanding market of Indian gaming,” explained Dike Bacon, principal and HBG’s business development leader. “It was a logical business opportunity that leveraged the capabilities of the firm in a whole new way.”

Helping tribes grow into well-planned and competitively positioned gaming resorts has now become a natural part of HBG’s specialization. “What’s exciting for us is that we took all the commercial experience we had gained, to an industry that needed a trusted partner at a pivotal time of growth,” Bacon said. “We’ve had so many great experiences with our clients in Indian gaming and are enormously proud of the projects we’ve delivered for tribes across the country. What really says it all—for us—is to have been recognized by the leaders of NIGA, the leaders of this industry, as the 2012 NIGA Associate Member of the Year. It’s important to us to be immersed in our client’s business and industry—we’re very passionate about that, and that has helped us to grow in this sector. We want to support the industry in ways that go beyond architecture, through NIGA initiatives and advocacies, and we’re constantly seeking new and creative ways to give back.”

HBG’s approach to design works well for the firm’s Native American clientele. “Design starts in a very different place at HBG,” Gardner said. “We do our homework first. We spend time with our clients, their lenders and financial and feasibility consultants to get a complete picture of the opportunities in the market. We then engage the client in a total understanding of their customer, their goals and their unique personality. Once we know the fundamental elements of our client’s business, we connect design to the culture and identity of our client’s brand.”

This is clearly a successful formula in Indian gaming for HBG, as the firm has worked with nearly 30 of the country’s most recognized tribes at gaming properties across the country and won the G2E Casino Design Award for the Best Native American Casino Design the last two years. The awards program recognizes the casino industry elite—the best projects and the best creative minds from the Las Vegas Strip to the far corners of the U.S. Common denominators of HBG’s 2012 and 2013 award-winning projects are Gardner, Project Manager Paul Bell, and designers of the projects Nathan Peak (Four Winds/2013) and Rob Jurbergs (Northern Quest/2012).

Four Winds Hartford Casino, the 2012 Best Native American Casino Facility winner, was also presented with the prestigious Best Architectural Design under $250 Million for a Casino or Casino Resort Award. “The project was really ahead of the curve in responding to the rising need for profitable and customer-centric mid-market tribal casinos,” said Peak. The 52,000-square-foot, $40 million property, designed for the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians, is a satellite casino to its sister property 40 minutes away in New Buffalo, Mich., and was profiled in the October 2011 issue of CEM. “From a cost-value standpoint, the casino has been celebrated by the industry as a great example of an efficient, profitable mid-market casino, delivered within a modest budget, that combines just the right amount of Las Vegas style with Midwest sensibility,” added Peak.

“Or as one Pokagon Tribal leader put it, ‘It’s a little casino with a big heart,’” commented Bacon.

Westin Hotel OwnershipDesigners from the HBG team: (Standing, from left) Alexandra Taylor; Jennifer Smith; Nathan Peak, AIA; Aron Ramage, AIA; Laura Pfountz, Assoc. AIA; (Kneeling, from left) Thor Harland, Assoc. AIA; Leo Felix, AIA
Designers from the HBG team: (Standing, from left) Alexandra Taylor; Jennifer Smith; Nathan Peak, AIA; Aron Ramage, AIA; Laura Pfountz, Assoc. AIA; (Kneeling, from left) Thor Harland, Assoc. AIA; Leo Felix, AIA

Another way HBG has taken the idea of thinking differently to new heights is through ownership of a four-star hotel property. In 2006, Bobo and Hnedak partnered with former Gaylord Hotels executives Dave Jones and Glenn Malone to develop the 203-key Westin Hotel in the heart of Memphis’ famed Beale Street Entertainment District. The four developed, designed and now operate this AAA FourDiamond property, giving HBG unfettered access to feedback from hotel guests and staff. “We’re able to access day-to-day, real-time insights into the workings of an upscale property and really understand the implications our design decisions have on every aspect of operations and the guest experience,” Bobo said. “It’s our own ‘back room laboratory.’”

