One of the fastest-growing private builders–and the second largest in terms of closings–Mercedes Homes operates in several markets throughout Florida, Texas, and the Carolinas. Son of founder Howard Buescher, Keith Buescher has been a director of the employee-owned company since its inception in 1985. He also serves as president of corporate operations. He and his wife Lila have two sons, Kyle and Kevin. In November, Buescher spoke with Big Builder about company growth, corporate culture, and landing the big one.

BB: As one of the fastest-growing private builders, what is your vision for the company in the near and far terms?

KB: Near term, it's how to survive the downturn. We're looking at our marketplace and trying to adjust. I think our vision has always been that we want to show controlled growth, take care of our people and grow from within, and give back to the people who help us create the company.

Keith Buescher Photo: Riku+Anna BB: When you talk about controlled growth, how do you see that happening? Product? Geographic markets?

KB: Like anything in any business, to grow you've got to have your three Ps: You've got to have a product; you've got to have a place to put it; and you've got to produce a profit. So, when we look to grow, we're going to look at a marketplace that we think we can accomplish those things. Certainly, developing a product is important going into any marketplace–that's going to allow you to be successful.

BB: Looking at the market today and your concentration in Florida, are you considering diversifying?

KB: We hope to curtail what we're doing in Florida. I think we're going to put more emphasis on what we're doing in Texas–maybe extend into San Antonio. [We're] also looking at the opportunity that Houston might afford us. In the Carolinas, we look to continue to expand in the Charlotte market, probably looking at the Raleigh/Durham area and other opportunities in that part of the country.

BB: What are you doing today that's different from the past 12 months?

KB: We're spending a lot more money on advertising and promoting and getting our name and our product out there. We're concentrating on the Web, [and] we're doing more radio than we've traditionally done in the past. [We're trying] to better use the marketing dollars that we have budgeted where we are getting the best result.

BB: How has being an employee-owned company helped you define and grow a distinct corporate culture?

KB: We've tried to grow our corporate culture as a family-owned and -operated business. I think everybody's not just bottom-line focused, but we're customer focused, realizing that if we take care of our customer that's going to result in better profits and better operations. In 2000, we took more advantage of what the ESOP (employee stock ownership plan) could do for us. Not only did it incentivize our people to work harder to grow the business, but it also gave us that working capital by not having to pay income tax.

BB: Speaking of the Mercedes family–your dad's still chairman; you've got two brothers and two sisters who are directors and responsible for different parts of the business–do you ever get away from it?

KB: You want to be sure that you hire the right people, put them in the right position, and then if you empower them to do the job, it makes life an awful lot easier.

BB: We understand that you're an avid saltwater fisherman.KB: I tend to do quite a bit of that on weekends. And I'll take a couple of trips a year down to the Bahamas; it's not far from here.

BB: What's your most prized catch?

KB: The biggest fish I ever caught was actually a 250-pound mako shark. That's the biggest thing I've put on a boat. But, last summer we caught probably an 85-pound yellowfin tuna. The biggest wahoo we ever had was probably 65 pounds, 70 pounds. It's a pretty big fish.