HKS’ Billy Hinton Brings Heritage, Empathy, Friendship to Role as Firm’s Chief Talent Officer
Growing up in the 1960s and 70s in remote Tahlequah, Oklahoma, Billy Hinton loved to draw.
“I always had a piece of paper in my hand,” Hinton said. “I grew up drawing forever.”
His senior year of high school, Hinton considered enrolling in a drafting class because he thought he might want to become an architect. But he said his guidance counselor told him, “’Billy, that’d be a mistake.’”
“I grew up in the sticks,” Hinton said. “There were no architects there, locally.”
Instead of the drafting class, his guidance counselor urged him towards advanced math, a college entrance class she called “far more important than drawing.”
Years later, when he finally took drafting, Hinton almost immediately realized, “This is what I’m supposed to do,” he said. And it is what he’s done for almost 33 years at HKS, as a Draftsman, Project Architect, Project Manager and his current position of Chief Talent Officer, Principal and Executive Vice President.
His career has taken him to job sites at Disney World, Times Square, in Chicago, New Delhi, London, the Bahamas and more – and, in what he calls some of his most gratifying work experience, back home to Oklahoma.
Hinton’s hometown of Tahlequah is located about an hour east of Tulsa in northeastern Oklahoma and is the capital of the Cherokee Nation. As part of HKS’ commemoration of National Native American Heritage Month, Hinton, who is a registered member of the Cherokee Nation, reflected on his career, his family heritage and how his cultural background informs his work.
Through his father, Hinton is a descendant of John Ross, Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation from 1823-1866 – a period that encompasses the Indian Removal Act and the Trail of Tears, the forced relocation of Native American people from their ancestral homelands in the southeastern U.S. to designated Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River.
“My dad’s family walked to Oklahoma, which was a horrendous experience for everyone involved,” said Hinton. “We grew up knowing what our family history was, because my dad’s family is really proud of that. They’re proud to be Cherokee.”
Hinton’s father, Billie John, worked at Northeastern State University (NSU) in Tahlequah, an institution with deep Cherokee roots. Founded in 1846 as the Cherokee National Female Seminary, the school predates Oklahoma statehood by more than 60 years. Hinton’s mother, Carol, an Oklahoma native of English-Scottish ancestry, stayed home to care for him and his younger brother, John. Both boys played basketball, tennis and baseball and performed in the school band, with the enthusiastic support of their parents.
“It didn’t matter what we were doing, both mom and dad were there,” Hinton said.
Hinton’s high school band practiced late into the evening Thursday nights during football season to prepare for Friday night games. Band members would go home after school and change into shorts and T-shirts before returning for practice.
“I would always find the brightest T-shirt I could at home, because I’m just not a fan of white shirts,” Hinton said. His girlfriend at the time sought out the loudest fabric in Tahlequah and sewed him a Hawaiian shirt, which Hinton wore every Thursday night to those late band practices for about two years. That was the start of a collection of what he calls “the weirdest, wildest shirts I can find.”
That school days tradition of wearing eccentric shirts continues to this day, although Hinton said he now designs the fabric himself and has his shirts custom tailored in Austin.
Finding a Path
For their family summer vacations, the Hinton brothers would study the Major League Baseball schedule and choose a city with an upcoming doubleheader and nearby amusement park. Over the years, the family traveled to Dallas to visit Six Flags over Texas in Arlington and see the Rangers play, to St. Louis to see the Cardinals and visit Six Flags Over Mid-America (now known as Six Flags St. Louis), and to Kansas City to visit Worlds of Fun and catch a Royals game. These vacation trips would play a pivotal role in Hinton’s eventual career plans.
Following his high school guidance counselor’s advice to continue his math studies, Hinton enrolled as a computer science major at NSU in Tahlequah.
“That was an interesting major for 1982,” he said.
His father, who worked with early computing systems as bursar and comptroller at NSU, recommended computer science for the field’s career prospects. Hinton said that while he enjoyed the problem-solving aspects of computer programming, he wanted more human interaction in his work. His sophomore year he switched to pre-med but determined he wasn’t well-suited for a career as a physician. By his junior year, he’d settled in as a business major.
