David Barista is editorial director of Building Design+Construction and BDCnetwork.com, properties that combined reach more than 100,000 commercial building professionals, including architects, engineers, contractors, and building owners. He has covered the U.S. construction industry for more than a decade, previously serving as editor-in-chief of BD+C, Professional Builder, Custom Builder, and HousingZone.com, covering the U.S. construction industry for more than a decade.
Let’s face it, time are tough, and many home builders are doing all they can to keep their doors open amid the brutal economic conditions. But, while the housing market outlook may look bleak on a national level, there are countless success stories of builders that are succeeding in the toughest conditions. I’ve asked two such builders — Michael Maples, co-founder of Trumark Homes, Danville, Calif., and Brett Whitehouse, president of Brandywine Homes, Irvine, Calif. — to share some of their leadership advice. Here are some techniques that have worked for them.
1. Keep your company name out there.“It’s tempting when times are tough to hunker down or even disappear,” says Whitehouse of Brandywine Homes. “But this is not the time to cut your marketing and public relations budget to the bone or eliminate it entirely.”
Brandywine is taking advantage of the economic lull by re-branding the company, updating its website, and launching its first public relations campaign. “There is so little noise — or good news — in the home building industry right now that a little bit can go a long way,” says Whitehouse.
2. Celebrate the small victories. “We knew it was going to be a long economic downturn and that we had to find small things to celebrate,” says Trumark’s Maples. The company created a “wall of success,” where employees post small victories like a city approval, a restructured deal, a new project in contract, and new funding.
3. Be quick on your feet. In today’s market, the difference between making a profit and loosing your shirt on a project can depend on your ability to change directions at a moment’s notice to avoid costly pitfalls, says Whitehouse. “For example, we were well down the road with plans for a neighborhood of three-story townhomes when we began to sense a shift in market demand,” he says. In less than four months, the builder revamped its plans and got city approval to build single-family detached homes instead.
“We don’t take anything for granted,” says Whitehouse. “Just because we have a certain location and we have a certain product type doesn’t mean the buyers will materialize. We are always turning the stone over.”
4. Face the brutal facts.Author Jim Collins hammers this point home in “Good to Great,” and it was a valuable lesson for Trumark Homes, says Maples. “As often as we told our colleagues and business partners that we were going to get through this real estate depression, we also were realistic and often talked about the brutal facts,” he says. “Our staff had to know that it was going to be long and hard but that we would definitely get through it.”
5. Motivate your team.Almost everyone is worried about their job these days, so be as reassuring as possible with employees and subcontractors, advises Whitehouse. “Make sure your workforce hears and understands what you expect from them and what they can expect from you in return.”
Whitehouse says to share good news and future plans to keep morale high. “For example, telling the guys in the field that you have another project in the pipeline will encourage them to complete the current one on time, because they know they’re not just working themselves out of a job,” he says.
6. Strengthen those vital relationships. “During the recession we’ve worked hard to maintain our hard-earned relationships with investors, bankers, cities, and customers,” says Whitehouse. He says the key is effective and continuous communication. Tell your stakeholders what your company is doing in the face of a recession and, whenever possible, communicate optimism about the future. “This approach can have a powerful and lasting effect on their perception in the long term,” says Whitehouse.