Ask Samir Kulkarni, who has learned that lesson twice in life, first in the late 1990s in college, and again nearly a decade later when the first chapter of his professional life left him feeling unfulfilled and restless.
In college, he struggled at Rose Hulman University, eventually migrating to IUPUI when his imagination caught fire after a life-altering conversation with School of Science professor Ben Boukai. In 2002, he picked up his B.S. degree in mathematics, earned a master’s degree from the University of Cincinnati, and joined Cincinnati-based Proctor & Gamble (P&G) as an analyst. But just two short years later, Kulkarni heard his inner voice once more, this time calling him to follow a different path.
Once again, Kulkarni answered, returning to his family’s roots in real estate development and construction. He joined KCDG, the family-owned firm operating in both central Indiana and his new hometown of Cincinnati. In 2008, he took another big leap, spinning off KCDG’s construction wing and renaming it Solica Construction, Inc. And in two-plus years, Kulkarni carved out a niche in the highly competitive field of construction and development, eventually aided by his wife and partner, Ami.
Not exactly the life plan envisioned by a youngster of Indian heritage who “until age 4 wanted to be a Transformer,” followed by a desire to follow his father into medicine. “He looked me in the eye and told me he didn’t want me to become a doctor, and looking back now at my friends who have become doctors, he was most definitely right,” Kulkarni laughs. “Everyone has a calling in life, and I think I’ve found mine.”
Make a difference
For Kulkarni, Solica represents the opportunity to make a difference in his community. “Construction is the ability to affect the world in a tangible way,” he says. “Your client has an idea what he wants his business to be, and you want to build a home for that business. To be part of that from start to finish — knowing it could last for the next 100 years — that’s what I love!”
Solica is very much a family enterprise. Samir and Ami lead the construction side of the company, while his brother manages the development side. “I’m heavily involved in the construction operations while Ami’s skill set has strategically led our company’s growth. I execute within the box, while she grows it. She’s phenomenal!” Kulkarni exclaims.
For Ami Kulkarni, Solica’s success is as much about her husband’s passion as anything else. “Samir realized early on (in Solica) that it was the building process that brought him the greatest joy,” she says. For a man with little training in formal engineering or construction management, “it is amazing how much he has learned from being at (job) sites and teaching himself through books and the school of hard knocks.”
Though the entire Kulkarni clan is involved in Solica projects, Samir and Ami “try not to take work home with us,” he laughs, admitting that occasionally the two slip up. “It’s hard not to, because we breathe this business and love it.”
Solica focuses on public and private projects, most commercial or public-use by design. “We entertained the idea of doing residential construction, but we know what we’re good at, and we decided to focus on that,” Kulkarni says. “We’d have to be a totally different company to do that work, because residential and commercial construction are totally different animals.”
Samir considers his wife a big key to Solica’s success. “Ami was a mini-CEO at P&G, and as our company has morphed, she has taken on similar responsibilities,” he says. “One of the things that sets us apart is that business mentality,” a model that helped the Kulkarnis earn the 2010 Minority Business of the Year award from the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s fifth-largest such organization. “We wanted to do things right, and that’s given us client recommendations that have just blown my mind,” he says.
Ami believes part of her job is to brag a bit on Solica’s successes, which in she says reflect Samir’s “passion, intelligence and commitment to excellence.” When she joined the company 18 months after it launched April 1, 2008, she found plenty of ammunition to attract potential clients but a husband “too humble to boldly announce his success. Ambition and a loud mouth are two qualities that have always served me well, so I found it rewarding to start driving awareness of Solica,” she adds.
They have been influenced by his family’s long-standing management style. “We understand the long-term consequences of what we do,” Kulkarni says. “That definitely comes from a family background where honesty and humility are valued. For us, our perspective isn’t six months or a year — our timeline should be 10 years.”
Solica’s “modus operandi” has provided the company with quite a bit of repeat business, something that pleases Samir. But it also earned the Kulkarnis an exceptional opportunity: to be part of “The Banks,” a long-standing downtown redevelopment project that Cincinnati hopes will provide the heart of the riverfront city with the same energy and dynamic future that Indianapolis enjoyed.
The project “has been around for 70-some years in one form or another, but the forces didn’t align until recently to get things rolling,” Kulkarni says. A group of the city’s leading developers pooled their vision and assets to launch The Banks, and Solica was invited to be part of the package. To the Kulkarnis, it didn’t matter that their piece of the puzzle was parking garage signage, something “that doesn’t typically fall into our wheelhouse. The exciting part for us is that we were part of something greater, which is terrific!”
Kulkarni — who also co-owns several buildings — is so convinced that The Banks will be a hit that “our development group has started buying property in order to be part of the future growth of downtown Cincinnati,” he says.
Growth is very much on his mind. He has high hopes that Solica will be able to make its mark in a regional triangle linking Indianapolis with Columbus and Cincinnati in Ohio. “The family ties back in Indy, plus our work in Cincinnati and the possibilities in Columbus make that very appealing,” Kulkarni says. “Indianapolis is very receptive to small- and medium-sized businesses like ours; Cincinnati is a different ship altogether, with a lot of Fortune 500 companies based there. It would be a terrific mix for us.”
Solica has already made inroads into the higher education market. “We’ve worked with the University of Cincinnati, Wright State, Miami of Ohio, and we’d like to do projects with Dayton and Xavier this next year,” he says, then adds with a twinkle in his eye that “I’m hoping someday to do some work with IUPUI — that would be a wonderful opportunity to give back to a university that made such a difference in my life.”
Such projects tend to be unique and therefore interesting to the Science grad. “Projects like that keep me up at night,” he laughs, recalling one project that required Solica to remodel a facility without creating vibrations that might interfere with computer rooms and medical facilities above and below. “I love those complicated projects, the ones with scheduling or logistical complications. They’re what challenge me!”
Drive for success
Solica has made its mark on the next generation of Kulkarnis, too. “I love to drive around the city with my daughter Annika. She’s at an age (4½) where she knows what we do, and she’ll point to new buildings and ask if that is something we worked on,” Samir says. It doesn’t mean Annika is on track to join the family business, though. “She wants to be a large animal vet,” he chuckles. Her younger sister Amara “wants to be something new every day,” so Solica may yet have future Kulkarnis involved.
Kulkarni attributes his success to “my passion and drive for excellence. What pushes that are the complications on a job: when you challenge me, I will step up.” His wife offers different — and Kulkarni believes complementary — skills. “Ami has an ability to understand people, to meet somebody for the first time, and understand what they’re saying while they’re saying it.”
For her part, Ami believes Samir’s “fearlessness, independent thinking and love of leadership amongst chaos” will carry the company into the future. “Those are qualities that all great entrepreneurs have,” she says.
As important as they are in the business world, though, they are just as vital to the Kulkarnis’ marriage. “We get to see each other doing what we love and are great at,” Ami adds. “Samir has the ability to be the hero in every story I write, and I believe I have the same opportunity to be the heroine for him. Building Solica is just one more story; being parents is another. Falling in love was one, as well, and enduring the loss of his mother two years ago was the hardest one yet. But every story we ‘star’ in together brings us closer.”
Written by Ric Burrous. Featured in the 2011 IUPUI Alumni Magazine.