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Creativity for Fun and Profit

Meet seven individuals whose work puts them in the center of the big playground of Alabama business.

Make Less A Lot More  >>  Andrew Freear

Andrew Freear apologizes for being late for an appointment. He was on a roof laying sheets of corrugated metal and would be back on the rooftop by 6 the next morning to beat the heat.

Here’s the director of a student design-build program that creates some of the most innovative and socially responsible architecture in the world laboring on a roof in the scorching Alabama sun.

“Students cannot get on the roof.” A simple explanation, but he seems to enjoy roofing and other construction tasks not for the faint-at-heart.

Few of us live a life of such contrasts. One day he’s drinking beer with the mayor of Newbern (population 186), discussing plans for a new volunteer fire station. On another, he’s accepting the Global Award for Sustainable Architecture in Paris. Then off to Barcelona to be honored by the World Architecture Foundation.

Under Freear’s leadership, Auburn University’s Rural Studio has collected an arm’s-length of prestigious international awards, and he has plenty of his own for excellence in teaching and architecture.

The 45-year-old Yorkshire, England native became the Rural Studio’s director in 2002. He previously practiced architecture in London and Chicago, where he taught at the University of Illinois.

Sure, he occasionally misses fine restaurants and other perks of city living. But a more-than-fair tradeoff is the immediacy of a rural community, where projects begin over a beer instead of red tape.

“We’re fortunate; there’s nothing to do here but work on good projects. The lack of resources becomes a design challenge. We’re making the world a better place for everyone. And we’re doing it right in the university’s backyard.” — Jessica Armstrong

All the Time, Inspiration Everywhere  >>  Ford Wiles

Inside the offices at Big Communications in downtown Birmingham, advertising executive Ford Wiles can be found writing, strategizing, attending meetings, or mulling over logos, videos or ad copy in what he calls “the exhaustive search for excellence.” His day may end at 8 p.m. or at 10 p.m., or at midnight or even later. Good ideas, he says, don’t always come between 8 and 5.

“I think that you have to be hungry,” says Wiles, on what it takes to succeed in advertising. “You’ve got to love this stuff. In advertising, if you don’t love your job, it will be the worst job ever, because you’re thinking about it and doing it all of the time. Long after you leave here, you’re thinking about it.”

Wiles, 39, is the chief creative director at Big Communications, the advertising agency whose clients have included the Westin Hotel in Birmingham, Alabama Seafood Commission, Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau and Royal Cup Coffee.

The agency developed the “Go Build Alabama” campaign, featuring the actor Mike Rowe, for the state’s construction industry. The spots received the “2011 Best of Show” prize at the 53rd ADDY Awards, which recognizes excellence in advertising, and Wiles was named “Creative Director of the Year.” Most recently, AdAge magazine named Big Communications as the “2013 Small Agency of the Year.”

The climb to the top has been a long journey for Wiles. A fine arts graduate from Jacksonville State University, he says his love for advertising came during an internship at rival agency O2 Ideas, in Birmingham. The experience of seeing how words and design could change perceptions is what attracted him to the profession, he says. He credits strong writing partners, brand strategists and others at the agency for teaching him the business.

During his 12 years at the agency, Wiles worked his way up to executive vice president and director of creative services. Then in 2008, he made the move to Big Communications, partnering with the firm’s founder, John Montgomery, and becoming the organization’s chief creative officer.

“It [Big] was a PR shop, but they were very creative,” says Wiles, “and I think that’s what I liked. Everybody in the building was creative. I tell my team that I want to come to work with people who inspire me, and hopefully, in return, I can inspire them.”

Inspiration can come from anywhere and anytime, Wiles says. “For me, it could be a walk in the grocery store. It could be something that I see on TV. It could be the Internet. When you’re in advertising, you have to look for inspiration everywhere.”

Among his favorite projects, he says, are rebranding campaigns for companies in need of a new image. One example is the series of ads the agency created to promote the state’s seafood industry, following the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. And Wiles says he was especially pleased when he got the chance recently to work with Jacksonville State University to help with its rebranding campaign.

“It’s fun to work on something that makes a difference where we live,” says Wiles. “When we’re actively changing perceptions about Alabama, I love that.” — Gail Allyn Short

Working with Reckless, Even Crazy  >>  Rich Sullivan

Rich Sullivan grew up in Mobile with “intensely smart” parents who pushed him to be himself, work hard and take risks, he says. The mild obsessive-compulsive disorder he inherited from his mother and the hyperactivity disorder he inherited from his father turned out to be gifts that would serve him well in his life’s work — the advertising business.

