Three questions with Dene Oliver on style and substance

Dene Oliver, the California developer behind the soon-to-open Buckhead Atlanta, has set out to do more than reshape the city’s landscape with his new luxury mixed-use project.

He aims to perfect customer service in Atlanta by fusing Southern hospitality with his West Coast zen. And that, he believes, starts from within.

Speaking to newly minted employees at a recent training event, Oliver seemed at times more guru than CEO. He shared lessons from his life and about his family. The head of OliverMcMillan spoke about compassion and grace, of passion and fortitude — things that cost far less than the high-end goods and residences Atlantans will find in his latest project.

“Luxury goods. It’s just one other material thing,” he told his employees. “But at the end of the day in life, what’s meaningful is not what you own, but what you have inside.”

We wanted to know more, so we asked Oliver three questions about his philosophy on etiquette, service and style.

Q: What lessons from Southern hospitality will you incorporate into Buckhead Atlanta?

A: I think the No 1. concept for us is grace and graciousness. You can't be in the South without sensing, feeling and experiencing that continuously. What we want to do is build on what we've seen as the best here. I think the concept of grace really comes down to simple things such as good, strong greetings, great eye contact, a really respectful presence. And anticipating people's needs and working to meet them, then exceeding their expectations.

Q: You spoke to employees about being vulnerable and making connections with others. It almost felt like a motivational speech. Why was that important to you?

A: In order for us to live in a gracious and authentic place, we've got to be able to connect with people. And in order to be able to connect with people, you've got to have a certain level of awareness that takes you to a mindful place. That involves a lot of humility; that's a key part to graciousness.

If I’m going to make that (request) of them, I must be willing to do the same thing myself. Rather than getting up and talking like a CEO, I’d rather talk like I’m any other person, their contemporary and equal. … To me, there’s no better way to connect with people than to be authentic and be vulnerable. We work so hard to put these sorts of cloaks around us, and I just think that gets in the way in life.

Q: What can people do at home to evoke a Buckhead Atlanta feel?

A: "Making special places happen" has been our trademark, and that starts at home. I really try to be gracious, authentic and vulnerable in my own home and with my family. I don't want to bring home power and command and control, I want to bring home love and kindness and connection. And I think all of these values we're teaching are values anyone can take into their home.

The other thing they can take is the attention to detail. Every little thing does matter. Our environments are a collection of individual details. I know I can take a small space, and with a little attention to detail with paint and things I collect from thrift store, I can make it feel good. I think it’s teaching people how they’re impacted by their environment.

Responses edited for length.