Good, Thoughtful Hosts #211: Special Anniversary Series -- Looking at the Past with Gene Kolstad

In this special series, we’re looking at the past, present, and future of Cushing Terrell. For this episode, we explore how Cushing Terrell built its foundation of success. We chat with architect and structural engineer Gene Kolstad about the stories and practices that define the firm that turned 85 years old on August 6, 2023.

About Our Guest

Gene Kolstad is a senior project manager that joined Cushing Terrell back in 1966. With well over 50 years of industry experience, he is active in project architecture and engineering, and considered a leading regional expert in the areas of viable alternative evaluation and medical master planning. A past president and CEO of the firm, and a staunch proponent of client support and doing the right thing no matter the circumstance, Cushing Terrell’s highest internal honor — the Integrity & Client Service Award — is bestowed annually and accompanied by a trophy named “The Geno” in honor Gene’s substantial contributions.

Episode #211 Transcript | Listen on SoundCloud

Sarah: Welcome to this special three-part series of Good, Thoughtful Hosts. I’m Sarah Steimer, and over the next few episodes, we’ll be celebrating the 85th anniversary of Cushing Terrell by taking a look at the past, present, and future of the firm. Today’s episode then focuses on the past, but this isn’t a history lesson.

It’s a look back at how the organization set itself, its clients and its employees up for success by going the extra mile standing firm for what it believes in, being mindful of relationships and the unexpected consequences of simply doing what is right.

Producer: Today’s special guest:

Gene Kolstad: I am Gene Kolstad, architect, structural engineer with Cushing Terrell. I come from, uh, probably, an old school side of things, uh, in that regard, in that I’ve, been with the firm for 57 years now, and it’s a little bit different than I suspect a lot of people move from firm to firm.

Sarah: So, short career, not a whole lot going on. Well, so, so you and I, uh, talked briefly before, you know, we’re, we’re now recording this and, you obviously have some incredible insights about the firm and we’re going to mine some of those insights today to kind of give us a feel of really the industry in general.

And, how an architecture firm, you know, grows throughout time and grows as far as just what is expected within the industry and how you guys have, you know, gone above and beyond that as well. So one of the milestones that you talked about. One of the early milestones that you talked about when we spoke previously was this project in Alaska Hospital in Alaska.

And you know, the reason I wanted to start with this is because this was an opportunity for you guys to not only show that you could be. You know, reactive to what the client wanted, but then when there was an issue that came through once the hospital had been built and once it was in use, that you guys did something a little bit unusual as well, and you really kind of stepped up in terms of accountability.

So if you could, if you could walk us through that story and tell us a little bit about that project.

Gene Kolstad: So in regards to, uh, what you had, just mentioned, there are milestones that take place that, uh, come to mind as we think back on our careers and what has taken place, here at Cushing Terrell. And, and the Alaska thing is sort of an unexpected consequence, but it’s interesting what took place there.

We had, introduced ourselves to Alaska and had work going on around the state. We had designed a hospital and the hospital has been, had been designed and built and completed and open. And approximately, I would guess, four or five months after opening, we got a call from the CEO of the hospital saying we got a problem.

They had, uh, reported that they were bringing patients into the ED and they were rolling gurneys across quarry tile, and they were going bumpy bump as they went over the quarry tile.

It was real pretty to look at. It was part of the lobby space actually, or close to the entry space. But it was certainly a problem for those patients that had critical, uh, difficulties coming into the hospital. So we sat down here and said, we need to make this right. we immediately called the contractor that had worked on the job and asked him to get somebody on the site.

we ordered, and were able to find almost immediately, different flooring materials. We had the contractor go in, change the flooring. We admitted that we had made the mistake, we shouldn’t have done that. And secondly, we paid for that. Done. That was, first of all, standing up for what you really should stand up for and seeing things for what they are.

But the unexpected consequence of that was that we had heard, and certainly, it did take place, that CEOs go out and have meetings with other CEOs throughout the state, and we gained a reputation in Alaska where they said this was. The first architectural firm that had ever admitted making a mistake, this went to conferences and got passed on to other CEOs and it either. Even gotten other areas such as schools and that sort of thing, and it had a major impact on our reputation in the state and our growth in Alaska.

I guess the lesson learned there is that, doing what’s right, taking the high road, standing up and taking responsibility has a very positive consequence, frankly, and the world is really, really small out there relative to information traveling around.

Sarah: Well, it’s, it seems like it’s a really big lesson in humility too.

You know? it was a young firm, you know, it wasn’t like you guys were trying to say that you knew everything. You know, you’re willing to review a project, take the feedback and go, oh, hang on. Like, let’s, let’s fix this. It seems to me, uh, the, not exactly the flip side of that, but another project that you had mentioned, related to, work that you had done.

With, the federal government, um, with Old Faithful, that project, there was a, almost a changing tone. So less about humility this time, but more about really standing up for what you knew was gonna make a difference and what was gonna be the appropriate thing. so if you, would I walk us through that project a little bit too, and, talk about, you know, really making sure that you are helping the client make the right choice in this situation.