A good student who loved math and science, Sullivan was set on a path to attend medical school. When he opted out just before attending, it was “the best decision I ever made,” he says. Without a job or a plan, Sullivan convinced his father to let him work as the runner in his advertising agency, then known as Sullivan-St. Clair and now known as Red Square Agency. Four years later, he was running the company. Never static, Sullivan is now leading the agency into new specialities in casino gaming and digital space.

“People always think that I planned to enter advertising all along, but it was very reactionary and intended to be short term,” Sullivan says. “At first, it was a mixture of panic and desperation. Then I began studying advertising history and found that there was some intelligence in the category, and I wanted to try to add to that.”

Innately curious and easily amused, Sullivan says he finds most things interesting. Over the years, he has followed his curiosity to develop a highly respected, national advertising agency known for taking risks and trying new things. “I prefer to do things that people say cannot be done,” Sullivan says. “Until it works, it looks reckless or even crazy.”

“The world is unpredictable right now,” he says. “What has been safe and comfortable in business, particularly the advertising business, no longer works. So we’re now in the position of redefining things. This is our chance to write our own rules, and if that’s not fun, I’m not sure what is.” — Nancy Mann Jackson

The Secret Ingredient is Play  >>  Tom Norquist

Growing up in Oregon, Tom Norquist loved to climb Douglas Fir trees and “feel the natural sway from the wind from as high as six or seven stories.” Now his favorite play activity is zip lining. “I even have my very own tricked-out personal zip line,” said the 54-year-old Norquist, GameTime’s senior vice president of marketing, design and product development.

“Play” is one of Norquist’s favorite words, and he says he “began playing professionally” 30 years ago after graduating from Portland State University. He went to work for Columbia Cascade Co., where he spent 10 years learning the playground and site amenity industry. He has been with GameTime in Fort Payne for 20 years.

From his perspective, “The secret ingredient to creativity is play. Next time you are having a bad day, get up, go out and play. If you are stuck on solving a problem, get away from that focus and go expand your mind with a hike or run in nature and then come back to the problem with a playful mind and you will be amazed at how easy it is to solve that problem, or you may even create an entirely new approach to the solution. Be playful not just as a child but throughout your time, and you will live a much more fulfilling and creative life. Play On!”

Norquist was a founding board member in 1995 of the International Play Equipment Manufacturer’s Association (IPEMA), is a past president and treasurer and currently serves as secretary. Under his leadership, IPEMA formed its “Value of Play” outreach effort by building the voiceofplay.org website. — Charlie Ingram

Master Planning Alabama Landscapes  >>  Nimrod Long

Since opening his landscape architecture firm in 1978, Nimrod Long III and his team have helped transform some of the best-known public spaces in Alabama and the Southeast, from the Meadowbrook Corporate Park and Mountain Brook’s historic retail villages to Atlanta’s Peachtree Street.

Long, 62, is the president and founder of Nimrod Long and Associates, a Birmingham firm that specializes in landscape architecture, land planning and urban design. The company works with top developers, architects and contractors on projects for office parks, city centers, public parks, schools, universities and retail and residential developments. One of the firm’s latest projects will be to design landscaping for the new $30 million LIV Parkside apartments and retail center that will be built across from Railroad Park in Birmingham.

The seeds of Long’s passion for landscape architecture and urban planning were planted during his childhood. He grew up in the suburb of Mountain Brook, just outside of Birmingham. His father was a civil engineer. His mother operated an antique store and was an avid gardener who often took Long with her on walks in the woods to collect wildflowers, he says.

“On Sundays, sometimes dad and my mother and my sister and I would go dig up some hydrangeas or some ferns and transplant them in the yard,” he says. “Certainly my parents had an impact on my interest in design and helped develop my taste for furniture and architecture and city planning.”

Long earned a liberal arts degree from Washington and Lee University in 1973 and a master’s degree in landscape architecture from the University of Georgia in 1978. He soon landed a job with developer Hall Thompson, who was building the Shoal Creek Golf and Country Club in Shelby County.

“Fortunately, Thompson had some really experienced construction guys,” says Long. “So I had someone to talk to and figure out all these things. I was 27 or 28 at the time, and it jumpstarted my career and gave me, over that year and a half, probably 10 years of experience.”

