10.19.20 | Ep. 507 Bill Zahner| CEO of Zahner
Bill Zahner is the CEO of Zahner, a fourth generation company in Kansas City that was created in the late 1800s by Bill’s great-grandfather in Joplin, MO. Zahner provides unrivaled expertise and experience in architectural metals and engineering, combined with a signature stakeholder engagement process – the Zahner Method – that ensures the highest value and quality of work. They help owners, architects and contractors create iconic spaces and places that inspire and help them achieve their most profound design aspirations.
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Bill Zahner Transcript
Joel Goldberg: Welcome in a rounding the bases presented by enterprise Bank and Trust hashtag no stopping. You the podcast about culture and leadership with a baseball twist by name is Joel Goldberg coming to you. From the Kansas City audio visual studios, they create engaging spaces, check them out at KC a v.com and if you want a connection, I can certainly make that for you with Alan land ever over at Casey.
Joel Goldberg: Got a phenomenal guest today, one that I met in the heartland heroes peer group one that I'm now a member of. And so I've got to thank the amazing Steve John's for that and everything he does and a man that has been, I believe, a member of the heartland heroes for a lot of years and has been involved in amazing projects all over the country. Bill Zahner and Bill joins me right now. And I know that a lot has changed in the world designer and a lot will continue to change, first and foremost, Bill, how are you in the midst of all this craziness.
Bill Zahner: Doing OKay. We have a, we've got a few of the covid cases through keeps everybody everybody's done well and well,taken place.
Joel Goldberg: So for those that know the zinger name, you'll know what they do. If you don't know the zinger name, there's a pretty good chance that you have seen zingers work somewhere and maybe it's just on TV right now if you're watching some of these empty stadiums and you see the beautiful new sofa Stadium in Los Angeles, where the Rams in the charges are playing that Zeno work if you see the big crown.
Joel Goldberg: At Kauffman Stadium on the scoreboard. That is a inner work. And so I want to get into all that. But what I really want to start with Bill is the history because I believe we're talking late 1800s. In the creation of Xena, which I know looked quite a bit different back then than it does now. Tell me about the long family history here.
Bill Zahner: Sure, yeah, we started a we'll have our HUNDRED AND 25th year next year. Started with my great grandfather actually started in job. They were back then. Everything was kind of moving east to west and Sunday small towns. The folks that had money like the banks, etc. But cornices on the top of their buildings. So the company was very much engaged in putting corners on the top, the old see
Bill Zahner: Those banks or or or buildings that had the money to be able to afford putting decorative feature. And you know that moved to Kansas City. Very soon after Joplin. Another interesting history is people now back in the 1890s.That the My great grandfather brother did say to manufacturing up here in Kansas City. So a new designer sheet up here.
Bill Zahner: And back then. It's kind of intriguing because we've been going up actually had that we need to go through some of your books in the bookstore and somebody the in the 1905 inventory, the biggest things were automobile parts offenders. I guess he had Model T it up.
Joel Goldberg: Well, things have obviously evolved over the years. I'm pretty sure that your great grandfather Andrew was not thinking about building stadiums and and whatnot. Back then, that wasn't a thought. But how, how have things changed. And this is for generations worth of designers, how have things changed minus covid to nowadays versus when it started as what really the focus being being sheet metal.
Bill Zahner: Joel I think any company that's going to have any kind of long, long term longevity. That's why it's going to have to reinvent itself at different levels, and I read I got out of school in the late 1970s, School of Engineering and K you were very, very much involved with said the 19 County area around Kansas City doing citing work copper work, etc. I saw that we had a pretty good ability with these crafts can hear that they were exceptional really we make certain special things for designers and so a pushed more national it started going to small areas kind of around Kansas City. And then eventually going coast to coast.
Bill Zahner: So the idea that I met an architect named Frank Gehry many people heard the name of and became good friends. I went out and met him when he had like maybe 30 people work for him and Venice Beach and he and other architects challenged me to see what we could do with metal further. And so it was sort of the spark. I guess you want to say that we started working for really high end design firms.