Gene Kolstad: We had received a commission. through the Department of Interior to remodel, Old Faithful and redo the fire sprinkler system in the building. An iconic wood building that is just unbelievable, as you might know. And, uh, we were doing a fire sprinkler system on the inside as well as doing renovations to the lobby, et cetera. One of the things that came up, we decided, Boy, it had wood shingles or wood shakes on the roof. And, it would sure be an idea to have what’s called a deluge system running across the peak of the roof.

And what it would be, I, I don’t remember the exact size, but it would be a pipe, let’s say six inches diameter with holes in it that ran along the ridge of the roof, that, uh, you could hook a pumper truck up to or hook a hose up. To and pump water on, and it would, then, wet the shingles, and if there were embers and fires et cetera happened and away from the building, it would therefore deter the ability for that building to catch on fire.

What had had happened, and it was interesting, is that, Washington DC had come back and, their historic preservation people had said, No, we don’t want you to do that. Uh, you’re going to ruin the look of the building and the historic side of the building is very, very important. We want to preserve it in its natural form and we don’t wanna see the pipe up there.

So we had, we had a discussion and I remember saying, You know, let’s not give up that easily on this one.

And so we called again and I think it was on the third call or during, we call it a third meeting, that they gave us the go-ahead. and we were able to, put the pipe across the ridge of the building.

What is most interesting and where the measurable part of this comes, exactly one year. When I say exactly, approximately one year after the building was finished, the devastating fires in Yellowstone took place and there was a fire, you know, within, walking distance and trees away from this particular building, hot embers coming down on the building.

And, uh, in essence, the deluge system saving. Old faithful lodge, in my opinion, as a result of us being persistent. And, so, uh, it’s a, it’s a measurable thing, but then you begin to think of how many times do, do things like that go on, and what a difference we’re making to the environment out there.

Sarah: Well, first of all, it’s almost, you know, ironic that they were so concerned about saving the look of the building, and the reality was, well, you’re not gonna have anything to look at if it burns down.

Right. You know, you, you mentioned, how, you know, these are, we’re talking about measurable things here, right? You know, the, the first two examples that we’re talking about where, you know, these are things that needed to be fixed, you needed to make sure that the building was saved or that patients are being taken care of properly.

I think one of the more immeasurable parts of this puzzle, the way that the firm has really built its reputation and also built these good quality partnerships and relationships is that client relationship piece. I think sometimes it’s a little bit difficult to really measure. That extra mile that you go for the client sometimes.

And you really have a lot of experience in client relationships in particular. Tell me a little bit about what you’ve done, what the firm has done to ensure that you’re setting yourselves up for success and setting the client up for success in making sure that those partnerships, those relationships are really strong.

Gene Kolstad: One of the things that, uh, I, I have as a strong personal belief, but, uh, it, it, and also I think it’s important that we continue always to pass this along, Coming up with a way to, I’m going to use the terminology, go the extra mile, for a client.

And I still do that today. Uh, every single project that I work on. And my best way to explain this is I try to say, what kind of added value can. We provide the client. That would be unexpected. That would make a big difference for ’em. I’m, I’m gonna give you an example of one of these and, and that is that, okay, you’re doing drawings, you’re meeting with clients and you’re showing them plans.

And then I. I get thinking, you know, if I went home or back to the office and I took some foam core and made a model out of the foam core that was 3D basically, that I could take into ’em, that, that would end up, being something that they could see and it might change things.

That’s an example of the added value. And I’ll tell you what. You take that model in, and first of all, they said that they really do. They say to themselves, you really did that. You, you went that extra distance for us. And then pretty soon they look and they say, why is that sink over there in that corner of that room?

It would be better if it was on the other side of the room. And so, that might not seem like a very big deal, but. It’s, a big thing because they weren’t really seeing the plans as well as they saw the model itself. So, doing the extra work, and I, I don’t know if I call it work because it’s kind of fun, really has a payback that helps the client long range.

Sarah: not everyone expects that. there’s something to be said though too about maybe more of a cultural fit when it comes to the client. So who you’re connecting with whom. So, you know, certainly there are many different teams, many different projects, and you gave me a great story, a great example. Uh, whether you wanna use that example again is up to you.

But, you know, an example of how making sure that the right. People were on the right job because that can matter too. It’s not just about whether or not, you know, that team has just the expertise, but also has the ability to sort of speak the same language. If, if I’m not mistaken,

Gene Kolstad: Yeah, you used a good word there.

Uh, cultural fit because that, when I, when I talk to you about, uh, this particular, event or story that I’m gonna pass along, that’s kind of what it, what it’s all about. And it’s about, learning that, becomes very, very important.

This project that I’m talking about happened to be a school here in Montana, and uh, I was part of the interview team. There were three of us that went, but one of the leaders of the firm at that particular time headed up the interview team, and he, he was, really a, great person, very strong academically, et cetera.

We went to the interview; and what had happened is we were out in the lobby and another firm was in the boardroom interviewing at the time, and there was a receptionist in the lobby. So the principal that was leading the team went over and asked her the question, how are people sitting in the room?

