20 Questions with Kelly Kolar: Practice Preparedness

Read Time: 10 minutes

Kelly Kolar, founder and president of Kolar Design, Inc. (Cincinnati, Ohio), an award-winning brand experience and data-driven design solutions firm, talks to SEGD about leading through disruptive and uncertain times. She is also a partner in Brandspace Design, a sister company based in Singapore.

Kelly Kolar began her career by winning the design competition to create the civic brand for the Cincinnati, Ohio Bicentennial Celebration, after which she founded Kolar Design, Inc. The firm is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, having accumulated expertise in the fields of interior architecture, graphic design, space/city planning, branding and placemaking. Kolar has translated this expertise for her clients by reinventing the ways people use their space to engage those most important to them: their customers, their employees and their communities.

As a businesswoman and community leader, Kolar is part of a wide range of efforts based around inclusion and diversity for the empowerment of women in business. In 2019, Kelly received a Woman of the Year Award from the Cincinnati Enquirer for her support of philanthropic efforts and effort towards improving civic life through the investment of her time, energy and her own belief in helping others. She also received the 2nd Annual Todd Portune Innovation Champion Award from the HCDC for her innovation and the way she has empowered others to innovate and be innovators.

Her work is in the Ohio Arts Council collection as well as the permanent collection of the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo. She is a graduate of the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning, where she has served as an adjunct professor as well as past-president of the Alumni Association. This year, she is receiving an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Mt. St. Joseph University.

In a few weeks, she is hosting SEGD’s (now virtual) Take 20: Management & Leadership event. We talked to her about her strategies for firm leadership during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.


How are things in Cincinnati, and what’s going on with your immediate circle?

KK: Purportedly, Mark Twain said, “If the world would end, I would come to Cincinnati, for everything happens here ten years later.” We’re always a little bit behind here and we’ve always kind of laughed at ourselves about that.

But, in this particular case I think I’m happy with it. We feel very fortunate that we have fewer cases here than surrounding areas and are doing everything we can to flatten the curve. Governor, Mike DeWine was very aggressive and acted very quickly on the stay-at-home order, which is in place until May 1.

Our extended (Kolar Design) family is fine and safe, but obviously, there’s no one in the state or in the world that will not be affected by this crisis. The United States is a small circle and our SEGD community is a small community, right?


Is everyone from Kolar working from home?

KK: Yes. Six years ago, we moved to a completely digital platform for the company when we moved to our current offices. So, functionally it was pretty easy to do—but that doesn’t mean necessarily that we’re not social creatures and that we’re used to it.


What have you advocated for your staff?

KK: Actually, this speaks to our values: We started working remotely on March 11, five days before the stay-at-home order was enacted. It made sense for us to go ahead because we were ready—we’re an always-be-prepared type of organization—and have always advocated for employees to prioritize family and wellness.


This year is Kolar Design’s 30th anniversary: have plans to celebrate changed?

Our celebration date moved back to be a holiday celebration, but we had already started celebrating 30/30: one cool thing for each of the years we have been in business. Some are small and some large, including our community impact with a matching $20,000 fundraising gift to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital as part of our “Art for Heart” campaign, where we worked with local artists to deliver thousands of Valentine’s Day cards to patients.


Do you think the events surrounding this pandemic will change the business of design permanently, and if so, how?

KK: The world as we know it has changed and will continue to change due to this environment. There will be new technology and new ways of working we are just scratching the surface. I like to think of the innovations that will come out of this crisis as problems redefining possibilities. It will be a new paradigm. Our company is diving into this space and transforming how we can add value in the new workplace of the future.


We heard you developed a 100-day plan for your firm in response to the COVID-19 crisis—can you tell us more about that?

KK: Back in January, I was planning a trip to Asia when this was starting, and I made the decision to detour. I just knew this thing wasn’t going away, and our leadership team recognized it as well: Looking at our strategic plan and looking at the developments in China and Korea, we immediately went into a risk-mitigation approach. At the time, China was planning on reopening in 13 weeks.

In terms of continuity, we know everybody can focus on making it through that span of time, so we created a 100-day plan inside our strat plan and rolled it out to the full staff. As of now, we’re entering week three of that plan.


How does one go about this kind of planning?

KK: It starts with assembling and analyzing the right types of data. Successful business leaders are constantly reviewing to plan; they know where they are to their budget and they know where they are with their performance. And, they’re constantly honing and evaluating to strengthen their business.

I think it’s really important to have scenario planning to inform your decision making. We completely rethought every decision in the company for the next 100 days, down to cash management and forecasting. I have a dashboard that I look at weekly and I look at cash in and cash out and I literally manage every check in and out by that informed decision-making process. I have projected exactly how much, how long and the run rate. I have a scenario plan for zero revenue coming in as well.

In addition to that: have an action plan, great advisors, make good market observations, and don’t forget about the importance of leadership and communication. I’ve been talking to my financial, legal and insurance people just to double, triple check everything.


How did you estimate how much business would be lost?

