Kathy Ware is the driving force behind one of Nashville’s successful engineering firms, KS Ware & Associates (KSWA). A South Carolina native, Kathy attended Clemson University and moved to Nashville in 1992. She also had a front row seat as Music City has grown into the new “It City.” Her company was well positioned to take on unique environmental projects both locally and nationally. If you have driven around Nashville, across any bridges or construction sites, KS Ware & Associates may have been one of the leading firms on these large-scale projects. They help government, municipalities and other large enterprises manage their projects effectively, and one woman decided to take this journey into small business ownership almost 20 years ago. Learn more about how she created this multi-million dollar brand and her time at the Nashville Business Incubation Center (NBIC).
How did you initially launch your engineering firm?
I originally worked right out of college with a large engineering firm in Tampa and Jacksonville. Then, I was promoted to branch manager by that firm which brought me to Nashville. In February of 1997 I left; a little burned out, but thankful for the great opportunities given to me.
I thought I was going to stop for a while and focus on being a mommy to my 2 and 5 year-olds but that lasted about 3 days (as she laughs). I left in February and started KSWA in March. I decided to continue working with a mission to stay engaged in the engineering community while working with friends. I worked hard and was very blessed to have wonderful people around me. I wouldn’t say I had any great plans, I just wanted to continue to do what I knew how to do with friends and professionals peers.
Kathy, I love your humble spirit and endearing way you reference your clients as friends. Do you think this is what sets you a part from other firms?
Our business philosophy is simple, we are a small business that wants to enjoy what we do for a living and we want the people who hire us to feel it is a pleasant experience. We do that by establishing long-term relationships, not contractual ones. We believe integrity is essential, if we make a mistake we will fix it and make it right. Innovation is also key by providing new tools to save money on behalf of our client and help increase growth.
So, for the non-technical people reading this, how would you describe what KSWA does?
We provide geotechnical services on large environmental structures. Basically, everything you see around you is supported by soil or rock and our firm is responsible for handling projects that incorporate these types of earth materials. Our typical clients are leaders of government agencies and municipalities, as smaller companies are traditionally not building large water treatment plants.
Side note: think about those infamous highway and interstate projects you see while driving or those large building infrastructures popping up in Nashville. Now, you can put a face to the name of some of the people that make it all it happen. Our typical clients are leaders of government agencies and municipalities, as smaller companies are traditionally not building large water treatment plants.
Wow, these are some heavy hitting services you offer, who was your first client and how did you find them?
Our first client, was Metro Water Services in 1997, on the original overflow abatement program, the predecessor to Clean Water Nashville. We tested all of the plastic pipes being installed around the city in order to rehab below-ground piping and we helped to ensure quality control. Next year, will be 20 years old and Metro Water is still our client. Many of the people we started working with are still making decisions.
So, would your services be inline with some of the problems we see happening in Flint, MI?
There are many different aspects to piping systems. In the case of Flint, drinking-water piping was installed and lead leached into the water over time, which caused the water to be undrinkable. We do not work on the drinking-water supply side. We handle the sewer and storm water side of things.
You mentioned earlier that when you left your job, you were going to take time off for family. How did you learn to master the work/life balance?
It is a kind of an easy answer. My family is more important than my business. I have always put my children before my business. You can’t have it all or do it all, so you have to prioritize. You have to pick and choose what is most important to you. Are you going to get up on Sunday and go to church, or go into the office? Once you decide what you are going to do, you are going to take the other things off the list. I am not going to have my garden, go to the gym and take up photography. I think having it all is a fallacy. Working hard at what you prioritize is the game-changer.
What three things did you love about your NBIC experience?
- The inspiration of seeing other entrepreneurs: It was such a benefit and inspiring to see others in the NBIC program who are ahead of you and have figured it out. It is the hardest thing to start your own business, so when you can drive into the NBIC parking lot and see all of the other people there working and moving up is a true inspiration.
- The discipline of understanding the bookkeeping side: When I was working for someone else, I knew I was responsible for the P & L statement. However, it is different when it is your own business. You need to know where your money is going at all times. You can’t survive if you do not have a good bookkeeping system and NBIC helped me to get that in place.
- The relationships built: There are still people that I meet in the incubation center that I still keep up with. Darrell Freeman with Zycron, Ben Edwards with the Smart Card, and the list goes on. Life is really made of an accumulation of relationships over time. There were just a lot of really cool people and a diversity of industries at the center. The diversity of the industries that got started over at NBIC is amazing and they have a great come one, come all motto.
NBIC really allowed you to learn and figure things out without tremendous overhead. I hope other people will hear about NBIC because it is about survival, and figuring out the best way for you to stay in business.
Lastly, since your office is located in the midst of all the Nashville growth, tell us why you are loving Nashville right now?
Yes, so our office has been in the downtown Nashville area since 1997 and to look at the sky and see all the cranes, is pretty amazing. I think Nashville has improved (minus the traffic). The Nashville economy is quite diverse and becoming less dependent on healthcare. When my Mom recently visited, it was great to take her down to a live event at the Ryman. I think a lot of people want to be a part of the downtown vibe and we are committed to being in the downtown area…I think it is worth it.