Jul 7, 2020

Episode 44

Jim Looney, Looney & Associates


Jim Looney’s journey to founding one of the most prolific hospitality design firms in the industry started with a chance meeting with Trisha Wilson. Six weeks later, he moved to Dallas to work with her. It was a formative time for Looney as he had a front-row seat to see the industry transform into what it is today. In 1995, he launched Looney & Associates, which has offices in Dallas, Chicago, and Hawaii. Today, as the firm celebrates 25 years, Looney reflects on a career that brought him from Memphis to Arkansas and now Dallas. Though being an architect defines him, when it comes to running a business, he says, his greatest takeaways are to listen, be kind, and be compassionate.


Stacy Shoemaker Rauen: Hi, I’m here with Jim Looney of Looney & Associates. Jim, thanks so much for joining us today.

Jim Looney: Thanks, Stacy. Glad to be here.

SSR: So how are you doing amidst all the craziness that is COVID-19?

JL: We’re living our best virtual life. I’m really proud of my group. The freeze was pretty easy compared to what the thaw will be. So that’s what everybody is focused on now. But I’m really proud. We’re all working virtually. I’m actually in the office today and it’s very limited. Each of our offices have different protocol for entry, or re-entry rather. So here in Texas, there is one set of rules. Honolulu will be a little bit different than Chicago. And we all went virtual probably within a week of each other with Chicago being first. But everything is functioning well. Again I’m really proud of how everybody participated and jumped in. And I tell people this isn’t the new normal, kind of every day. It’s really the current normal because it changes every day. So that’s how we view it.

SSR: Every single day it changes it feels like.

JL: Yes, that’s right. Yeah totally.

SSR: How has your project load been? Have you had a lot go on hold? What have you seen in terms of what you were working on and what was in the pipeline?

JL: The pipeline like everybody was affected. I’d say, oh 15 percent of projects went on pause. We had a couple stop and were told we were going to look at it again in 2021, but the rest are ongoing. When they went on pause, they said, ‘Oh we think 90 days.’ The best one I heard was, ‘We’re going on a pregnant pause,’ whatever that means. But our new construction projects are the ones that are moving ahead.

SSR: That’s good.

JL: And so, we’re very, very fortunate in that regard. I think one of the things that developers, owners are looking to do—a good deal is a good deal, or a good project is a good project. So we’re working very, very hard to do documents to support the deal whether it’s the loan or aspects of making the deal work. So that puts us in a mode that’s doing things very, very quickly.

SSR: So, let’s get back to you a little bit. Did you always know growing up that you wanted to be a designer? Were you always creative from the get go? And tell us a little bit about where you grew up as well as you share that info.

JL: Yeah. I loved to draw, even as a little boy, I loved to draw. And I loved to draw cars. So, when people asked me when I was a kid, ‘What do you want to do?’ I said, ‘I want to be a car designer.’ And even now I’m a total gear head. I’m a Porsche enthusiast, I still love cars and still like to draw. So it’s all continued. I’m from Memphis. I had that creative spark even as a little kid. I really enjoyed that. So all things come back around. I knew I was creative in some sort of way.

SSR: Were your parents in the creative business or did they give you any sort of inspiration?

JL: My mom was very artistic. My aunt taught art lessons. So, I guess I got it that way. But I got to architecture late. I was finishing a previous degree with majors in history and English and just through a set of circumstances, I lived across the street from an architect’s office. So, I got to know him, it was a small practice. He would let me walk in and see what he was doing. And I thought, ‘Hmm. I really like this stuff. I think I can do it. I think I can do this.’ So again, got to know him, got to see it.

Having met him, it was interesting. It dispelled a couple of notions that I had about being an architect. And one was I thought you had to draw like Michelangelo. I thought that’s what you had to be able to do. Then I thought you had to be a math whiz because people said, ‘Oh, if you go into architecture, you got to be really good in math.’ But that’s not true. I’m not great at math. But, so that’s what led me actually into architecture. So architecture became, it was another degree. So I got to it a little bit late. Those folks who say, ‘Oh, I knew I wanted to be an architect when I was a kid.’ Yeah. That’s one thing, but mine was a little bit later.

