When Jim Snyder first came to Charlotte, he didn’t know anybody. But he felt it important on becoming CEO of ODELL to reach out to Charlotte’s decision-makers.
Much to his surprise, each and every one he called readily accepted his invitation to meet. To say he was impressed is an understatement. It spoke for itself about the quality leadership of the firm’s founder and the good name and reputation the firm had developed over the years.
Arthur Gould Odell Jr. of Concord founded Charlotte-based ODELL in 1940. “He was part of the group of community and business leaders that created the vision and foundation of the Charlotte we enjoy today,” offers Snyder.
“ODELL has never been just an architectural firm,” continues Snyder. “We have always believed in being a stakeholder and steward of our community, helping to influence creating special places to live, work and play.”
Indeed, founder Odell worked alongside business and community leaders such as John Belk, Hugh McColl, Bill Lee, Ed Crutchfield and other visionaries to grow Charlotte into an important southern city. In the early 1970s, he developed the city’s first comprehensive Master Plan. Today, Charlotte’s uptown, medical centers and sports arenas reflect the vision of that Master Plan and all reflect close to 75 years of Odell’s and the firm’s continuing impact.
Most of ODELL’s design projects are familiar household names: Bojangles Coliseum, Ovens Auditorium, Time Warner Cable Arena, the former Charlotte Coliseum, Independence Center, Bank of America Plaza, Charlotte-Douglas International Airport, the first Charlotte Convention Center, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, The Federal Reserve Building, Westin Hotel, 525 North Tryon Plaza, the original Knight’s Stadium and now, the soon to be completed BB&T Ballpark, to name a few, plus numerous projects for the Carolinas HealthCare System—from the original bed tower built in the 1950s to recent buildings—as well as the Novant Health Care System.
Together, these projects form a timeline of Charlotte’s progress towards becoming the banking, health care, international transportation, hospitality and professional sports city that it is today.
Building Up to Success
From its founding, ODELL has maintained its headquarters in Charlotte. The company opened its Richmond, Va., office 35 years ago. Snyder, with ODELL for 27 years, ran the Richmond office as president until relocating to Charlotte two years ago. He was named chairman and CEO of the entire firm in 2008.
The firm’s footprint was enlarged again in 2011 with a client-driven expansion to Houston, Tex. “Now, we are in the three strongest growth states in terms of economic development,” claims Snyder. Overall, the firm expects to reach $15 million in revenue in 2013. Over half of its 76 employees are licensed architects. Eight principals lead and direct the firm’s activities and include (in addition to Snyder and Woollen) Brad Bartholomew, Terry Moore, Bruce Brooks, Max Gray, Richard Morton and Dale Hynes.
ODELL’s work in Richmond is represented by a similar list of landmark places, and spans Florida to New York in work for the Bon Secours Health Care System. The firm’s major client in Houston is the Memorial Hermann Health Care System, part of the largest health care system in Texas.
Other projects around the country include the world-recognized BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla.; the RBC arena in Raleigh, N.C.; the Bi-Lo Center in Greenville, S.C.; the Raleigh PNC Arena; and the North Carolina Blue Cross Blue Shield Headquarters in Chapel Hill. International projects range from the Middle East to India to Latin America to China and represent approximately 10 percent of ODELL’s work.
ODELL offers integrated architecture, planning, engineering and interior design services. The firm is structured around market sectors as opposed to geography. Aptly named Heal, Work, Play, Move, Learn and Live, the firm focuses on the design of environments supporting health care, corporate and commercial business, sports and entertainment, aviation, higher education and senior living and multi-family residential clients.
“I am the director of Play,” laughs Woollen, obviously delighted by the concept and play on words. “It’s a great job.” Woollen also heads up the office in Charlotte. The firm’s architects primarily work in one market sector although they are very active in the various locations where the firm has presence. Moore leads the Work sector; Brooks leads the Heal sector and heads up the office in Richmond. Health care has become nearly 70 percent of ODELL’s business.
“Instead of being reactive, waiting for work to come to us, we seek opportunities for providing transformational ideas to help move important projects along,” says Woollen.
“Strategic partnerships and collaboration are key,” adds Snyder. “It’s not just about now—it is looking beyond today in creating special places informed by the client’s vision designed to optimize the enterprise.”
Hitting Some Home Runs
Woollen’s job has been especially exciting through the design and building of the new BB&T Ballpark which is scheduled for completion in the spring of 2014.
“We are thrilled to be a part of bringing the Charlotte Knights to uptown. That it will be in our own neighborhood is particularly rewarding,” says Woollen. ODELL was also the architect of the current Knight’s stadium located off Interstate 77 in Fort Mill, S.C.
In the 1980’s, Knight’s owner George Shinn anticipated rapid growth in the South Charlotte area that would leapfrog the state line. “His assessment was that the area would grow a lot faster than it has,” says Woollen. That property is now scheduled for redevelopment for a distribution and mixed-use development.
The trend now is to build sports stadiums in center city in creating unique mixed-use live, work and play destinations.
“The new ballpark will be much more user friendly with superior sight lines, amenities, two club areas, more picnic terraces and easy access,” continues Woollen. “Because of the ballpark there will be new development along 4th Street and along Graham Street which will continue to revitalize the Third Ward.”
Several features make the new ballpark unique, according to Woollen. A pair of dugout suites at home plate provide for a worm’s eye view where he says, “You’ll be looking at the field like a catcher or umpire does.”
The lower home plate club will hold approximately 900 people and will have fixed bars, indoor and outdoor seating. The other will be able to accommodate 300-400 people for game days and other catered functions. “It will be busy every day of the year,” anticipates Woollen, proudly.
