Blueprint for Success: Architect goes her own way to grow her own business

You can hear Madeline Anz Slay coming down the hall. Office carpet can’t muffle the sound of a pair of determined heels in fast motion. “My husband says, ‘Madeline doesn’t walk, she marches,'” the 34-year-old architect says, as she swoops into a seat at the head of the table.

Those heels have marched a pretty straight route from cradle to conference room in her own firm, MAS Architecture. Slay all but grew up on construction sites. During childhood summers, she’d visit her father, G.W. Anz, owner of another self-named company that built a lot of houses in Terrell Hills and Olmos Park. When she was old enough, she worked for him — as a member of a demolition crew. “I’m not as prissy as I look,” she says, with a laugh.

Here’s how Slay looks: seriously cute, with a bobbed mane of coppery hair and the figure to wear an arm-baring pearl-colored shell with an above-the-knee purple skirt. Both pieces are ruler-straight, pencil-slim.

Put-together, yes. Prissy, no. For one thing, there’s her great, big, unabashedly delighted laugh — the antithesis of a girlish giggle. And then there’s nail polish: She’s not wearing any. “I meant to put some on before you got here,” she says, showing a visitor her bare, clipped nails, “but I never had time, and then it was too late.”

Slay is making good time on the big things, though, with career and personal life right on track. ”As long as I can remember, I wanted to be an architect,” she says. At Texas A&M University, she earned a degree in environmental design, became a rising star at a prominent San Antonio firm and left to start her own business. After three-and-a-half years, she had increased her staff from one (herself) to eight (including her mother and other seasoned professionals) and had a total of $20 million in construction projects under way. She’s married to engineer Michael Slay, with whom she shares office space and some of their high-tech design equipment.

Nobody’s perfect, though. For instance, these plain-vanilla quarters in a large Northwest San Antonio office park — they get the jobs done, but they don’t show off anybody’s creativity. “We’ve been meaning to do something to this place,” she says, “but we’re always too busy to get around to it.”

That’s a good thing. During her six years at Rehler Vaughn and Koone Inc. (RVK), Slay went from project architect to associate, working on a variety of projects, including some highly visible public buildings such as the Kendall County Courthouse, the New Braunfels Public Library and Coates Library at Trinity University. “It was a very well-rounded experience,” she says. “I got to work on all aspects of a project, and I got to learn from my mistakes.” As an added bonus, one of RVK’s principals introduced her to the man who became her husband. “We were friends for a long time before we dated,” she says.

She had been thinking of starting her own firm when her husband — already heading his own company — needed to expand his office space. Did she want part of it? The choice was difficult, she says: “Leaving RVK, a premier firm, to open my own business was a scary thing to do.”

She decided to make the move on Dec. 1, 2000, but not without doubts. “I had visions of arranging pencils,” she says.

Instead, her former employer hired her to complete projects she had been working on for RVK, an arrangement that kept her busy from the beginning. Slay, who remains 100-percent owner of her firm, had used personal savings to get started. “I did it with very little money,” she says, “and it helped a lot to have immediate income.”

The prospect of marketing her services, at least, held no terrors. At age 5, she says, she started her first small business, selling rocks she’d collected to her cousins from Lubbock. People are still buying, and she’s still aware of the importance of personal relationships. Slay’s projects after opening MAS Architecture have been a fairly even mix of residential, commercial and public buildings — for North Side and San Antonio school districts, a car dealership, the Garden Ridge Community Center and many high-end homes, from The Dominion to Hill Country ranches.

Among other jobs, she’s currently working on additions to the retail complex at The Vineyard, on Loop 1604 at Blanco Road. This variety is “totally an accident,” she says. Some of her clients are those she had worked with before; others were referred to her by contractors, and some are family friends. Her belief in the importance of personal relationships extends to her own workplace: She has hired her mother, Kathryn Anz, as office staff, to draw on her decades of experience with G.W. Anz Construction Co., and enticed a retired residential client to come back to work as a project manager.

One of her most important relationships, of course, is with her officemate/husband.  Although they occasionally work on projects together, their businesses are separate-but-equal, which keeps their shop talk interesting. At home, she says, “We talk about work all the time.” As small-business owners who are principals of their own firms, at this point, she says, “Your whole life is your work.” Given the Slays’ complementary careers, they don’t mind bringing the office home. “I wouldn’t want to be married to anyone who wasn’t an entrepreneur,” she says, laughing. “I think I’d drive them totally insane.”

Out in the male-dominated world of the job site, Slay says she has had relatively few problems with men who resent female architects. “Contractors don’t like architects anyway,” she says. “Architects are known for being bossy.” She credits one of the principals in her former firm with reminding her to treat contractors on the construction site with respect. “They do what they do every day,” she says. “I show them I respect that knowledge by asking them questions and listening to what they tell me.”

That doesn’t mean being overly deferential and girly, however. Slay keeps a hard hat and two pairs of boots (cowboy for dusty spaces, rubber for rainy days) in the trunk of her car for visits to job sites. She’ll wear pants if she’s going to be climbing around on roofs, but otherwise, she says, “I just dress like this,” indicating her elegant business wear. “I don’t think you have to dress like a man.”

Growing up in the family construction business and attending girls-only Incarnate Word High School, Slay says, “No one ever told me I couldn’t be an architect.” When she started taking courses in her major at A&M, there were never more than five women in even the largest classes. “I didn’t know until my first class” (that architecture was a traditionally male-dominated field), she says. “I was shocked.” One professor even told a class she was taking that he didn’t believe women had a place in architecture. Rather than letting it get to her, she resolved to do well in the course. Since then, she estimates that her gender has been an issue not more than a dozen times in her whole professional career. “I don’t have a chip on my shoulder,” she says. “If someone has trouble with me (as a female architect), I can get them over that in about five minutes.”

Slay has shared her insights as a mentor to peers as well as younger women as a co-founder of the Women in Design group within the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects, where she’s also a member of the board of directors. She has led what amounts to an assertiveness-training workshop, reminding women that their mostly male bosses can’t read minds. “If you want more challenging work, a promotion or a raise, you can’t expect your supervisor to know what you’re thinking,” she advises. “You have to be honest about what you’re feeling. You have to talk about it with your boss.” Some women have the impression that asking for what they want is being aggressive; Slay tells them that suffering in silence will only hold them back.

A few years ago, while Slay was working on a project for North Side School District, she says, “I got a call from a teacher at John Jay High School, about a student who wanted to be an architect but didn’t know if that was something girls could do.” Slay met with the student and eventually hired her as an intern. While working at MAS Architecture, Melissa moved from clerical tasks to getting involved in project work. She received a scholarship to the University of Houston, where she now studies architecture. “Two years earlier, she thought she couldn’t be an architect,” Slay says proudly. “Now she’s on her way.”

Slay also has clear goals for her own future. She hopes to keep growing her business, hiring more staff to handle more work, but not beyond the point where she can’t have involvement in the day-to-day business of the firm. “I want to be able to supervise all projects and have my own projects,” she says, “I don’t want to just wave my hands over the work.”

She and her husband also hope to have children, with both of them continuing to work full time. At a recent meeting, she heard the female principal of a public-relations firm describe her experience with in-house day care. Though the executive warned there were costs and other problems involved, Slay remains intrigued. “I wouldn’t want to be away from a baby all day,” she says. “It would be a benefit for employees, too.”

Can she run a business with babies on board? “If you think you can’t do something, you probably won’t,” Slay says. “If you think you can — why not?”

Author: Paula Allen

Photographer: Janet Rogers

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