Afterward, Long opened his landscape architecture firm with his wife, Nancy, who also was a landscape architect. Over time, the firm’s reputation grew.

Nimrod Long and Associates drew the master plan for the 175-acre Meadowbrook Corporate Park off U.S. 280, with its manicured grasses, two lakes and a walking trail. Long’s firm also won a competition to redesign Atlanta’s Peachtree Street in preparation for the 1996 Olympics. Long says such urban design projects are his favorite because of their potential to impact the most people.

“It’s gratifying to see how people move through the spaces and how they use them and how they react to the designs,” he says.

For the AmSouth Bank headquarters in Hoover, the firm designed walking trails, a waterfall, landscape planting and irrigation. The firm’s other projects have included the redesign of Linn Park in Birmingham and landscape development and design at locations such as The Galleria and The Summit retail venues, the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center and Vulcan Park.

Ideas for design spring from multiple places, he says. “I think my inspiration comes from our community. It comes from our state and its natural features, from travel and from experiences that I’ve had.”

After 35 years in business, Long says, “I think I’m most proud of just leaving a legacy of projects that have impacted how people live and perceive their community and quality of life.” — Gail Allyn Short

Food is Love: I Want That   >>  Tasia Malakasis

Growing up in Huntsville with a Southern grandmother and a Greek stepmother, Tasia Malakasis learned that “food is love,” she says. “When I went to visit my grandmother, she would have a pot of chicken and dumplings on the stove for me, not for anybody else, because she knew I loved them. That’s how I knew she loved me; she cooked for me.”

Those pots of chicken and dumplings gave her a love for good food and an appreciation for how it can be used to express emotions.

“I have always been passionate about food and its presence during joyful times, healing times, celebratory times and otherwise,” Malakasis says.

That passion for food led Malakasis to leave her Internet marketing job to learn more about the tasty goat cheese she discovered in a specialty grocery in Manhattan.

She calls her career path a happy accident. “I found Belle Chevre’s cheeses in New York, realized they were made in my home state and decided this was worth coming home for,” she says. Because Belle Chevre’s owner was ready to retire, Malakasis was able to purchase the Elkmont creamery in 2007, after spending six months learning the business.

Malakasis strives to keep her work “fresh, innovative and fun,” she says. Her latest project is a new creamery, which opened in October and represents Belle Chevre’s entrance into the agri-tourism industry.

“For years, people have requested to come and tour our facility and watch how cheese is made,” Malakasis says. “But we were never set up to do that.” Now she has added a retail cheese shop and tasting room, “so we can be hosts.”

Spoken like a true Southerner. — Nancy Mann Jackson

Out of Slapout, It’s All about the Journey  >>  David King

Among David King’s favorite songs, he is partial to Jason Aldean’s “On My Highway.”

“Sometimes you feel a song is about your life,” says King, 50, executive vice president of simulation and technology solutions at AEgis Technologies in Huntsville.

“This song speaks volumes to me. I’ve had some success in my life, but it never came easy. Determination to learn new things, never giving up or accepting failure easily have fueled many passions over the years.”

King, a self-described Army brat, spent much of his childhood on a farm in the tiny Alabama community of Slapout, after his father retired. After high school, he served in the Army for eight years, working on missile systems, after scoring well on an electronics aptitude test. King started his own business in 1995, starting with two employees and growing it to 67 in seven years, without any outside venture capital or investments. He eventually sold that business and joined AEgis Technologies three years later, in 2005.

Says AEgis President and CEO Steve Hill: “There are exceptional people out there who can learn anything, solve anything, and David is one of those guys.”

Hill estimates that 50 of the company’s leaders have taken a standardized test that measures their creativity. Of that group, “David was by far the most creative person in our company,” Hill says. “He was outside all of the bounds in the creativity circle.”

King loves all kinds of music, and he says there are times when music just takes over. He recalls driving home in his pickup truck one night when Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem” came on the radio.

“That song is all about getting off the main road and taking a dirt road, and I just happened to look off to the side, and there was a fallow cotton field there. The next thing I knew, I was driving around the edge of that field, throwing mud 20 feet into the air. Then I got stuck.

“Music speaks to us at times, and sometimes you just have to listen,” he says. “And sometimes you have to call a wrecker to pull you out of a muddy field.” — Charlie Ingram

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