Mixing strategy and design, business and family

May 11, 2009
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A Myers-Briggs personality test has both a personal and a business application — a great example of Yang Kim and Kevin Budelmann's relationship.

For the husband and wife co-owners of the downtown Grand Rapids design firm People Design, the Myers-Briggs assessment turned out to be valuable.

"She gave me a Myers-Briggs test," said Budelmann. "That was one of the first things she did."

The two met while Kim was a senior and Budelmann a junior at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Kim provided some background on the Myers-Briggs by explaining that the design company she was interning with had given the entire office the test, assuming that all designers were of the same persona.

"Not necessarily so," said Kim. "Everyone was outgoing, free thinkers, not logical — and then I'm the total opposite."

While Kim and Budelmann's childhoods were very different, their personalities turned out to be "closer — you were closer," said Kim about Budelmann's test results when compared to other designers.

Kim was born in Korea and immigrated to the United States with her family in 1976 when she was 8 years old. Her family spent most of its time in the Washington, D.C., and northern Virginia area.

Budelmann grew up the son of a military man and a mother with a passion for horses.

"I was born in Kentucky and we moved all over the place before I was in first grade," said Budelmann. "For the most part, I grew up in upstate New York — way, way upstate, near Ottawa."

"Not the Catskills," added Kim. "People from New York City say 'upstate' and they mean a half an hour up north. Keep driving for like eight hours."

Both enrolled at Carnegie Mellon — Kim in 1987 and Budelmann in 1988 — with a strong understanding of what they wanted to study. Kim said that the school, typically known for engineering and sciences, used a track system that narrowed a student's field of study as they progressed. This made the education very specialized within each major.

Yang Kim and Kevin Budelmann
Company:
People Design
Position: Co-founders: Kim, vice-president and creative director; Budelmann, president.
Age: Kim, 40; Budelmann, 39
Birthplace: Kim, Korea; Budelmann, Kentucky
Residence: East Grand Rapids
Family/Personal: Married for eight years, with three children.
Community/Business Involvement: St. Cecilia and UICA boards (Kim); AIGA president, Design West Michigan advisory council (Budelmann).
Biggest Career Break: For Kim, it was her much-celebrated work with Herman Miller’s annual reports. For Budelmann: “I’m still waiting for one,” he said, but he considers his work for Herman Miller’s Web site as primary design lead a top experience.

For Kim and Budelmann, that was graphic design.

"I'm closer with a blue-collar background, so graphic design felt like a natural extension of that," said Kim, who grew up helping run her parent's upholstery store.

Budelmann explained: "We have a good friend who said this off-hand one day about design being a good mix between blue-collar and white-collar work. He said, 'It's the only profession I know where in the morning you can have a meeting with the CEO, and in the afternoon you're cutting things out with Exacto knives' — which is totally true," he laughed.

"I think that's what makes it fun is this element of strategy and business mixed with an element of making things."

In 1991, Kim graduated and took a summer job with a science center and Budelmann with a magazine, both in the Pittsburgh area. That fall, Budelmann headed back for his last year of college and Kim took an internship with Herman Miller.

"Herman Miller, at the time, had a one-year paid internship where they paid pennies," said Budelmann.

"They called it an internship, but it was really more of a project, because you've already graduated," said Kim.

The following year Kim was hired by Herman Miller and Budelmann received the internship spot she had vacated. At the end of his internship, the two found themselves at a crossroads with some difficult decisions to make.

"It was 1993, the economy was not doing well, Yang and I were an on-again, off-again type of thing. Yang hadn't planned to stay in Michigan — by any stretch. I didn't really plan on staying in Michigan, but Yang was here," said Budelmann, who meanwhile was plodding his way through the ever-treacherous first job hunt.

"I got a lot of good interviews in New York, but it was like 'Hey, if you move here, maybe we'll give you some freelance.'"

Someone at Herman Miller, knowing that he and Kim had a relationship, told Budelmann in confidence that if he was able to stick around, there might be a job for him in the future. Budelmann took a job at another local firm, Square One Design, but by 1994, he had taken a job at Herman Miller.

The two worked under Michael Barile, the new design manager who had been hired around the same time as Kim. Soon, the furniture industry went sky diving sans parachute, and Barile was laid off in 1995.

"Michael kind of persuaded us to start a firm with him," Budelmann said. "We loved Herman Miller …"

"… But it was a funny time," finished Kim.

"For a while, Yang and I worked for a new division of Herman Miller, then freelancing with Michael at night," said Budelmann. "We were just going haywire."

In the summer of 1996, Budelmann left Herman Miller to work with Barile full-time.

"It was kind of a 'We'll test this out,'" he said. "And so Yang kept her job."

The team of Budelmann and Barile worked out of a living room until January 1997, when Budelmann and Kim were convinced the business would pan out. Kim left Herman Miller and the three formed BBK Studios. By that spring, the three were out of the living room and into office space with employees.

BBK Studios started out in both traditional and "new media" — new meaning the Internet. During the time Kim and Budelmann were at Carnegie Mellon, the school was a testing site for a program that would eventually become the Internet. Their exposure to that technology put the group one step ahead of the competition.

Flash forward to 2003, when the couple bought out Barile and became co-owners of BBK Studios:

"Michael had two or three kids either in or headed to college — totally different time horizons as far as needs and interest in the business — and at some point that became more of an issue," said Budelmann.

"You can almost track these things around recessions. The business was down around Herman Miller, and we started this business. Things were going well for a while. Then things tanked again in 2001, and that puts a lot of pressure on a small business like ours."

Despite the bad economy and resulting pressure on BBK Studios, the couple put a positive spin on 2001 by getting married.

"We were aiming for that 2000 date, but that didn't work," said Kim. "It was really funny because when we would hire people, I would have an engagement ring on, but nobody knew I was engaged to Kevin.

"We had spent a long time having a professional and personal relationship and have tried to not let that get in the way, whether it's both of us working together in the same department at Herman Miller, or in this context where it's an employment situation. We don't want that to be weird for people."

Family was soon to follow. In 2003, the couple had their first child and their second was born in 2005. Their third was just born at the beginning of this month.

"It's a forced balance in your life. If it weren't for them, we'd probably be completely consumed with work," said Budelmann.

"You get a different perspective, too, as you move through your life-changing moments," said Kim. "I think you get different perspectives on how to solve this problem at work."

"Right now, they're both in a Montessori school," said Budelmann, referring to their older children. "What's interesting is a lot of the Montessori techniques about how you learn and grow and nurture people, I feel are completely transferable to our firm."

"I go to these classes and I think, 'This is great! I could use this at work!'"

It's not a surprise that the owners of a company so focused on people that they changed its name in 2007 to People Design are picking up learning techniques at a Montessori school.

With almost a decade of marriage behind them and even more years of working together, the couple continues to enjoy success both personally and professionally.

Maybe those personality tests are worth something after all.

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