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What Rock and Roll Taught Me

Kurt Kerns sucked at Little League. Acutally, he sucked at sports in general. He was shorter and slower than most of the boys his age. While that certainly does not make him anything unique, there is a special kind of hell for young men in Jefferson City facing the prospect of adolescense with little athletic talent.

 

That's why, to this day, he can vividly remember his seventh grade talent show. After his band finished slaying the audience with his rendition of The Car's "Shake it Up," Kerns was flanked on both sides…with girls.

"I remember feeling like I had arrived," says Kerns, principle (or rock starchitect) of V Three Studios, which he founded in 2010. "It seemed like every girl in the school wanted to talk to me. I knew that I wanted to make music as much as possible."

There was no turning back for Kerns. Music had fused itself to his character. Much more than just the music, the ethic, an uncompromising spirit, inspired approach to life that remains true for Kerns.

"My father always said that it was better to die on your feet than live on your knees," says Kerns who lost his father to a heart condition last year. "I think it had a lasting affect on me. I don't like to compromise."

Since his seventh grade performance, Kerns has led an almost storybook sort of life. He has been on tour with the Sex Pistols, in the board room with Fortune 500 CEOs and now behind the desk of his own business. As far as he can tell, however, the path has never deviated from the principles of the punk rock ethic he embraced at a young age.

 

Stage One: Gravity Kills

That exhilaration of his seventh grade performance followed Kerns into high school. He and his friends Matt Dudenhoffer and Douglas Firley would play at parties and local venues. Soon they began writing their own material inspired by punk rock and heavy dance beats. They did every gig that they could whether it paid or not. It was not until the college years, however, that Kerns says the group's discipline and creativity took off.

"College provided us with the creative discipline we needed to step up our writing," says Kerns. "I was studying architecture at Kansas State University. Doug was studying film at University of Iowa, and Matt studied industrial engineering at Mizzou."

By 1994, after they had graduated from college, the three were working day jobs in St. Louis and creating music as Gravity Kills. Around that time, Kerns recalls writing a guitar riff in his small South city apartment. A few days later, they heard about a contest on 105.7 in which local bands could submit a song for inclusion on a compilation CD. Kerns called up his cousin Jeff Scheel, a vocalist who lived in Dallas, Texas. Scheel flew to St. Louis on a Thursday evening. By Friday, Kerns and his bandmates had turned that guitar riff into "Guilty," the band's standout hit. The song not only made it onto the compilation, but it became the most requested song on 105.7. Thanks to heavy play on the radio and MTV, the song reached No. 24 on the Modern Rock Billboard charts and was featured in the movies Mortal Kombat and Seven.

The rest, as Kerns says, is history. The band was signed to a label and began touring. They were no longer playing frat parties and birthdays. Now it was radio-sponsored summer festivals and big stage lineups. They traveled to 16 countries between North America and Europe. In mid-20s, the dream had come true for Kerns.

"In December of 1996, we played a show in Chicago, and I can remember the sound of the crowd singing and chanting overpowering my drums on stage," he says. "I drank Guinness with Johnny Rotten [Sex Pistol's frontman] for 30 days straight. I had lived an incredible life. But, what I loved most was the barber shop talk and the camaraderie of living with my friends on a tour bus."

 

Stage Two: Architect

As with all good dreams, Kerns eventually woke. By 1999, the band was getting ready to release their third album in four years and tour for 18 months around the world. Kerns was about to turn 30 and had a daughter on the way with his wife Bonnie Blume (also an architect).

"I had nothing left to prove when it came to being a rock star," says Kerns. "I did not want my daughter to grow up and not know her father. After a show, I told all of my friends that I had to move on."

Kerns was scooped up immediately by The Lawrence Group, a St. Louis-based architecture firm. They had wanted to grow a niche part of their business in the field of communications architecture – the design of recording studios, theaters and other structures that exist to capture sound.

"The Lawrence Group was a great place to be, and they gave me free reign to grow a business within a business," says Kerns. "It was also a way to combine music and architecture, and, at the same time, I learned what it took to manage people."

