Designing one’s own life

How Assel Kalyk has founded a design and architecture studio and why she intends to engage in turnkey construction

Фото: архив пресс-службы

Being only 34, Assel Kalyk has already built a company operating not solely in Kazakhstan, but on the international arena as well, working with both small spaces and large-scale projects. How has she succeeded in design and architecture and why is she planning to move beyond this sphere? The founder of ACG Group Assel Kalyk shared her vision with Forbes Woman.

Flexible approach

On September 1, 1998, 7th grade student Assel Kalyk informed her teachers she was transferring to a specialized art school. The teachers believed their best student and gave her all the necessary papers. Her father, however, was terrified by the news, but trusted his daughter and sent her to the art school. “We had 12 classes a day, but I gave it a hundred and ten percent, because I was keen on drawing”, recalls Assel.

Later she graduated summa cum laude from Zhurgenev Academy (fashion design) and Symbat academy (advertising design). Her main goal was to become a fashion designer, but none of Almaty dressmaking studios was ready to employ her. “I was told they could design clothing themselves, what they were looking for were tailors. But I saw little possibilities there, as that job would never help me start my own business”, tells Assel, then adds: “Even those times I was a business person, unwilling to work for somebody else for monthly salary. Besides, I was eager to bring my ideas to life, which was impossible without money”.

Luckily for her, Kazakhstan in 2004-2005 was going through construction boom, and Assel decided to dive into interior design. “Presenting your project in 3D was incredibly cool those days, so I learnt 3D visualization”, smiles Assel. But this was not enough – each client expected to see designer’s portfolio. Assel faced up to the challenge: she started bringing potential clients to her parents’ house. “I made quite an unusual design there: ceiling in the hall painted in orange, a living room featured white furniture with one wall colored black”, says Assel. “My parents were shocked, but trusted me as usually. I was demonstrating our house as a completed project, then appeared on the TV show called “Comfort workshop” and found my clients”.

Assel was deeply engrossed in her projects, spending days and nights on construction sites, simultaneously embracing all types of painting works. “I started learning interior design. There were times when clients came asking for something I didn’t even know the name of. But I dug for information and got it done. However, before 2011 I did not dare to set up a company, it seemed too big responsibility for me”, explains Assel.

All got changed by one situation. In 2010 Assel Kalyk had to enter into litigation with one of her clients. The judgment was made against Assel, because her business was not operating as a legal entity. As a result, on January 24, 2011 Assel set up ACG Group (Architect Commuter Graphic).

Growth perspectives

“Before starting my company I had $60,000 saved. That money vanished during the very first year of ACG operations, covering rent and salaries. I had to borrow money from my relatives. My mother worried a lot, saying I had been doing great and had earned quite enough earlier, why I would need my company, and that I should have closed it and returned to my old path. But I made my mind to go ahead. In 2012 I created an Instagram account, where I posted photos of my works, and suddenly started getting orders therefrom”, describes Assel her game-changing point.

In 2013 she began getting really challenging projects. For example, one of the clients gave her a huge contract – to prepare designs for a waterpark, a night club and a sports complex in Kyzylorda.

“In 2014-2015 clients were lining up to  work with us. People made advance payments, waited for over 6 months, sometimes took offence for having to wait for too long. There were cases, when I found out who I had said “no” to and got shocked: those were truly influential persons! Bear in mind that my employees came to the office whenever they wanted. I adapted to and looked after them, sitting right next to them as a baby-sitter while they were working on the projects. I believed creative minds must not be constrained. And so it went until one of our clients, who learnt about this system, said I was a lame manager. After his words I hired an experienced executive”.

The new executive implemented a working hours scheme, when only actually completed works were paid for. In the first month of that new scheme being in place, the employees received only around 40% of their regular salary. “They literally cried”, Assel recalls. “But the following month they began coming on time. The next step was to arrange proper projects assignment. We used to work on “one project – one designer” basis. But some were very quick in completing theirs, while others procrastinated for months. The quick ones got offended; it turned out they were doing more, while paid the same”.

To solve this problem ACG Group turned each project into a team work. Assel communicates her vision, designers and architects bring her ideas to life, and each of them does what he or she is best at, maintaining ACG Group identity. This is how the company eliminated salary imbalance and, what’s even more important, after arranging business processes in such manner Assel is able to withdraw from daily routine and concentrate on strategic planning.

“We also modified the way of dealing with our clients”, Assel goes on. “First of all, we do not make them wait in line, but they are warned that completing their projects will take longer. Secondly, our projects are based on the budget the client has. In the old days we used to propose luxurious and expensive options, but some of the clients appeared to be on a tight budget, requesting to cut the costs. Today we operate other way round: firstly finding out the amount the client is ready to spend, and then turning to selecting materials, etc. basing on particular financial capabilities”.

In its essence, ACG Group offers high-quality intellectual product enabling:

  1. To structure costs during construction phase: a client knows he won’t have to pay for remodeling;
  2. To create unique cozy spaces, whether it is an apartment or a house, a restaurant or a night club, a shop or a business center.

The company releases 50-70 projects annually with prices starting from KZT 1 mln and up to KZT 40-50 mln. But the businesswoman doesn’t measure success of ACG Group with money: “Success is completing challenging projects. For instance, in 2018 in Atyrau we delivered a project of an 11-storeyed business center for NefteStroiService Ltd. Success is when clients choose us over foreign designers”.
Assel highlights that ACG Group achieved success only because it nurtures its own superstar professionals. “We will tell more to the world about ourselves to be known in Kazakhstan and abroad. I have several projects implemented internationally, in Austria, Hungary and Dubai, but we starve for more”, confesses the founder of the company.

ACG Group also expands its operation in Kazakhstan. In 2018 the company created subsidiary brand Trend Decor. These days there are Trend Decor lightning showroom and interior studio in Almaty, as well as a line of carpets being produced under the same name. ACG Group started woodwork division to produce its own exclusive doors, staircases, furniture and more.

 “Our main goal is to be in construction. We intend to obtain a license to be allowed to build anything from private houses to major facilities thousands of square meters large on a turnkey basis”, shares Assel her plans for the future.

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