SSR: And what about hospitality? Did you guys take any trips as a family? Or do you have any early memories of travel?

JL: We would go every summer. We’d travel to New Orleans and my mother loved antiques, loved beautiful things so we would travel for summer vacations and we’d always most every year, we’d end up in New Orleans. And she loved to tour those old houses, even along the way along the Mississippi River and those beautiful old houses. So, there I was tagging along, looking, and I guess along the away, all that sank in. I must have absorbed something. But I was a history buff too. I liked architecture through the history lens as well: Why was that building the way it was. So, I got to it that way.

SSR: So, you did get an architecture degree from the University of Arkansas and then what did you do after? What was your first job after getting your degree?

JL: Yeah. I went to work for a traditional AE firm. It was a general practice. We did healthcare, multifamily—a little bit of everything. But the big turning point was when I met Trisha Wilson through a classmate. I came to Dallas for his wedding, and he was working for Trisha at the time. I met her and six weeks later I was living in Dallas and working for Trisha. So that was my big intro to hospitality design. And I think I was the 15th person in the firm at the time. So it was exciting. It was super exciting.

SSR: So, what was it like working with Trisha? I mean she’s such a pioneer in this industry and I feel like has done a lot for hospitality in general. What was it like working with her and what kind of projects were you working on in the beginnings?

JL: I think the first project I worked on there was for Ritz Carlton and a Marriott project. Those are the ones I recall. But it was super great working with her. Those were exciting times because we all felt like we were on the cusp of something. And we were.

SSR: How long were you there with her?

JL: I was there eight years.

SSR: So good amount of time.

JL: Yeah. It was. At looking back, Stacy, I feel like I had a front row seat to the hospitality industry as we know it now. We could all sense there was something. The industry as we know it, hospitality design, was developing into what it is now. All those early pioneers: Michael Bedner, Trisha, and others, really paved the way for all of us. And I knew it.

SSR: Where did you go next? Or was that when you decided to launch Looney & Associates?

JL: I formed a partnership with a couple of guys. One of them was a classmate in architecture school. They did interiors, and I was always interested in interiors. And my portion was hospitality. Then after a little bit, bought my portion out and launched my firm.

SSR: Oh wow. What year was that?

JL: That was 1995. And so, 2020 is our 25th anniversary.

SSR: Oh wow. That’s amazing. Congratulations. You made it.

JL: Thank you. Thank you. No. Yeah, what a year to celebrate.

SSR: Yeah exactly. While under quarantine. Perfect time.

JL: Right. Right. Yeah. Totally. Totally.

SSR: I mean opening your own firm is not an easy feat. What gave you that courage, that drive, that whatever you call it to go out on your own and start something new?

JL: I felt like I could do that when I got to the point where I thought I could make rain. When I thought I could do it on my own, where I wasn’t representing a larger company or a group of people that I could get a project based on my own ability and being me, being Jim Looney. So that’s when I thought I could make the leap. That was really the tipping point for me. And it was a realization over time. I felt like people trusted me, I could develop relationships, and so I took it to the next step.

SSR: And is there anything looking back that you wish you had known then that you know now? I mean I’m sure there’s one or two.

JL: Looking back, nothing really stands out. I think there are always challenges. You need to make sure have all your bases covered, the financial side, the business side, the legal side. But I didn’t view it as daunting because I’ve always been the type to if I didn’t know something, I’d go get someone who knew more than me. Go get an expert. And I was fortunate to have people around me I could call on. But I’d say more than challenging, it was exciting. I was always looking ahead. So, what I was doing was really exciting. It was new. I’d been in the business, but setting up an office was new and there were some things you don’t expect like our first office we wanted to move in, we had a time, and it wasn’t ready. So I had to find space. We found some desk in an architect’s office and camped out there for a few months, then moved in the office. All three of us.

SSR: So, is that how you started? So, did you start with just a couple people and grew from there?

