There is the “nontraditional career journey” and then there is Sherry Coughlin, who came to interior design and construction via robots.
Coughlin spent 25 years in partnership with her husband Mike Coughlin in a CPA firm. Then the two of them decided to put a patent they had purchased into motion. The idea was that a robotic prescription-dispensing system could aid pharmacists in accurately filling scripts. The idea may seem far-fetched today (even through there are thousands of ScriptPro robots working all over the world), let alone in 1994. There were three years of what Coughlin calls a “crushingly hard” pursuit of perfection in designing and building the robot—and paying 45 employees while bringing in no income.
But the robot proved to be a success, and in 1998, “Rite Aid came in and bought a thousand from us, and that was it,” Coughlin remembers.
ScriptPro now employs more than 800 employees, provides medical solutions to the Department of Defense and the Veterans Administration, and continues to function on the front line of technology-enabled services in both hardware and software. The Mission campus in the Kansas City metro area was once one large building but continues to expand its footprint, with more than 25 buildings and more than 30 conference rooms.
But none of that can really explain how the EVP and former director of marketing started rehabbing office spaces and utilizing a truly unique aesthetic for each and every space she renovates. That’s the best part. Coughlin herself says simply, “It just started with one room, and I just kept going, and I’m good at it. I modeled a lot in high school and college [where she got her art history degree], and I think if fashion is something you’re interested in, you develop a good eye for what goes well together.”
Over the years, the Coughlins have purchased around 68 buildings. Some of them they kept, some they remodeled, and some they demolished. But what has emerged is a list of properties so extensive that as soon as the now director of facilities has been able to put her skills to work on each and every room, it’s essentially time to start all over again.
“I always speak with the managers of the departments to figure out what they really need,” Coughlin explains. “Not from a design standpoint, but what they really need in their space to be able to do their work and feel like it’s somewhere that they want to be. A lot of time I hear that the space feels too serious, and that’s where I’m really able to help.”
Coughlin mentions she’s not really one to stick to a strict design schedule or to go in knowing exactly what she’s going to create. Both sentiments would traditionally send a facilities manager into a psychic tailspin. Instead, “I usually just start with colors and go looking for furniture, and it starts to come together,” Coughlin says, adding that her designs typically wind up “pretty unusual,” but in a way that still serves the varied needs of ScriptPro’s professionals.
One of the mainstays of Coughlin’s process is her long-term relationship with Kansas City’s Retro Inferno owner Rod Parks, who the facilities head says is well acquainted with the way that Coughlin likes to work. “Rod started his business around the same time I was starting to decorate a couple of buildings,” Coughlin recalls. “He had a warehouse and I just loved walking through it with him. I would point to something and ask him what it was. ‘Oh, that was the old TWA furniture,’ and I’d say, ‘I’ll take it.’ That old TWA furniture went into my favorite conference room, ‘The Terminal.’”
Coughlin has a warehouse of her own where chosen pieces might spend years before their inclusion in a project. “I find a lot of things I know I can do something with, but it may not be for 15 years,” Coughlin says. “I don’t go buy what I need today. I buy what I see is a great design and plan to use it ‘tomorrow.’”
To explain Coughlin’s aesthetic is no easy task. A showroom that includes a partial hand-placed stone floor, a couch backed with a life-size stuffed-animal-style black angus cow (the “cowch”), and a glass-paned lobby where onlookers can watch employees building the latest in medical systems technology—these are all just small facets of Coughlin’s wandering imagination but clear vision.
Every time there’s an open house for a new building or a redesign, the facilities head is reminded that her work isn’t going unnoticed. “People from around the company come up and ask if I might have time to come take a look at part of their building,” Coughlin says. “I get a lot of requests, they go on a list, and I work my way there.” Her schedule may not be written in stone, but that’s about the only thing Coughlin is certain of before her next design. And that’s just how she likes it.
Every year, Sherry Coughlin hosts the entire ScriptPro family at the horse ranch and acreage that she and her husband own together. This is no small party either—1,500 guests (employees and their family members) show up for horseback riding, catering, prizes, and an opportunity to gather with pride for the once little company, which now boasts nearly 1,000 employees. Coughlin and her husband are also joined by their four daughters and extended work family in an event that has been affectionally referred to as the Farm Party.