That spring semester, Hinton wanted a three-hour class to round out the 12 hours required to be a full-time student, which he needed to maintain his scholarships. A drafting class fit perfectly into the open three-hour block on his schedule. He jumped at the chance to register for the class.
“I just loved it from the very first class,” Hinton said. “I knew then that I really did want to be an architect.”
Since NSU didn’t have an architecture program, Hinton transferred to Oklahoma State University (OSU) in Stillwater to finish his degree.
That same year, he lost his mother to cancer. Hinton was 21. Learning to live without her was a hard adjustment for him, his father and then 19-year-old brother. Together, “we got to a place where it’s good,” Hinton said. The tragedy taught him a lot about empathy, he added. “I’ve seen a lot of my colleagues lose family members, and I can relate to that,” he said. “I’m always the first to say, ‘Go take care of your family. We’ll take care of work until you’re ready to come back.’”
Hinton graduated from OSU the following spring. Thinking back on his family’s summer vacations, he recalled how much he liked Dallas. He applied to two architecture firms in the city – one large, one small – and received job offers from both.
“I pondered on it and prayed about it and really thought about what I wanted to do. And the answer I kept coming back to is…I want to go to this big firm because I feel like I want to learn how to do big stuff,” Hinton said. January 2, 1990, he started work at HKS.
His first week at the firm, two colleagues, Brian Eason and Kenneth Apel, invited Hinton to join them for lunch. “It’ll be 33 years this coming January 2nd, and I still eat lunch with Brian and Kenneth three or four or five times a week,” Hinton said.
When he became engaged to his now-wife of 27 years, Kathy, he told her he had two vices. “The first one is, I’m never going to mow our yard. And the second one is that I’m never going to take my lunch to work,” he said.
Although Apel is no longer with HKS, the three friends have maintained a tight bond and Eason said connections like the one he and Apel share with Hinton are essential.
“You’ve got to find five or six people that you trust, and you can say anything to and they can say anything to you,” Eason said.
Thinking back on the many HKS colleagues who have participated over the years in what’s become known around the firm as the “lunch bunch,” Hinton noted that many of the same people who watched him get married back in 1995 would be attending his son’s wedding this fall.
“Those are just amazing relationships,” Hinton said. “I’ve had amazing luck, finding the best mentors I could ever want. And I’ve been here long enough that my mentors became my friends.”
One such friend and mentor, HKS Principal Emeritus Lorenzo Castillo, said that when Hinton arrived at HKS he “was like a big sponge,” soaking up knowledge. “He was always willing to take the lead in all efforts, and on occasion, he would tell us a story or two to keep us going. Time with him and his fellow teammates was never dull,” Castillo said.
Early in his career Hinton had the opportunity to work on Disney’s Boardwalk Inn, a 45-acre resort at the Walt Disney World theme park in Florida. “We would work all day long and then we would go out at night and watch the fireworks over the Magic Kingdom,” he said.
Hinton remembers the thrill of arriving on site and first walking into the more than 500,000-square-foot project that was under construction. “I’d never seen the structure in my life, except on a piece of paper, but I could walk into that building and I knew where every single thing was supposed to be, because I drew it,” he said. “It was the most incredible experience.”
That experience was eclipsed years later when he brought his wife and two young children to stay at the hotel.
“I got pictures of my kids standing in front of the Boardwalk with their Disney hats on,” he said. “It makes me think about the purpose of what we do. We don’t design projects that are monuments to our egos. The reason we build hospitals is because people need a place to go to be diagnosed and treated and healed. The reason we do schools is because kids need a place to sit down and learn how to read. The reason we do hotels is because it’s a place where you can take your family and gain a memory you’ll have forever.”
In the 2010’s, Hinton’s father let him know that Cherokee Nation Health Services planned to build a new facility in Tahlequah. Hinton encouraged the HKS Health practice to pursue the project; he wanted to make sure the tribal health system had a chance to engage a global architecture firm with the skill and experience to design a highly complex health center.