Bill Zahner: And that we could bring back their challenges and their thoughts and then use that to other design firms enacted became a lot of fun, but it enabled us to extend our reach outside of the city. Back in the early 80s probably 95% of the work is all done in Kansas City. And now, maybe 5% or less is done in Kansas City. Unfortunately, but but also fortunately allows us to work in both coasts, a lot of international work. So it's, you know, we built on a reputation that my grandfather and father had and hopefully I leave a legacy that people can build on further.
Joel Goldberg: It's just the evolution is so interesting. And of course the world evolves to. I mean, you guys are as much known in the world of architecture as you are in the world of metal and there's so many aspects to design or nowadays was from your understanding where those early years, the late 1800s, early 1900s. I mean, what was architecture even part of the equation at that point.
Bill Zahner: Oh, it definitely wasn't in a smaller degree. But yeah, I mean, actually, a lot of what we did. We never did do sheets, Milan. The conventional sense that we know that today, and he, you're always on the outside. I think we worked on the early start like theater. I think in the 50s OR 40s and we worked on the folly theater, both in the beginning and then on the restoration. Those are. That was a building built in the early 1900s. And they said, that we we actually the the My daughter is taken over the zinger conservation conservation side of the company.
Bill Zahner: Another company sister company and she was working on a building downtown. That's really asked her if we had worked on and it was built in 1917 or 1914 and she got into the books with me. We found that we actually worked on that as photographers and saw on building on London grand, so yes and no. There was, it was that interested working on metal the metal kind of was going in a renaissance stainless steel and come into play. So 1920 aluminum as just being developed in the early 1900s. And so we were able to to work kind of ride on the wave of this growing industrial material. I kind of look at what we do today as an advancement of that what we do, we're doing a lot of surface finishing and that is kind of state of the art pushing the edge, surface finishing on metals. And and it's hard of a new Renaissance for the design.
Joel Goldberg: It's, it's interesting to see just so much of what you guys have been able to do and what I want to really ask you about is how much that has changed so anyone that watches football has seen that beautiful structure in Los Angeles that you guys built and it's, I think the crown jewel of the NFL right now. I mean, everybody always wants to top right, I'm waiting for the Cowboys to suddenly say they want to build a brand new stadium again because they've been they've been surpassed and If anyone would do it, it will be them. They've got they've got the palace, you know, down in in in the Dallas area in Irving, Texas Arlington, Texas, pardon me, but, what you guys built there is amazing. But I and you and I were talking before we came on that. Who knows what happens if those designs come out today. So how much is Covid changed everything for your business at a time where everybody's pulling back
Bill Zahner: Definitely has affected us i mean the media, no one's I think anyone that's got in the plans and building a stadium right now is probably gonna wait and see when this thing clears up. We've had projects cancel the working on a project for Disney, the new Tron roller coaster wasn't catching was put on hold. We see a lot of things being delayed. The biggest you know the biggest problem I see with the virus is it changes the way we do business the way we connect to our customers like here, this podcasting over over the internet. Well, today, we're kind of forced to communicate over the internet with our customers. So we have lots of zoom meetings, probably
Bill Zahner: Several dozen a week. And that's with our, our customers in the architecture community one we're working on as a project and the Baja, the architects in London, the builders and Mexico, the owners and California. And so it's kind of helps because you can have these the Zoomies have everybody together and not spend the money on the travel portion. But I'm going to tackle world. And when I think about. So, so five stadium. I mean, the we'd be sending samples, I guess all over the place. And when we were working with a designer out of Dallas HK is on what that surface was going to be a special white aluminum, for instance, with a special perforated hole in the surface that's a little different than just simply a piercing. You want to be with your client, you want to be able to to passionately show on the materials that you're trying to demonstrate it. This things made it very difficult to do this minute much slower. It forces you to really think about how you get across the message.
Joel Goldberg: So what, how have you dealt with that. I mean, this is a really interesting discussion because the zinger work speaks for itself. I mean, you have companies and major entities around the world that will vouch for you. And if they don't, I know they will. All you have to do is pull up some pictures and say, we've done this. We've done this, you've got a whole catalog of that. But yet, there's still the personal side to it. Right. I mean, these are major investments every type of business. I tell people all the time that, before the baseball aspect of things. My business is about relationships when people, hopefully, say you did a great interview. Yes, I've done my homework. So I've studied. Yes, I've done the research.