JL: Yeah. Yeah. Started with a couple of people, grew from there. We’re 50 now. So, it’s different, obviously and you learn things along the way. It was just a couple of people. I never wanted to compete with Trisha or follow her around as she did her projects. I really wanted my own clients. That was very, very important to me. And the way I did that was I did renovations because with renovations there are more instant gratification, cashflow is quicker. Somebody was more likely to give little old me a renovation versus a brand new big project that I’d been used to working on when I was at Trisha’s office. So that’s how I got into it. But those were exciting. I like winning those projects on my own merit.

SSR: Was there something that you learned working with Trisha that helped you throughout your career?

JL: She was always very open. There wasn’t competition per se. She valued what we brought to the table. Those were the days when hospitality design was kind of a mashup of residential designers and architects. Now we have hospitality programs. Your education can be very focused in hospitality. But at the time, it wasn’t. So, she valued what architects could bring to the table, and I think that really advanced what she was doing. So, we were always valued and given opportunities to express ourselves.

SSR: And so, being a trained architect, and you said that you always liked interiors, how did you transition? going into interior sometimes seems daunting or different, or just not the same trajectory. How did you transition and start to merge the two? And how has having architecture as a background helped you?

JL: I’ll say this. Being an architect defines me. I love being an architect. No doubt about it. I’m very proud of that—very enthusiastic. I’m an AIA member licensed in, I think, nine states now. So I love that aspect. But like I said when I started in a traditional architecture firm, the interior parts of our projects were, ‘Who wants to do that?’ So, I always volunteered. I liked it. I thought I had a good eye. I didn’t mind putting all that together, that kind of detail. So, my interest grew and then when the opportunity came to join Trisha’s firm, I thought, ‘Well this is ideal. I get to do both.’ And I can tell you I would never go back to do traditional architecture. I love interiors. I absolutely love it. So I wouldn’t go back. I value being an architect but I found that interior design, especially hospitality interior suits me.

SSR: And what is it that you love about hospitality so much?

JL: It’s a people business is what I like about it. And it’s more than a commodity. I’ve done a lot of different things through my career. I’ve done retail, I’ve done commercial, and cube farming is not my thing. And some of those projects are short, like the retail space. Even some restaurants have short durations because you’re doing TI or tenant improvement. So the project may last 90 days and then it’s on to the next thing. What I really love about what we do is just it’s relationship-based and it lasts longer and it’s more meaningful. It’s much more meaningful to me.

SSR: What’s your favorite part of the process? Is it the beginning? Is it seeing it come to life? Is it a little bit of all of it? And how do you work at Looney? What’s your process like for each project?

JL: The beginning is my favorite part. And I always begin the process, I tell everybody, to listen to the music behind the words because when we get into a project, I want to understand what our client, what the brand, what’s really back there that’s driving things? Because for some people, especially in the hospitality world, some things are passion plays. Especially I’ve seen in the last five or six years, people say ‘Oh, I want to do hotel. I haven’t done one. I want to do one.’ And then some people it’s purely a business deal. It’s a real estate transaction. It’s all about that. And even when you’re listening to what people are talking about, and when they make decisions, you offer suggestion. And they make a decision. Is it because of the budget that they did that? Is it because purely design? Is it something that kind of fanned their ego?

So that part of it, I’m fascinated by. And then as we move through the project, I’m always replaying that in my mind. And then all of us, in our business for designers, when you see a project come to fruition, that’s really the payoff. That’s really the payoff. All the heartache sometimes you endure, you may be disappointed along the way, but at the end, there’s still delight and seeing it there. You did that. You helped.

SSR: You’ve worked with so many different brands, Hilton, Hyatt, Marriott, Lowes. How have you kept these relationships over the years? What do you think is the secret to a successful collaboration between both the brand and the ownership group and sometimes the management group because there are many levels to each project?

JL: I think I’ve learned balance. A lot of those brands owned real estate when I first started. And now it’s a different story. So everybody comes at it with a different point of view, our ownership groups, brands, management groups. So I’m a good consensus maker. I listen to everybody, I can negotiate people’s wishes. I think working with the brands has taught me balance. The other thing too is brands have a mission. It’s not arbitrary what they’re saying or what they’re requesting because behind all of the things that we’re asked to do as designers is to interpret those things, bring them to fruition and satisfy a lot of people. So I’ve really learned a lot about just balancing. Balance.