Cherokee Nation Health Services awarded the project to HKS in partnership with Childers Architect, a 100 percent American Indian-owned and certified firm with an office in Tahlequah. The Cherokee Nation Outpatient Health Center, a 470,000-square-foot LEED Silver-certified facility, opened in 2019. Hinton’s father is among the patients who have been treated there.
“It gave the Cherokees a facility that was done by people like Norman and Brent, who’ve done world-class health care architecture all over the world,” Hinton said. Plus, he added, it was fun to play local-boy-makes-good. “I get to come home, and this is my firm’s building,” he said with a laugh. “It’s awesome.”
The outpatient center project helped forge a strong connection between HKS and the Cherokee Nation. In the past two years, HKS has completed a simulation laboratory for the OSU College of Osteopathic Medicine at the Cherokee Nation, located in Tahlequah, and partnered with Childers Architect on a medical school building at the college. The two firms are currently collaborating on a replacement facility for Cherokee Nation Health Services W.W. Hastings Hospital, also in Tahlequah.
In addition, HKS and Childers Architect are partnering on the Rapid City Health Center in South Dakota and the Navajo Nation Dilkon Health Center in Arizona, both for the federal Indian Health Services agency. Hinton said he’s happy these projects give Native American people “facilities that they otherwise would not have access to.”
Hinton’s family heritage and Oklahoma childhood inform his work as Chief Talent Officer at HKS, directing the firm’s hiring practices. “You just realize that people come from all different places, and they have different skill sets and different talents,” he said. “The right mix of people…makes this a far better firm. One of the things I’ve worked really hard to do is diversify our recruiting.”
As part of this effort, HKS attends nearly 50 campus recruiting fairs each year, he said. Hinton oversees the firm’s summer internship program and happily noted that the most recent intern class at HKS’ Dallas headquarters comprised 25 students representing 17 colleges and universities. “When you get those 25 kids all in a room here in Dallas, the interchange is amazing to watch,” he said.
Hinton moved into the firm’s lead hiring role after a little more than 10 years at HKS, when Joe Buskuhl, CEO at the time, offered him the position then known as Director of Production. Hinton said Buskuhl told him, “If you’re a Project Manager you get to run one or two, maybe three projects a year to influence the company. I’m going to give you a chance to be the Director of Production, and you can influence every single job in the company.”
Hinton noted that his office walls used to be covered with images of buildings he’d worked on; now his office décor features the people of HKS.
“Today, my projects are the people who work here,” he said. “I take great joy in saying they’re my projects today because they’re going to have influence long after I personally am not here anymore.”
Current HKS CEO and President Dan Noble knows just how much of an influence Hinton is on the people in both the firm’s past and future.
“Billy and I have worked together at HKS for more than 30 years, and he represents so much of what makes our firm great,” Noble said. “Billy has succeeded in various roles, but his primary strength has always been people. He has become the heart and soul of much of our firm, and the connecting force between our people and our projects. His influence as Chief Talent Officer can be felt throughout the firm and helps define the culture of HKS. We’re lucky to have him.”
HKS founder Harwood K. Smith was CEO of the firm when Hinton began his career and Hinton still teaches new HKS hires about Smith and his legacy as part of their orientation.
“I always admired the fact that Harwood understood that this would be a much stronger organization if he went and found smart people to help him run it, and ultimately give it over to,” Hinton said.
As Hinton’s son, Blake, embarks on marriage and medical school residency and his daughter, Kyndal, starts student teaching, Hinton is giving more thought about passing the baton to the next generation. While he says retirement is still some years away, he does look forward to having time to explore new artistic pursuits.
“I would love to illustrate kids’ books. I think some of the most amazing artists in the world illustrate kids’ books,” Hinton said, expressing admiration for the work of illustrators David Wiesner and William Joyce.
“Like I told you, I always have a paper and pencil in my hand.”