Joel Goldberg: But it's years of building relationships with these players. That was the biggest challenge for me this year is I was, I was doing shows from Kansas City, while the team was on the road and still needed to tell the stories and still need to find out how to connect. So how have you done that in this world of zoom fatigue.
Bill Zahner: I don't know. I didn't say that we, that's what we've been trying to do is make it so one of the ideas is to be able to have a separate kind of computer or zoom system where I can move it to a camera that shows the materials or like take in film like just last week, I'm showing
as I walk around a piece of stainless steel are to show the artist how the light reflects off of it.
If I took just a simple photograph it doesn't capture that way, it changes as you move around it. So it's very difficult. You end up using every bit of bandwidth that's available to do it. But in the end, enjoy. I think it's a lot like yours, you almost have to be at some point, like we got to get on the airplane and go to LA sit down and meet with them.
Bill Zahner: And therein lies the second part of the problem is they don't necessarily want you there either. Because of what you may be bringing in. We work a lot with a lot of work in New York City. He can't even fly to New York City will not take in 14 days. So how do you feel sometimes like I'm running in mud, but we're fighting that you know we're, we're looking at all the different things that we can pull together. There's no real easy answer.I love to use them.
Joel Goldberg: Well, I mean, first off, I always say, and this is a little different from a baseball standpoint that the show goes on and unless it doesn't right i mean for three or four months, we had no baseball. So then, on a personal standpoint, for me, it was, what else can I do, how can I push forward, you can't. If you are stuck in the motor running and mud, so to speak, you have to keep running and and i know that's what you're doing. And while certain projects have pulled back and the timing isn't great.
There has to be something to to the fact that the projects will come back if not the same ones others. So how much ground. Can you pick up right now planning for the future or planting those seeds. How important is that maintaining those relationships.
Bill Zahner: But incredibly important and where we are. Internally, we're we're debating just your question there that, how do we keep connected because they're having the same issue you talked to designer to speaking from how you know they're they're not able to interface with us or their customer very well either. So, you know, we send a lot of things out. We stay, we try and stay in contact with them. The one thing about the zoom meetings, it does allow for an organization, you know, where you can put drawings up and actually sketch on the drawings and models and you still do three, the smallest so that that this whole kind of digital ability to to represent things digitally is is one of our fourth phase.
Bill Zahner: And this method plays to it. Well, it's simply the physicality of it, you know, because I work in metal and form, it's I gotta get pieces in front of them so they can handle them and touch them and turn them in shape them. So they can get that field for it same instance, you know, no one wants to make a multimillion dollar deal without talking to you, face to face, you know, and I've yet to make many those over zoom compensation, you know, almost
Joel Goldberg: Yeah, I'm guessing that when you when you landed that deal that work on the steep what the Air Force that that did not come in a zoom meeting.
Bill Zahner: But there's a good example of running in a month. The federal government, the Air Force has certain restrictions on travel. So what we're doing is we're putting all our guys can drive out there and we put these mockups of different colored metals understanding matching certain characteristics of the star absolutely beautiful can weather, the idea of the academy. We're pulling all that apart, rebuilding it and putting it back up. We're working Jane local search that it's great to deal with and we could go there. We can travel but the Air Force well traveled to go see it and they don't want to make a decision via camera that photograph. So everything is slow down until they can get there. You think Air Force gather judges fly there and take a look.
Bill Zahner: A slowness that happens that, it's frustrating. And that's where the concept is for this running as fast as you can, and really not getting a whole lot of traction. But yeah the the projects like that. Still though, we can pursue the in the head by digitally doing the models. So we get all the details worked out the other stuff is a little slow.
Joel Goldberg: One more question before I get to my baseball theme questions and I i think this is to me an interesting one. In terms of leadership at any time, but especially during a pandemic in the world that you're living in you have, and I'm going to
apologize in advance for the stereotypes. That's not fair. But you have a lot of artists, I'm guessing, who are free thinkers, and you have a lot of engineers who may be more again I'm stereotyping very structured very methodical so that I think in a company like Zahner has its challenges. I'm also guessing a lot of fun to make all of that mesh together. And now you've got a time in a pandemic, where they're probably some people that are thrilled to just be on a zoom call and to be in their world and others that really need that face to face, and that interaction.