SSR: You wouldn’t look at a project and be, ‘Oh, that’s a Looney project,’ in a good way. Don’t take that the wrong way.

JL: Yeah. I get it. That’s a compliment.

SSR: Okay, good. When you said you started the firm that you wanted to have your spin, your touch. Do you think there is a Looney touch or aesthetic?

JL: I think there is a thread, Stacy, and I’ve been told that. If you look at our portfolio, some of what informs our portfolio is the brands we work for, the clients we have. But I’d say our overlay here at Looney & Associates is there’s a timelessness. I’m really proud of how our projects have held up—the shelf life they’ve had over the years. And we’re aware of trends and you and your group keep us well aware of things. We rely on you a lot frankly.

SSR: Thanks. Thank you.

JL: We really appreciate it. We’re looking at all kinds of things but you really bring it to us. But I say that overlay of quality. I never want that to fall through the crack, no matter what the budget may be or what the bumpers are for the project. I’d say that above everything. And I think our work is fairly, I don’t know, it’s put together.

SSR: And was there one project that you would say was your big break when you were first starting out that really helped launch you and helped you grow to where you are today?

JL: I started the firm in ‘95, and in ‘97, we interviewed for the Westin Riverwalk hotels right there on the river walk in San Antonio. And a new hotel had not been built there in probably 20 years. So, this was 476 room, I still remember the roomcount. And that was a big win. Like I said, I started doing renovations. Who would hire little old me? And then we were awarded this brand-new ground-up hotel. So, to me that was a huge milestone, and it opened, I think at December of ‘99. Still there, it still looks great. And so yeah. I would consider that the big break.

SSR: Yeah. And what project recently opened that you’re really proud of or one that’s almost about to open—well, hopefully, fingers crossed—that you’re specifically proud of?

JL: The Lowe’ Kansas City was due to open April 2nd and grand opening will be coming. I’d say the most recent one is Central Station Memphis. And that’s a 117-room boutique hotel, and a 100-year-old train station in South Memphis. And I love that hotel. It was a ton of fun to work on and that’s where I’m from.

SSR: It’s nice to go home.

JL: Yeah. Totally. Totally. But there are a lot of aspects of that hotel that I’m crazy about. And it was a bit different. You probably know us from large hotels. This was smaller. And we’re doing four Curios now. This is in the Curio Collection. So it increased our bandwidth in that regard, design bandwidth. So I was proud of that, proud of what we did.

SSR: Speaking of bandwidth, how do you manage your offices—your main office and then your other two offices? And how do you encourage designers to continue to evolve and grow and think differently?

JL: Like I said, going from three to 50 is different. And I think in the life of every firm, there’s always a tipping point when you reach a certain level and you think, ‘Wow. We did pretty good. But we’re going to need some help as we go forward.’ So, over the past year and a half, we created a really terrific ELT, Executive Leadership Team, internally. And they do a great job of taking on issues, whether it’s dealing with design, management, technical aspects. So that allows me a little bit more freedom to interact with all of our offices. Each office has a managing director. So, we have a structure in place that does that. But I’m still hands on. People know me as still very personal. Then when I come into the office every day, I always make sure I walk around and say hello, speak to everybody. So, there’s a personal presence always with me.

I’m really passionate about young designers. And so, I want them to grow and learn and here’s a good example. When we get a new platform, a new design platform or program, we give it to the youngest people in the office, and their job is to push it up. On the flip, our experienced designers—and we have a lot of experienced designers—their job is to push their experience down. So, everyone gets a chance or gets a role in how the process works. And the other thing, too, even though we have three offices, different locations, our culture is the same. It’s the same all the way across. And I love that.

SSR: What has changed about your leadership style or your management style since you started in 1995? What have you learned in the last 25 years just in terms of managing your team and helping to really create a culture?