Construction of the stadium is 65 percent complete. The first game is scheduled for April 11, 2014.
ODELL entered the Play sector in the mid-1950s with the design of what is now the Bojangles Coliseum. The firm also designed Ovens Auditorium next door. Next came the Coliseum on Tyvola Road in 1984 which was replaced in purpose 22 years later by the Time Warner Cable Arena in uptown. In between those, ODELL designed the Barnhardt Student Activity Center at UNC Charlotte.
“It’s a more specialized field now,” says Woollen. “When we were working on the Coliseum, I knew that I could do this for the rest of my career.” Undoubtedly, ODELL has been a huge player in preparing Charlotte to be a center for professional sports.
Like most others in the building and construction industry, ODELL was impacted by the downturn in the economy. “It sure wasn’t a very good time to become CEO of an architectural design firm—when the bottom fell out of the economy,” states Snyder referring to his taking over the reigns in 2008.
“The reason why we’ve done as well as we have is that we have changed our firm by adapting our business model to the times and we are relationship-minded in everything we do. Consequently, with our 90 percent repeat business track record, our clients believe in us as much as we believe in them.”
Both the diversification and specialization of the firm were also important factors, according to Snyder and Woollen. “If anything has changed all our lives, it’s 2008,” says Snyder. There were lots of very reputable firms that are not here any more. Firms that see change and embrace change are the ones that will weather the future.” This is true whether referring to the economic climate or competition, according to Snyder.
“Most architectural firms are small; with less than 10 staff. The 1,000-plus firms are unusual. However, at 76, our staff is strong across our footprint. We are considered a large firm,” continues Snyder. “But in our particular market sectors, the competitors are usually 10 times bigger than we are. When we compete for projects in our markets we have to be more creative and savvy in terms of how we respond; we have to be able to respond and adapt very quickly,” continues Snyder.
Woollen sums it up: “We’re the swift boat; our competition is the cruiser.”
Design for the Future
Snyder was raised in a military family that moved around a good bit—from Kansas to Europe, Texas and Bowie, Maryland. “I was an artist—a sculptor—and there was very little creativity around me as I was growing up,” remembers Snyder.
“My father said if I wanted to pursue art, I could pay for my own education. He recommended that I go to Texas A&M and join the military to serve our country like my brother did. So, I did. I joined the Corps of Cadets and ultimately discovered architecture.”
Owing Uncle Sam some time after graduation, Snyder worked for the Surgeon General of the U.S. Army stationed at the Pentagon and designed hospitals all over the country as well as in Asia and Europe. “I learned how hospitals work from the nurses, physicians and clinicians from the inside out. We hired ODELL to design a project for us and that’s how I came to know the organization.”
Snyder came on board at ODELL in 1986, the same year Mr. Odell sold the company to seven partners. “We bought the last partner out a few years ago,” says Snyder. “Mike and I, along with Brad, Terry, Max, Bruce, Dale, Richard and our senior team—we’re third generation partners.”
“When I think, I diagram. I think through my hand when I draw,” continues Snyder. “There are few things that people do to create peace of mind—that’s what my art does for me. When I draw, I don’t think about anything else.”
Still, Snyder didn’t connect the dots until graduate school spending time in Chicago exposed to the works of master architects. “I realized what architecture is all about. It’s a journey you’re on to develop your ideas about how space can enhance and influence the lives of those who experience the space.”
Snyder moved to Charlotte in 2011. His partner, Max, had called him up and said, “Jim, it’s time you came to Charlotte.”
“Charlotte is a great, great city, says Snyder. “You won’t see anything like our urban environment anywhere else for the size we are.” Snyder has both a son and daughter, both schooled at the University of Virginia.
Woollen grew up in southeast Charlotte. He acknowledges, “That area was very rural then—not much architecture to look at.”
As a boy, Woollen loved to hang around construction sites and watch the builders, especially the carpenters: “I would gather scraps of wood and go all over the neighborhood building treehouses. The first time I saw a modern building, I freaked out—loved it! From then on, I admired all things modern—buildings, cars, art, clothes.”
Woollen graduated from North Carolina State University and started with ODELL in 1981. In the mid 1990s, he was recruited away by another firm and moved to Florida for 12 years where he worked on the Miami Heat arena and then to Dallas to work on sports and entertainment projects domestically and internationally including a great project for the Dallas Cowboys.
“Over time, several of our former partners tried to recruit Mike back to the firm,” says Snyder. We finally did in 2010. I feel really great about Mike being with us in Charlotte.” Woollen is married and has a daughter and granddaughter who reside in Charlotte.
“I tell people I meet all over the country Charlotte has boundless aspirations. After the bright light that shined over Charlotte for the DNC, now the conversation is about bringing home the Super Bowl,” exclaims Snyder. “There are many communities this size that wouldn’t dream of that; this community dreams of that and more each and every day.”
The firm is also involved with the city now to redevelop the Bojangles Coliseum to create an amateur sports destination.
“This brings in tens of thousands of kids,” says Woollen who envisions a renovated arena, new indoor facilities, hotels and other developments around the project.
“I’ve witnessed an energy and pride in ODELL that I’ve never felt before,” says Snyder. “We believe in and inspire each other to do great things. Our passion is in making a difference.”
“It’s more about the whole than yourself or the part,” he continues. “We believe that being active leaders in our community is truly important to our enterprise. If we’re part of a dynamic, growing, aspiring community, there is opportunity to create wonderful places.”
Based on its success and longevity, the ODELL firm will always be a stakeholder and steward of Charlotte.
Photo: Fenix Fotography