Sitting Down With Ken Relethford of Orness Design Group

We had the pleasure of speaking with Ken Relethford, Vice President at Orness Design Group, to learn more about the history of this West Coast powerhouse and why they trust Arctic for all of their cooling needs.

Ken, please briefly tell us about the Orness story, how the organization came to be, and your journey to becoming the VP.

I met George Orness, my business partner, back in the early nineties. I was a fabricator doing custom metal fabrication. He was working at San Diego Restaurant Supply, doing consulting design services, and I was one of his favorite fabricators in the field. We did a lot of business and industry work, as well as some restaurant work together in the late nineties. George later approached me for a position of someone that was retiring at the firm and thought I’d be a good candidate to come in and do contract design and contract sales. I had the fabrication of building the kitchen equipment, including building hoods, installing it, fabricating, and estimating it. On top of that, I was also a real estate salesperson part time, so I had some sales knowledge. I ended up working with George for five years. He was turning 60 in 2005 and when he put his notice in, he said he wanted to start his own firm. I could’ve stayed there and had a major role in the company or I could join up with him. I put my notice in the following week and in April 2005, we opened Orness design group.

It was a very hectic couple of weeks there, yet I knew I could leverage some equity in the house to start a fund for the company. Thank goodness, no one told us 2008 was going to be a recession that we hadn’t seen in many years, or else I might not have made that decision. Not knowing sometimes is a blessing in and of itself. So it started with just George and myself, we hired an office administrator, Deniz Hom, who worked with us for many years. We also hired Zoya Van Every, who was our bookkeeper. At first we were working in George’s rec room, mainly out of our Tahoe’s and hiring some drafters. I looked at his business plan and it had us being profitable in three years. I said, “Well, if we can make it last for three years and not be profitable, I think we can do better”. We opened our office in San Diego a few months after our start up. We furnished it, hired some full time drafting support and the work started coming in. We didn’t make any money that first year, but we made money every year after that. We became profitable our full first year in business and have been since.  George had been working 25 years in the local industry and had great architectural contacts. I had built some good architect contacts, interior design contacts, operators, contractors, and chefs. We had built a pretty good rapport and were surprised that after we left, how many followed us and came to us for service. We expanded our office the next year and have 11 employees and a small warehouse. We provide complete design services and that’s what we focus on. We zero in on the design aspect of the project first, and then we work towards selective design-build projects. We’re designing 50 to 60 projects a year and we’re building out about 20 to 25 projects a year.

Crack Shack, Little Italy San Diego, Fried Chicken and Craft Cocktails

There is much talk in regards to the economy and consumer sentiment is being affected.  What are your thoughts around customer communications and how to succeed should things slow down? Do you feel any product lines may benefit from a resettling in the economy?

Well, in regard to George and I, our personalities are very different. I’m a little more outgoing, and he’s a little more quiet. However, we have a very common ground of how we want to treat our employees, and how we spend our company money. In 2008, we’d only been in business for three years, the recession did not hit us by surprise. I mentioned earlier that I was in real estate for many years. I saw the bubble and said, this is going to hit the fan and we knew that a year before it happened. We focused on schoolwork and government work, knowing that the private work might be shut down. We took over for Bob Jones, a local school designer here at the end of 2007. We turned that into a great business of doing school work and government work. We focused on the design, we did not get into low bid competition. We saw a lot of companies giving away projects just to get work on the board. We did not do that! It really took us a year to build up our pipeline again. 2009 and 2010 were harder than 2008, but our profit rating stayed the same. We brought our design fees up, we brought our construction sales down and this gave us time also to help build our reputation. Similar to today, where COVID has been a bit of a surprise; you typically don’t expect a pandemic to show up and change the way economics work. Thankfully, we adapted very quickly to that. We set up our designers at home with their full large computer systems and made sure they could work remotely. We were designated as an essential business to stay open due to the construction of some food and housing projects we had going on. Working with half a dozen different general contractors that have many different ideas on what safety protocol was for COVID was a full-time job just keeping up on the logistics. We battled through it and actually 2020 was one of our biggest years. We had a lot of work going on and just had to figure out ways to get the work done and stay viable.

Marriott Marquis Marina, San Diego CA

How do you see the walk-in market specifically from a strategic approach- price, quality, technical features, etc. What makes the sale go?

We promote walk-ins and remote refrigeration a lot. I’m usually telling the client the value of having a remote, refrigerated, enclosed box that has floor to ceiling storage versus multiple reach-ins. Large central warehouse freezers are also part of our scope of work and there’s a lot in structural engineering design that has to be done on the walk-in. What used to be a very easy item to install, has now become quite a plan check issue for us to work with. We have to work with structural engineers, we have to work with the reports from the walk-in company on the type of construction the building is. It has become a lot more complicated, which again makes our service a value. When our drafters and designers complain about all the codes and the technicalities of installation of hoods or walk-ins. I tell them that’s why we are hired as the experts and It’s the knowledge that people are coming to us for. We have worked on some large warehouse cooler/freezer projects of 15,000 square foot that are structurally rack supported and have the highest technology of refrigeration systems and controls. We’ve done pass throughs with Arctic where it goes from a blast chiller into a cooler. We’ll jog (engineer) around a column. We’ll stay two inches off the wall, not six. Drop a ceiling for an obstruction instead of lowering the entire walk in. We know the client pays high rents for their space and every foot is valuable space for a successful operation, and so that’s kind of our theory on walk-in coolers and how we specify them.