JL: Probably the main thing is we have a helping ethos that is super important to me. I tell everyone in the firm, my job is to help you be successful whether that’s finishing a set of drawings, helping finish a design, helping get through a difficult decision, or help make a decision. And then we help each other and then we help our clients realize their vision, dream, goal. So that’s been a constant all the way through, and I think it’s really enabled us to work across different offices with multiple folks, different locations. That thread is always stitched through. And, then just structurally, I’m now the CEO. the Executive Leadership Team handles more things on an operations basis, which allows me to get involved on a personal level when I need to. So that part hasn’t changed. But just structurally when you have more people, you have to put things in place.

SSR: You need a little more process and strategy.

JL: And we have a strategy consultant too.

SSR: Oh, that’s nice. How’s that helped?

JL: She’s been super great. She helps us make decisions objectively. I’ll say that. Our CFO, I always ask, ‘Okay. We’ve got a decision to make. Can you help me put this in black and white? What do the numbers look like? What does, oh, a payoff look like for this? How does that work?’ So that helps me make a decision and make it less subjective. A lot of decisions are emotional. But it helps me make it more of an objective decision.

SSR: So, I think that’s really interesting. I feel like sometimes creatives also need to learn the business of design. Was that something that was recommended to you? Or how did that come about and what else have you done to kind of learn how to be a businessperson? Because that is part of this journey too.

JL: You don’t find those under the same roof a lot of times, design business. As I mentioned earlier, starting this business really came from relationships and helping people and putting in practice what I thought I could do. But I was really fortunate. My wife is a psychotherapist. And so it’s always good for people to have somebody like that, and I had a financial therapist when I first started. He really took an interest in me. He wasn’t in my business. He was a CPA. And so he helped guide me and helped me create lights on the dashboard. When I look at something from a business standpoint, what are the lights on the dashboard I need to be looking at? So I was just so fortunate. And so we kept that going all the way through. And I may not understand what the light means, but if I see it blinking then I can go back to the expert. Say, ‘What’s wrong here?’ So that’s been very, very helpful.

SSR: Yes. I think that’s great advice for anyone. What has been the biggest challenge during these times and how do you compare this to other downturns that you’ve weathered?

JL: And I’ve been in the business long enough to have seen 9/11, ‘08, and here we are now. And when you look back about every 10 years on average, a disruptor happens. You don’t see it coming. They all took us by surprise. And ’01 was it refocused us on security. So good things came out of that. The way front desks are designed, the way entries are designed, better lighting, we felt safer traveling, especially I think female guests felt safer through all that.

2008 was another roadblock that happened. That was something that we probably all didn’t understand what was behind the financial meltdown that went behind it. We all felt the effects, but coming out of that, what we as designers became, especially here, we became really good at understanding budgets and creating budgets, and understanding the financial side of things because that’s what owners and developers were looking at. We also saw the rise of brands getting bigger and bigger. Some brands going away. There were more and more accountants and business types showing up at model rooms for instance. It used to be a couple of people and now there’s 20. And the people who are taking notes are not just design folks, they’re again, our accountants and business folks are listening to that side of it. I think we’ve all become really good at that. And now here we are. So there’s a little bit of both here. I heard somebody say, ‘We’re learning to build a plane while we’re flying it.’

So that’s what we’re doing now. And it’s like racing, car racing. It’s just important to know when to put on the brakes as when to accelerate. So that’s what we’re looking at today. So, having gone through a couple of these, I think as we come out, experience will count. And I think the people who will get back into hospitality or get back into hotel deals will be those who have experience. I really enjoy working with first time hotel developers and owners. I just love our business so much that I don’t think we’ll see fewer of those of right off the bat, but we’ll see. But we’re all in it together that’s what I like.

SSR: I think that’s been the best part, is how much the industry has come together and people have had that time to remake connections and look out for each other.

JL: I have to say this too. And I’m not just saying this. You guys have been the glue for all of us. You’ve really, again stitched this together, and we really appreciate it. We really do.

SSR: Thank you. This is not a paid advertisement.

JL: It’s totally unsolicited. This is truly from the heart.