The hotel maintains an 80-percent occupancy rate and, even at the height of the recession in 2009, it was recognized with a Starwood Franchise Pacesetter Award for the performance of its premium room rate versus that of competitive hotels in the same market.
“We took the same approach for our own property as we do every day for our clients,” Bobo elaborated. “We gained a complete understanding of the existing and potential market, sought out specific targets and then made smart design decisions that would support both our business strategy and level of investment.”

Those “specific targets” include the high-end corporate group market and, interestingly, the National Basketball Association (NBA). HBG was able to customize the hotel’s design to accommodate the larger-than-average NBA guests and market its unique ninth-floor design to visiting NBA teams playing at Memphis’ FedEx Forum. “Many players are accustomed to ducking under doorways and struggling to fit into smaller showers, but we wanted these out-of-town players to feel right at home at our hotel, so we created a comfortable haven suited to their size requirements,” Bobo said. HBG’s design team, led by Principal Mark Weaver, FAIA, integrated 10-foot ceilings, 8-foot doors and 7-foot-high mounted showerheads into the Westin guest rooms and baths. The ninth floor corner suite accommodates star basketball players, while a somewhat smaller luxury corner suite on the eighth floor accommodates the team’s head coach. This past season, the Westin captured 96 percent of the NBA market in Memphis.

Made in MemphisMatt Dildine, Assoc. AIA and Chris Devine, Assoc. AIA with a work of art they created using the basic body of a Gibson Guitar. This piece was auctioned off at the Memphis Blue Ball, fetching more than $2,000 for the Memphis Charitable Foundation.
Matt Dildine, Assoc. AIA and Chris Devine, Assoc. AIA with a work of art they created using the basic body of a Gibson Guitar. This piece was auctioned off at the Memphis Blue Ball, fetching more than $2,000 for the Memphis Charitable Foundation.

Amid all its growth nationally, the firm has remained committed to its hometown. HBG was among some of the first developers to invest in the historic buildings of Memphis’ famed “Cotton Row” during the mid 1980s, which subsequently helped trigger a revitalization boom in the downtown urban neighborhood. HBG chose the 1870s-era Allenberg Cotton Building, a former cotton warehouse and sorting facility, to serve as its office and design studios and got to work renovating it, helping to preserve the heritage of Memphis’ cotton district.

Inside, the renovation focused on creating a synergistic work environment while bringing light through two existing roof monitors. A portion of the second floor was removed to accommodate a mezzanine, creating a 50-foot-high atrium. A spiral staircase connects all three stories of the building, functioning both as a sculptural focal point and as the literal “heart” of the building, bringing together project teams and fostering communication across the office. A room on the penthouse level was converted into an employee break room and opens onto a roof deck with magnificent views of the Mississippi River and the downtown skyline. HBG’s impressive renovation of The Allenberg Building has since been featured in Architectural Record magazine.

“HBG employees love the layout of the office building and the way it connects us with the heritage of the city,” said Dan Elias, AIA, principal in the firm’s hospitality and entertainment group. “Our open studio areas contribute to collaboration, where project information can flow freely.” And the penthouse employee break room and roof deck aren’t too shabby, either. The firm frequently takes its regular monthly parties on the roof to celebrate birthdays, employee anniversaries (with HBG), project milestones, new commissions, newsworthy events and personal achievements.

Barry Marshall, AIA and Lisa Lee. Lee is dressed as a Zombie Goblin.
Barry Marshall, AIA and Lisa Lee. Lee is dressed as a Zombie Goblin.
Having Fun is Serious Business
The work environment at HBG emphasizes strong employee recognition, a good work/life balance and a stimulating atmosphere that fosters motivation, interaction and creativity. “Our employees take great pride in their work, and they have fun every day doing what they do best,” said Elias. “We constantly have our finger on the pulse of our staff by soliciting their feedback,” added Struminger. “That information helps us to refine and shape our culture as an A/E/C best place to work, which is essential to our philosophy of practice.”