After ten years, Kerns had built a group of 12 people within the Lawrence Group that was making the company $1.5 million per year. They had won awards for their work and Kerns became a St. Louis Business Journal Top 40 Under 40 at the age of 37.

However, again, he faced a crossroads. The strain of the recession had caused the company to place more operational mechanisms that Kerns felt slowed his group's development.

"I have never been good with authority," says Kerns. "The Lawrence Group had grown to a point where they had to behave in a more corporate way, and that is just not the right place for me. I had to move on again."

Stage Three: Entrepreneurship or Becoming the Man

His refusal to compromise on what he wants to build or create led Kerns to begin V Three, shorthand for version three of his life, in 2010 with no startup money and one project from a personal relationship. Today, the six-person company specializes in re-imaging communications spaces and also has an interactive side that builds websites and digital media. Many of their clients include institutions and higher educational facilities that are integrating different forms of media and communications.

Most of what the company does, however, is relive everything that Kerns loved about his rock and roll days. The tight-knit creative group has an office that functions very much like a tour bus. And, rock band ethics run the way Kerns works with his team.

"I know I own my own business now and, to some degree, I am 'the man,' says Kerns. "But I don't want to be an authority. I make a better mentor and a guide more than a boss."

According to Kerns, his time as a rock star shaped his ability to work closely with creative people, have empathy for his clients and negotiate with others.

"I earned my MBA by helping to manage a rock and roll band," says Kerns. "I was dealing with marketing, financials, logistics and negotiating with record labels and promoters. I had to have a vision and proactively go after that vision. It has influenced me in how I now run my business."

It would make for a good enough story to just end there. To say, in a general way, that rock and roll increased both his creativity and his business know-how. But the lessons Kerns learned run much deeper and are now part of the structure of his business. The following are the business values that guide V Three and how rock and roll influenced them.

Always give more than you receive
According to Kerns, his company will always seek to give more in value than what is taken in price. They seek to exceed expectations and amplify their clients' vision. "When you are on stage, everything that you give to the audience comes back to you," says Kerns. "You have to give them more than what they came to see."

Reciprocity
The company looks for ways to contribute to others and to help even when there seems no clear reward. "When you are on the road, it is all for one," says Kerns. "And, when you are there for your bandmates and the crew when they need you, then more good things happen. Some people call it karma. It is just looking for ways to be of use."

Always leave them one more
At the end of the show, Kerns says that there is no greater feeling than the encore - to hear them asking for more. He says that V Three seeks to do the same for clients. "At the end of a project, we don't just drift away," says Kerns. "We want them to know how they can take what we have done and continue to expand their vision. You have to leave them hungry for more."

Purpose beyond profit
"We have to have vision and know why we are doing what we are doing," says Kerns. "When you are a band, you have to stand for something that is more than selling records, and when you own a business, it has to mean something outside of making money. We try to help the community when the opportunity presents itself. One of the efforts that V Three has been involved with is Joe's Place, a home for high school kids without many options for housing."

Understand the difference betweenbeing confident and being self-assured.

"Gravity Kills would not have happened without Doug, Matt and Jeff. Every person was needed. So, while I may have been an integral part of it and used my strengths to help, I was not Gravity Kills. This principle is about knowing your strength and having humility to know the role you play at the same time," says Kerns.

Stage Four?

As far as where V Three is headed, Kerns is dubious about the details. He believes that with the right intention and focus, the right path will present itself. It's not so much some kind of business Zen philosophy. It is more about sticking to principles. It is the same spirit that does not allow Kerns to compromise.

"I think it comes down to whenever I feel like I am compromising what is right or what I am doing is no longer efficient, then I get whiny and frustrated," says Kerns. "I learned a lot of that from my father. It was not in what he said, but how he lived and how he handled adversity. V Three is in some ways my tribute to parents. My mother, an art teacher, encouraged my creative exploration and my father, as a business owner, encouraged me to stand up for myself."

Submitted 5 years 356 days ago
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