He actually knew the names of who the people were gonna be at the interview. He put together a drawing of the table with all the chairs, and I believe there were, I don’t know, seven or nine people in the room. And he had, the secretary that was out front. Tell him exactly where everybody was sitting.

when it came our turn to go into the room, we were, escorted into the room. We had handouts with everybody’s name on it. And he went around one at a time around the big boardroom table, introduced himself, and called out the name of the person that he was introducing himself to didn’t miss a person, went all the way around the room.

Just perfect. And so anyway, The interview lasts probably half an hour’s worth of presentation and half an hour’s worth of questions. And then, We left and came back and the next morning I suspected was we got a call that we had not received the project. And one of the things that we, we still do to this day and uh, but we did big time also back then is we would, follow up by trying to figure out what could we do better.

Why didn’t we get the job? Et cetera. So, so we called, by the way, one of the things we always did is we had somebody that wasn’t on the interview team make the callback because oftentimes you can get more information. And basically what we were told, and by the way, this was, uh, a community that had, mostly farmers and ranchers on the board and on the selection team, But we were told that when they, we really dug into it on the debriefing that the reason was that they had thought that anybody that slick that would know everybody’s name and come into the room. Would maybe not be able to be trusted that much and, could pull the wool over their eyes, et cetera. So that, that’s, that’s an example, I guess, of the cultural match that you had talked about.

The same individual, in the same month, ended up I recall, going into Husky Oil and we received that particular commission, again, probably because of the cultural fit.

Sarah: That’s, you know, it’s, it’s. A really great example though, I think of the way that you, do have to consider all moving parts. It’s not just about, like I already said, the expertise. It’s not just about the experience, but it really is about making sure that everyone involved feels comfortable with the partnership.

one of the last things I wanted to talk about, because we are running out of time, I wanted to just touch on some of the other ways, I think. The firm has really set itself up for success as far as a long-running company. You know, it, you, you mentioned to me previously that there was an effort to place.

The company’s, offices downtown to help attract younger people. You mentioned, team members leaving after a certain age to make some room for some younger individuals. we’ve also talked previously about, joining conferences, things like that. You know, if you could run me through just some of the ways you think.

The firm has set itself up to really be successful and have this foundation of we, we should be your go-to. Not only if you are a prospective client, but also if you are a young architect, a young designer, and things like that.

Gene Kolstad: Yeah, you know, you, you, you bring up a, a very interesting area and, uh, I’m gonna talk about our, building, uh, that, we’re in here in the Billings office.

we were housed, out on the west end of Billings out on Polly Drive, and we decided that we were gonna have an office in another location. And so we had the option between a new office that would go basically on farmland out to the west of Billings, or there was an old building in downtown Billings that had been along for a long time. That was, actually, a, Plumbing warehouse, and we had said we could take that four-story building and, maybe help downtown Billings and at the same time not use up farmland as an example to have a brand new facility.

And so it was really, really close at the time. I remember our discussions, and we had decided to go to the downtown Billings location. Uh, because we wanted to help Billings, we wanted. to be basically green in what we were doing related to, not going out and using farmland, et cetera.

And so it has really worked out well for us. But the unexpected consequence of this is that it ended up. To be a recruiting tool. The younger, talented people, if they have a decision to make, I think they come and they interview here and they see what we’re doing and what we’re all about and what our building is about.

And the fact that we chose the direction to remodel an older facility. is making a big difference relative to our recruiting, and we’re getting great talent as a result of that. So I, I keep using the word unexpected consequence. We didn’t even think about that back at the time we made the decision, but it was bigger than maybe any of the other things that, headed us in this direction.

I mean, that’s, that’s always exciting to hear. I, you know, it’s, it’s, but at the same time, this is actually a perfect way to kinda loop the conversation back around, right? Because the first story that you told us about, uh, you know, the hospital in, Alaska, there were unintended, unintended consequences of the decisions you made there to correct the problem, admit the mistake, you know, move on from there.

It, it sounds like basically just making sure that. The firm was just being mindful about things. Did. In turn, create these fantastic opportunities and fantastic successes down the road. Which, I mean, it sounds like part of what I’m learning from you is just being thoughtful and taking the time to really consider everything.

I mean, that’s instead of just winging it out and you know, being too hot to trot. Uh, you know, that, that made huge differences. well, Gene, it has been an absolute pleasure to talk with you and to learn a little bit about the firm’s past and how it’s really set itself, and its clients, and its employees up for success moving forward.

These are such great examples though, and I’m so glad you shared these because sometimes we don’t get the opportunity to have sort of this inside look in particular at the conversations that can sometimes feel like are almost throwaways with a client perhaps, but that you wind up finding something that’s going to make such an enormous difference.

So I really appreciate your sharing that with us. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us today. This has been really exciting for me to hear and I’m sure, the listeners feel the same way. So thank you again for choosing to hop on the podcast with us.

Gene Kolstad: Bless your heart. My thanks to you. Take care.

Producer: Music for Good, Thoughtful Hosts was written, produced, and performed by Sam Clapp. Our moderator is Sarah Steimer. Editing by Travis Estvold. And a special thanks to our content development team, Amanda Herzberg and Marni Moore. For more information about the podcast, visit Thanks for listening.

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