“The brand history is one of the most recognizable in the business,” Huff says. It’s recognized for outstanding design and outstanding quality. John Wieland, himself, had been a trendsetter in overall neighborhood design. I feel like I’m a steward of the value of the company.”
But he also knew there was a lot of work to be done. Wieland, a more than 40-year old brand name in the A-Town market, struggled through the doing downturn. In 2012, the company was sold to a joint venture formed by the Wieland family and Greenwich, Conn.-based real estate investment firm Wheelock Street Capital.
The new owners had a clear goal. “Our focus was to get the systems in place and get the land underneath us [to grow],” says Dan Green, principal at Wheelock and interim CEO at Wieland after his group bought the builder in 2012.
With founder John Wieland moving to the company’s chairman, the recapitalized firm needed a new CEO. Enter 20-year home building veteran Huff, who had serving as the Atlanta Division president of Ashton Woods Homes. In a way all roads led to Huff, who also served as Pulte’s Indianapolis division head.
“Greg’s name had given to me by several people,” Green says. “We were using a search firm and his name had been given to me. “He had the public home building DNA. He understood how the big boys think. He also had private home building experience with Ashton Woods, which is a much bigger company than Wieland,” He knew the Southeast
Though Wieland was a smaller, private builder, that background would come in handy. His mission was simple, yet challenging—preserve the company’s brand in its Southeastern markets, while using public builder skills to completely revamping its back-office systems and growing land base.
Building the Infrastructure
With his background at both public and private large builders, Huff was well equipped to add order to the chaos at Wieland.
“Greg is a really interesting leader,” says Joel Reed, a Centex veteran and the Chief Legal Officer at John Wieland. “He has such a broad range of experience in home building. He understands every aspect of the business. He can go deep into the weeds if needed. He also has the ability to step back and look at it from a big picture.”
John Wieland’s homes and neighborhoods attracted Huff to the job. “John will tell you he’s not an operations guy,” Green says. “He’s a creative genius. His plans and products are well liked and well received. But as far as standard base plans and setting up systems, that was what we lacked at Wieland.”
So, it’s no surprise that Huff’s first order of business was improving those systems. “Last year we focused on rebuilding,” Huff says. “With an outstanding brand, outstanding products and outstanding neighborhoods, the one knock that was out there was some of operational systems had been questioned quite a bit. So we spent a good portion of last year taking down all of our systems and distilling what was great and building back out of there.”
Huff began prototyping Wieland’s top-performing plans and developing a portfolio of its best ones. It developed standard features and signature standards. “We said the market is moving to 10-foot ceilings and every home should have WiFi,” Huff says. “Houses should be technology oriented and have the right energy package. All of those things we made part of signature standards of who we are.”
The manufacturing operation also needed some help. Wieland had struggled with both scheduling and estimating cost, but also in its communication with trade partners. Under Huff, the builder rebooted its website and added an operations management tool.
“When you put systems in place and bring technology to bare, which Wieland did not have, like automated point of sale systems and web-based systems, it makes it easier for the company and you’re also able to pull a lot of cost of the process,” Green says.
Last year Wieland posted a 15% increase in sales. This year Huff expects a 30% increase in closings. “We positioned the company well in Southeast,” Huff says. “Now we can buy land again and were a recognized force again.”
In 2015, Wieland plans to open an additional 14 neighborhoods in Atlanta and eight in its other core markets— Charleston, Charlotte, Raleigh, and Nashville. The company has an average sales price of around $500,000 on the first-time move and upscale move up buyers.
Huff’s plan for Wieland seems to be working. “We have taken what has been an entrepreneurial-driven organization and were turning it into an operation that is modeled after the operations of the big boys,” Reed says.
Green says Wieland is “making a nice return on investment” and “good” net income for Wheelock. Still with a number of home builder IPO’s in recent years (though the door seems to be shut there for now) and four major publics buying local builders in Atlanta since early 2014, one has to wonder what the future plan is at the builder. “It’s hard for a builder of any size or ownership structure to say what the future holds.” Huff says.
Right now, that isn’t Huff’s focus. “Our main goal is to run a great home building company,” he says. “By leveraging those changes and 45 years of experience, we feel like this is going to be an exciting time to go to the next level of quality and experience for our customers by our financial leverage. That’s our main focus. Whatever is around the corner, whether that’s another 45 years or someone chasing after us or the public market, the best we can do for any of those alternatives is to run a great home builder.”