KK: When we started the 100-day plan I anticipated a decline, but I guessed that at that point, a worst-case scenario was a 30-percent hit. We’re not at 30 percent yet. But, you should never have just one plan, right?


What advice you would give to firm leaders on staying financially viable moving forward?

KK: I think it’s important for every company to think about that there’s different methodologies that you can use for business continuity planning, and those plans should be in place before you’re in a crisis.

You don’t want to be doing this planning in the midst of a crisis: We’ve had projects immediately suspend, go on hold and cancel. I predict more of the same, and unfortunately, a recession.

Yeah, I’m preparing for a recession.

There are so many unknowns right now, I suggest we evaluate what markets we serve, target audiences and customer bases. Then, reinvent and diversify our service offerings.


What do employees need to know?

KK: Employees and should keep their resumes and portfolios up to date to stay competitive in the market.  Always aim to be a value-add to the business and to your customers.  People need to realize that some factors will be beyond the business’s control, and everyone is responsible for creating viability and value in a disruptive marketplace. 


How has implementing this plan affected your staff?

Just having a 100-day plan, everyone here feels much more prepared and focused. We also needed to increase our communication frequency and we needed to ramp up the vibrancy to amplify more our culture and our values because we couldn’t see each other every day.

Our vision is that we want to be the world’s most global trusted leader in adding soul to space. We do that in our own company—and are doing that virtually, now that we’re remote—by leaning into our values and really living them.

We do daily COVID-19 updates for our satellite locations. We also have virtual weekly team meetings: Mondays we have 100-day plan updates, Tuesdays are studio operations, Wednesdays are wellness—we might have breathing exercises or pet therapy, with our pets on-screen. On Thursdays I do a video broadcast with my iPhone focusing on our values and Friday is the weekend wrap-up. When we are working remotely and projects are dropping and getting suspended, communication is critical for the team to not feel isolated and worried.


Were you doing all of this communication before?

KK: Definitely not in this way. We were doing topic-focused biweekly business and creative bootcamps—we would bring in speakers and participate in inspirational exercises as a team. We’ve done them on all different kinds of topics related to our culture and
our values.

I really encourage other CEOs and leadership to step up their communication with their teams. To me, it’s about leading with humility and with uncompromising communication—complete transparency.


What did client outreach, marketing and business development look like six weeks ago versus now?

KK: We are building a new platform as part of our 30-year anniversary and were planning a launch in June. The silver lining of this COVID-19 situation for us is that is has allowed us to accelerate its completion and add new services. It will be a brand extension building off of 30 years of our core business. It takes the past decade of research on health and safety in the workplace, translated into a new insight survey and toolkit for the restart of businesses. 

Think about Apple®: they started with computers and then they leaped to iPhones and iPads. They attracted different audiences, and this is a chance to extend our brand to new geographies and audiences. This will be game changing for us.


Do you think that having done or doing a lot of work in healthcare has influenced you in any way on any of these things?

KK: Yes, about 50 percent of our business is around health and safety. We create healing spaces and that influences our approach, which begins with empathy.


What work have you done with SEGD’s M&L event?

KK: We have been curating the content and setting the stage to showcase the best and brightest minds now pivoting in response to the current disruption to reframe, reinvent and re-invigorate in a time of crisis. Initially, we had weekly calls with SEGD staff to curate content and line up speakers who have a passion for their work and true business awareness to share with our SEGD global community. When COVID-19 hit, it became clear to us that we would need to move the conference into a virtual space. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to test new online marketing strategies, expand our content to be more relevant to the current crisis and provide more access to the conference to people both inside and outside membership. Over the past few weeks, we’ve been shifting the agenda to reflect industry fallout and pave the way to turn problems into possibilities.


How would you describe your typical leadership/management style?

KK: Connected, communicative, compassionate, creative—like a lotus flower, I try to open each day to be a resource of inspiration for others.


How does Kolar do employee development?

KK: We have four levels of leadership training development starting with our student co-op level using a collaborative coaching method. Company training and development is focused on a combination of soft skills around our core values, and behaviors as well as professional development opportunities like with SEGD. We are going to share our ladders of learning at the M&L event, so tune in to see it in action and get a copy of our toolkits!


The M&L event is going virtual, does that change any of the content?

KK: There will be a virtual mixer before the event and the content will be responsive to the best practices in this new paradigm. Listening to how others are responding and getting a few pearls of wisdom will be like oxygen for us creatives. We need this for our livelihood and to sustain us to the next level. 


How can we get a feel for the Cincinnati design community if we’ve never experienced it?

KK: All of the local speakers are will talk about how we are a vibrant city, that invented branding and are makers, movers and shakers. However, with big thinkers like P&G, we have a global stage as a digital platform so all the speakers will be sharing their take on the global crisis and business impact. Robert Probst, FSEGD once told me that “radical design is possible in Ohio” and we are still doing it!


How are you taking care of yourself in all this?

KK: I’ve been keeping up with my workouts and meeting with my trainer virtually. To take care of others, you must take care of yourself. The one thing I wish I was having a little bit more of right now is sleep.



This interview has been edited for length and clarity.