The Inner City 100: Creative Marketing
Tom Wilson knew he couldn't afford to keep his company where it was. So he made it his business to rework the neighborhood he moved to
It was, quite simply, desperation that first sent Tom Wilson to "the other side of the tracks" in search of cheap office space for his company, Architectural Design Group (#68). He had moved the firm into Oklahoma City from its suburbs in 1980 to take advantage of a downtown building boom. But by the time the boom had gone completely bust, in 1987, business at his firm had slowed, and Wilson found himself stretched. "We were literally looking for a low-cost home and hoping we could make it through the next year," he recalls. He found that home in the Bricktown neighborhood, then a largely uninhabited warehouse district of Oklahoma City, where the local detox served as the center of activity. Just over 10 years later, Bricktown has undergone a radical transformation. So has Wilson's company.
Serendipity played a large part in ADG's success, but credit Wilson with perceiving his inner-city home as an opportunity rather than a mere way station on the road back to economic prosperity. Shortly after he settled in on the ground floor of a partially renovated warehouse, a restaurant named Spaghetti Warehouse moved in next door, attracting weekend and evening patrons who were not scared off by the down-market location. People began to see that the area had potential. So did Wilson. He started working with the owner of his building to renovate neighboring warehouses for commercial tenants, always taking care to maintain the architectural and historical integrity of the buildings. "We had done some restoration work before that, but not a lot," says Wilson. He soon found himself doing more, including a major cathedral restoration for the Central Oklahoma Archdiocese. ADG earned a reputation as an inner-city firm with respect for the historical significance of urban architecture. "We had an appreciation for the history of the buildings, and people recognized that," says Wilson. Meanwhile, Bricktown was slowly shedding its lowly image, as more restaurants and service firms moved in, giving the neighborhood a new reputation: hip, edgy, nontraditional; a downtown alternative with buzz. And Wilson realized that ADG was not so much an architectural firm that happened to be situated in Bricktown as it was a Bricktown architectural firm--a company defined and differentiated by its location.
That distinction paid off handsomely in 1994, when the City of Oklahoma put out a request for bids on the design and construction of a new minor-league baseball field in--you guessed it--Bricktown. Though Wilson bid against several other local and national firms--half of them larger than ADG--he thinks that "the fact that we were located here had a significant impact on our being selected. There was also a general attitude from people in Bricktown and the city council that we respect Bricktown's history." He landed the $30-million contract--at that point, the largest to date in the firm's history--and negotiated it the week after the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building. After a series of budget difficulties, the field was completed and met with rave reviews. "It got us a lot of exposure," says Wilson. Meanwhile, in the fall of 1997, newly elected Oklahoma City mayor Kirk Humphreys had asked Wilson to serve on his Mayor's Task Force for Neighborhood Revitalization, a group charged with examining ways to encourage development in the inner city.
DONNA FENN | Inc.com Contributing Editor
Donna Fenn is the author of Upstarts! How GenY Entrepreneurs Are Rocking the World of Business and 8 Ways You Can Profit From Their Success, an exploration of the ways Gen Y is changing the entrepreneurial landscape.