SSR: No. I appreciate it because we’ve been trying and our team has been working tirelessly, so I appreciate that very much. Trisha must have been a mentor but have there been other mentors along the way or other people that you’ve learned from or watched from, either a close relationship or just someone from afar?
Trisha was doing a lot of things. But there was an architect when I first joined named Jim Rimelspach. And he took me under his wing and I really learned a lot from Jim. He taught me so many valuable lessons. And then, I’m observant, and I’ve enjoyed talking to our peers, get togethers that you all sponsored and others. I really enjoyed that. There have been people. I’ve been super fortunate. Again, my financial therapist, people who I admire from a design standpoint. That’s one reason I’ve stayed in very close contact with the Fay Jones School of Architecture there in Arkansas, is I want to give back. I really, really want to give back. And I do it here too. I feel like as a leader, my job is to pass on those skills and leadership to others. So, yeah. There’s been people along the way and they may not know it but I’ve watched them.

SSR: And you also have a scholarship fund, don’t you?

JL: I do. And I don’t know if you knew this or not, but Hospitality Design magazine had a lot to do with that. When I was inducted in Platinum Circle, the firm wanted to get me a memento or something. Maybe it was a plaque. I don’t know. But they wanted to give me something—a gift. And I’m really hard to shop for. My wife will tell you that. I’m terrible. But, our librarian said, ‘Well why don’t we do a scholarship? Maybe we can start one.’ So, they contacted the school and when I was inducted there on the stage, or when it was being announced, Michael Adams announced it. I had no idea that they had done that. I was tearful. And so it was just so moving. And so I didn’t know this, but when you create a scholarship like this, you can at least at the Fay Jones School, you can direct it any way you want to. So I applied it to the study abroad program that they have because hospitality is such a global industry that I think it’s important for these kids to have a worldview. You just have to have it. And their study abroad program is really good, but they still have to find the financial means for that. So that’s where I directed it and I’m so glad I did that. And it keeps me connected. Keeps me connected.

SSR: Oh, I’m sure. Because I mean the one thing that I love is that you’re helping to build this industry as you continue to build your firm, you’re also building the next generation, which is amazing.

JL: Well I get a lot out of that. We’ve done a lot. Again, it’s connected us back to the school. Now the interior design program is part of the School of Architecture. So, it’s the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design, and we’re at career day every year. I’ve actually, I’m one of five graduates here in the firm. So that’s pretty direct support.

SSR: Right. Yeah. You’re hiring them which is good.

JL: We’re hiring. And our graduates have been able to go back—and I’ve done it, too—to be on juries, be advisors, we’ve sent projects to them to use as school projects and I’ve been super proud of that which is fun.

SSR: So, we always end this podcast with the question that is the title of the podcast. And that is, What I’ve Learned. What do you think has been or is your greatest lesson learned or lessons plural if you have more than one?

JL: Well, I think, be nice, I think that’s a good one. Give more energy to the solution and not the problem. I think that’s very, very important. And it’s harder to build consensus than to take sides. So listen to everybody’s point of view. I think that’s very, very important. But I think those are some of the main ones. I always look for relationships and not just projects. That’s been key. And there’s something framed in my office, Stacy, that I’ve always liked, and somebody here framed it for me. And it’s from To Kill a Mockingbird when Atticus Finch tells Scout, and I can just see Gregory Peck saying this. He said, ‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside his skin and walk around in it.’ So that’s been key for me, is understanding other people.

SSR: Yeah. I think that’s so important, especially in today’s crazy world too. I feel like that is even more important than it was, say, two months ago.

JL: And there are a lot of things on people’s minds. And if you can understand that, and again, help people, that’s key. That’s key.

SSR: Well, Jim, I feel like this is a perfect place to stop. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today as always. I love catching up with you.

JL: Same here. Again, you’re part of that glue that holds this together. And really appreciate it. We’re crazy about you.

SSR: Oh. Well we’re crazy about you. So, thank you so much. Stay safe, stay well, and hope to see you in real life soon.

JL: Hope so too. Thanks.

SSR: Thanks, Jim.