Morning Glory, Little Italy San Diego, Breakfast and Cocktails

Working with Bruce Podgur at Arctic, what are your thoughts on how Arctic meets the demand of the customers and partners? Is there anything we could be doing better day to day? The Arctic product is constantly evolving with continued R & D and our commitment to becoming a Thought Leader. How can Arctic make the most of this?

When we first started up, Duracold (now Arctic) became quite a business partner with us. When we needed credit ratings and reports filed to say that we were a viable company, they would vouch for us. Arctic bought Duracold and had to prove it to us that they were a business partner and they’ve definitely shown that! I can’t tell you how nice it is to work with Bruce and how quickly he can turn plans and drawings around. Especially in the food service industry, there are always issues on a project. It might not be the walk-in, it might be something else, but there’s always issues with equipment, damage, and shipments. It is how you respond to those issues and how you correct them that really secures your client base and your referral business, and we live on the referral business. Partnering up with Arctic gets us drawings timely, gets us shipments when we order it in a timely manner. It’s been a seamless transition going from Duracold to Arctic, and actually it’s improved! Just today I sent Bruce a plan this morning to rush through because we had just done a little mark up of replacing a large combination box. Within the exchange of three or four emails on specs for it, we’re now getting a drawing next week or earlier. Response time like that is so important as we have all struggled with the lead times. There have been opportunities to switch boxes at times, other manufacturers promising shorter lead times. We may have done that once or twice, and it has NEVER worked out well. We stay with Arctic because they are honest and provide realistic lead times and wonderful customer service. Someone trying to get your business might mislead you, and the last thing we will do is make a promise to our client we cannot keep. We appreciate that Arctic is always upfront and always striving with us to put our / their customers first.

Alila Marea Beach Resort, Encinitas CA

Please tell us about the Orness three-year plan. Are there any exciting events coming up in 2023 for Orness?

If anybody out there is a design consultant that wants to join a great team, we’ve got openings!  We have a great team here at Orness and we have had long term employees that have moved up into the design field from project managers. Neil Herness has been with us for a long time. No relationship to George Orness. There’s a different spelling in the last name, but I know Bruce has worked with Neil a lot and he’s going to be taking a lot of George’s jobs over. Bret Hartung, our spec writer, estimator, and purchaser, has seamlessly taken over Denz Hom’s responsibilities of purchasing. He’s definitely taken a much larger role since he got here. We are going to continue to hire some help and promote from within in 2023. We’re here already, right? Geez. You know, in 2008, I knew what was happening and now In 2023, I’m still a little confused. The bumping up of interest rates should have been done a year or two earlier, there was way too much money out there. Inflation was running rampant and luckily they slowed that down, however it led to supply chain issues, which led to huge price increases. We might have had a little recession last year; I definitely think we did. We’re busy doing a lot of business in the lab space market which is huge in Southern California and San Diego. Buildings that are no longer needed for the typical employee who can work remotely are being turned into lab spaces with beautiful amenities. The university work is continuing on as well and there is a lot of renovation and a lot of new projects. The hospitality industry suffered really bad and it is now coming back. We’re seeing hotel construction continue and renovations also expand. I like to do private restaurants and I’ve done some of the coolest spaces in San Diego, including a Michelin star in Carlsbad and several fun projects with speakeasy hidden venues with Consortium Holdings. We have a few Federal design build projects that we are also working on. I became DBIA certified this last year in 2022, which was one of my goals. If you’re familiar with it;  they are a great organization that really promotes the design, build work that we thrive on. I went to my first conference in Vegas this last fall, and found all my architects, builders, and designers that I work with there, felt like home.

Please leave us with 30 words or less describing Orness? Mission statement, goals, pride for team, caring for customers, community, etc.? 

We’re going to continue to grow our business through word of mouth. Our phone rings, people want to use us!  We’ve been blessed, we simply do not have to advertise beyond our excellent reputation. The way we excel is by providing a top-notch service and providing intelligence in a project consistently and with value.  Engineers, architects, owners, and operators all lean on us for their most critical missions. Our mission statement says it all: “We believe in staying up to date on technologies, providing our clients the best service, and focusing on design that’s aesthetically pleasing, but also highly functional”.

That is what we focus on here and we do not compete in the interior design world. We work with great interior designers and we work with great architects. We are the support team for them. When we do a good job, it leads to more jobs and that’s what we’re blessed with. That is what made and will continue to make Orness successful!

Thanks for taking the time to sit down and chat with us, Ken. Orness Design Group is currently seeking a candidate for their Foodservice Consultant/Senior Designer position. For more information, please contact Ken Relethford for more information!