HBG employees agree. As one employee noted in a recent survey: “Employees treat each other as family. Everyone is open-minded and the environment creates opportunities for employees to spread their wings and fly.”

The aforementioned monthly gatherings epitomize the relaxed and fun atmosphere of HBG. Each month has a different theme. The firm has done everything from offering “Grizzlies Trivia” during the late spring when the Memphis Grizzlies NBA team made it to the Final Four tournament to bringing an ice cream truck to the front door and treating the whole firm. “Our employees tell me all the time that they’ve never before worked in a company that made such an effort to bring the whole office together on a regular basis,” Struminger said. “The monthly gatherings are a great way for people who work together day in and day out to socialize and build a sense of camaraderie within the organization.”

Another popular event is the firm’s Spirit Week. HBG hosts an annual Halloween costume contest that lasts an entire week. Each day has a special theme for employees to design their costumes around, and trick or treat stations are set up around the office. HBG crowns daily costume contest winners, and the top costumes of the week are celebrated and awarded with prizes at the Spirit Week finale party. Even employees who are on the road can vote for their favorite online costumes. “We want to be sure to bring them a little taste of ‘home’ wherever they are and make sure everyone can take part in the festivities,” Struminger added.

As a group, HBG employees also support many important organizations in the Indian gaming and local Memphis communities. Last year, the firm coordinated a virtual silent auction benefiting Spirit of Sovereignty titled ”The Thrill is On,” during which they auctioned an authentic Gibson “Lucille” guitar, signed by legendary musician and King of the Blues B.B. King. The auction event provided HBG the chance to celebrate the rich musical heritage of Memphis, internationally renowned as the ”Home of the Blues,” and where B.B. King started his career more than 70 years ago. The auction raised $10,000 for Spirit of Sovereignty, representing a substantial contribution that helped SOS reach their annual fundraising goal.

HBG alHBG’s Hard Rock Cafe at Four Winds Casino New Buffalo, Michigan for the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi.
HBG’s Hard Rock Cafe at Four Winds Casino New Buffalo, Michigan for the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi.
so recently sponsored a fundraiser benefiting tornado victims affected by spring storms in Oklahoma. “On May 20, Moore, Okla., was hit by an F5 tornado that devastated their community,” said Kelly DeVine, principal at HBG. “The Memphis to Moore fundraiser was established to raise money for the rebuilding effort. Having strong ties to many clients in Oklahoma through our projects across the state, all that devastation hit home for us.” HBG was a participating sponsor of the fundraiser that raised $35,000 for the Moore Public Schools Tornado Relief Fund. In addition, many HBG employees volunteered at the event that was also supported by HBG’s Westin Memphis Beale Street Hotel. “When we told our staff about this event, we were overwhelmed by their support and offers to volunteer,” said Danny Valle, AIA, principal and project leader of the firm’s Chickasaw Nation projects throughout Oklahoma. “Our clients have reached out in support of the effort as well, and a representative from the Chickasaw Nation even traveled to Memphis to participate in the fundraiser.”

HBG’s employees annually coordinate and/or participate in other local charitable events as well, supporting the Make a Wish Foundation, Memphis’ Methodist LeBonheur Children’s Hospital, Lifeblood/MidSouth Regional Blood Center and the Memphis Food Bank.

There is no doubt that thinking out of the box and an early fostered spirit of collaboration has led the HBG team on its journey to success. Everyone at HBG—from documentation staff to client managers—plays a part in the firm’s development even in developing project ideas. Each individual has a role in decisions that drive a project forward. The firm’s dynamic group of architects and interior design professionals work collaboratively and strategically to deliver innovation and experience to their clients. “We have a very synergistic process here and the end result is a consistent customer experience from arrival to amenity,” said Rob Lee, AIA, principal and leader of HBG’s Project Management Group. “It’s all about creating real value for building owners and their guests.”

This outlook, in combination with the firm’s focus on entertainment—in and out of the office—continues to spur its progress. There is no doubt the gaming industry will continue to hear great things about HBG for years to come.

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