How is the leader. How is the CEO of this company do you bring all those people together to make it work for the Zahner culture.
Bill Zahner: Yeah. Another point that we've been discussing over here is preventing the silos from developing and because everybody working from home, they're having their zoom meetings with their groups on certain projects or certain things and the benefit with the engineer and the artists that we do have both and then architects as well. But the benefit is this. This is diverse way of thinking a different viewpoint and thinking. So what we've been we've been doing to break the silo down is we have these, almost like a podcast type meeting where we will separate into groups or do it as a full group and then separate it out, but we'll have a topic topic might be the art, it might be certain concepts and we'll listen to it for like 30 minutes or 2030 minutes together on a zoom meeting. They're all at their homes or different places. And then we'll break apart and have these discussions on it, just to break up since we can't see each other people aren't coming into to be around each other.
Bill Zahner: We don't want them to lose the fact that we are a group of people, a company of people and not a group of silos of people and and we've been doing that the last few weeks and the response has been amazed. You know, I thought, is this really going to help, but it really breaks down that isolation, just that, that even though you're on a zoom your home every day you know you're not coming to the office to not having meetings.
Joel Goldberg: I have this belief that people just crave connectivity, more than ever before. And so when you can do it in a creative way with the zooms and not make it the same old zoom call over and over again. I think it what you just said there is what I'm hearing from so many others. Okay, time for the baseball team. Question is brought to you by kissing construction trusted team reliable partner, check them out at kiss a co.com. Let me ask you this first baseball theme question doesn't have to be a project, either. I'm going to ask you about that in a bit. Anyway, what is the biggest home run that you have hit professionally in what 40 something plus years what Zahner?
Bill Zahner: Probably was the experience music project with Frank Gehry back in the 90s.and then I put that as the biggest home run. It was it was definitely a tough project I walked by it today and how in the hell did we do this, you had an owner was Paul Allen. He's the only one who could have thought of paying for this monster, but at one point time we had over 100 people from Kansas City is not enough people in Seattle available and we flew honor people out. I remember going to the hotel and checking into the hotel and the young lady goes Zahner
your ministers area. Yes he does every room in the hotel. It's got one of your people in it. And I go, this is my hotel. Tell me poker games going on you know, whatever it was, it was a change, this was a project that once we get through it. We were definitely a different company because of its intense digital definition solid modeling, it was, it was the absolute hardest project we've ever taken on, but it was one of the most fun everybody that worked on it because men Prince those years.
Joel Goldberg: Yeah, and that's an experience to go to that place too. So it's, I think that anyone that has been there understands that one. The zinger hotel. How about that one. Okay, so biggest swing and miss. I always say that that the successful companies, the successful CEOs like yourself, you swing you do miss sometimes what's, what's the biggest swing and miss you've taken and what did you learn from it.
Bill Zahner: Probably the biggest swing and miss project longer happens because of the biggest things of Mrs. That says losing connection in Kansas City to the the building construction industry not staying as is condition connected because as we move out. We lost her feeling.
Joel Goldberg: And then the last of the baseball field questions small ball. How would you define small ball. The little things that add up to the big things in the Xena world. What are the little things that add up to the big things.
Bill Zahner: You know, one of the things I try to jump on, here we are, as we move through. We get these engineers involved. We want to add robotics and you want to have these these different ways of producing the work we do. But the one thing we have to always have. And that is the human touch you got to have that that human. That's where it really when you really hit the beautiful work is when the human touch is still in it and everything that I did all the best projects we've done, you know, people get fascinated will look that was made with a robot have this done by a scene, she plays, but it's the, it's the actual hands of the human that made the difference. That's the thing you walk by sometimes we're working on these great projects I'm walking through the plant and I'll get one of the craftsman press people will stop me. Go Bill. Look at this. And I want to show me an edge edge maybe five stories in the air, but he says this. Look how the middle came out here. He's just proud of the work and that is when that really is what I enjoy and it's the little things, I think, in doing my job.
Joel Goldberg: I love that reminder that it's still always comes back to people I talk about that all the time, even in a world of robotics. And in a world of zoom calls. You've touched on that so much to the importance of that face to face for final questions as we wrap it up. First one, it might be the same answer. You could add to the same if you want to, but I wanted to ask you, on a personal level. If you have a favorite project of all time.
Bill Zahner: Yeah, my favorite of all time is the American easy one, I wanted to do it project the Smithsonian as a kid, you know, my father did a lot of work in DC. So I dropped me off the Smithsonian museum to walk around. So we did the emeritus is woven copper wall in the inside of the American Museum it really was a hell of a lot of fun.
Joel Goldberg: Okay, second question, as we round the bases. And so you're showing some of that artistic side maybe not a coincidence. Then the the time that you put into the Art Institute in Kansas City. Tell me about that and how special the Art Institute is for you.
Bill Zahner: I think, I think the artist is a hidden jewel in the city. We've got eight people from New Orleans to working for us. The Intelligence, the incredible work. They put up these young people are really credible and professors Tony Jones. He's the president of the artists to unbelievable. What he's done. They're really, really amazing. It's turning that that art institute that was one time the top of the country that kind of went through a tough, tough go over the years over for the my company, and now it's can become the top of the country. I just so, so happy and fascinated by those folks that fun stayed involved with it.
Joel Goldberg: So Bill was President of the Board for the Kansas City Art Institute, I very interesting that you've got some of the your employees from the artists to third question, as we round the bases. Let's add author to the list. Although every time I've asked about this, the self deprecation comes up a come on six books working on a seven that to me seems pretty impressive.
Bill Zahner: Well I don't go in the only TV I watch is you baseball you know, this is one thing that to gather your life's involvement and be able to have it for people to use and build on a future.
Yeah, they didn't have this last five books. On the first one. It's a good point. In the first book I wrote I let my mother, read the first chapter, and she's really good she is in some architectural metal. Of course she's been she does. This is the most god awful boring thing I've ever read.
Joel Goldberg: But it sounds to me the values that work in the world of metal would enjoy it.
Bill Zahner: Fascinating.
Joel Goldberg: But you, but you may or may not get my mom born. So, that's okay. Book number seven is coming out. Last question my walk off as we wrap it up. I'm always amazed
at any family business that can pass it on from generation to generation and still be there. It's not easy to do you know that so fourth generation, the fifth Gen Xers are now emerging sort of a two part final here one How have you as a family and a culture, been able to do this and to how excited are you about the next generation.
Bill Zahner: Well, it is it is a is a culture is always takes that desire to change. But let me back up a moment. Probably the one of the biggest things I remind even my family. I work here that there are, there may be one family name on the building but there's 150 to 200 families that work here. And you can't look at it from the standpoint of, you know, the score about a caretaker for a period of time, there's going to go to the next group. I have a feeling. The next group may be a combination of family and non family as we grow bigger, I have part of family that's interested in certain aspects of the like the conservation portion is great. But it's always a challenge because family introduces a lot of different things. But it's, it's, I always keep in mind, you know like what my father had said, you know, there's a whole bunch of us. There's other families that end OTHER'S COMPANY survival and I just want to keep that in the mindset and culture of never leaves the company on
Joel Goldberg: Well, been going strong. Since 1897 and now Zane, or you can see their work all over the country, all over the world. It's fun to look at it, it's fun. Hopefully soon to be able to get back to some of those venues. But I know that you guys are pushing forward. And so I wanted to say, first and foremost, Bill. Thanks for spending the time but congratulations on the family and not just as a family, but everyone as you just mentioned the so many families that are involved in making it work and I wish you all the best. I know you and I will be talking but wish you all the best just and pushing through this, as I think you said so perfectly this time period of running in the mud.
Joel Goldberg: And hopefully the the mud dries out and we get to start returning back to being able to get face to face and doing what you do. So really appreciate you spending the time here today. All right, great to visit. You have gone bill. Sorry, I cut you off there. I appreciate it. Big thanks to bills Aigner the CEO and president of Zane or shout out to my sponsors enterprise Bank and Trust Kansas City audio visual and kissick instruction. Hope you'll share this episode with your network. And let everybody know about it a lot of great nuggets in here. You can reach me at Joel Gilbert media.com thanks for listening to rounding the basis, presented by enterprise Bank and Trust hashtag no stopping you. My name is Joel Goldberg catch you next time.