NORTHVILLE, Mich.—Jennifer Hubenschmidt is keeping busy, having a better than good year. While each October day burns a paint-box of autumnal hues into the maples and oaks along Wayne County's 6 Mile Road in Northville, about a 25-minute drive west of downtown Detroit, Toll Brothers' fiscal year inches closer to its Halloween midnight finish line. Toll executives hope one day to reminisce on fiscal 2006 from a safer, more serene distance.
“Last year at this point, the first time someone came in, I knew what homesite they wanted, what model they wanted, what their budget was, what their timeline was,” says Hubenschmidt of the bygone sellers' market. “Now, on the first visit, I know grandchildren's names, how many pets, and how many times they've moved.”
However, in August and September, Hubenschmidt—a 32-year-old sales star who vowed as a child in nearby Canton, Mich., that she would never be caught dead in sales—and her team signed contracts for eight more buyers of Steeplechase's 274 estate-style homes, which are priced in the mid-$500s and up. Eight sales in eight weeks stands as outright defiance of a Detroit market that has been “struggling to stabilize” far longer than much of the rest of the country.
She's on pace to hit $15 million to $16 million in sales for the year, somewhat off her huge 2005 performance of $23 million, but about the same level she achieved in 2004. That year, she took time off when she gave birth to her pride and joy, her daughter Allie, now 2-and-a-half years old.
For Hubenschmidt, every idiosyncrasy that surfaces in a buyer becomes a data point of opportunity for her “to close.” She didn't double-degree in psychology and marketing at the University of Michigan for nothing. You want to check out the property line in the woods to see how deep the lot is? She'll trudge right out through the mud on the site with you, whether she's in high heels or Wellingtons.
With a couple of homes due to deliver in time for trick-or-treaters, about 13 homes in backlog, and prospects ranging from “the deposit check should be in the mail this week” to not-ready-to-pull-the-trigger, there are 161 homes left to sell at Steeplechase. From the moment she sold her first home at Steeplechase—at 5 a.m. in the “grand opening” tent on a teeth-clattering Valentine's Day in 2003—to presiding over final paperwork for a deal on a “quick-delivery” or spec home on a pristine Indian summer day in the middle of “the downturn,” an eight-hour work day with Hubenschmidt is nothing less than a clinic in how to take a playing field, any playing field, and tip it up so it slants in your favor. Hubenschmidt is a self-professed “sailor mouth,” but what comes out of her mouth most often is laughter, exuberance in doing exactly what she's doing.
First thing each Monday, a sales meeting takes place in the sumptuous solarium of the Carlton model and sales center at Steeplechase: clipboards and manila folders are within easy reach of the Steeplechase “sales” team—Hubenschmidt, project manager Jon Thorburn, marketing manager Christina Julian, sales associate Jessica Hill, and marketing coordinator Nichole Phillips. Not present, because he's probably at one of the homesites, pulling proverbial rabbits out of a hat, is construction manager Kevin Kube.
9:30 A.M. Thorburn calls the meeting to order and helps himself to the obligatory fresh donuts and coffee. His agenda includes marketing items, “current buyers and homeowners,” new agreements, and current deposits. Bursts of laughter punctuate the checklists, status reports, and new items. They finish each other's sentences like old married couples.
In Northville's primary market area, there are currently 116 resale properties listed with Realtors in the $600,000 to $900,000 price range. Even as the domestic automobile industry struggles, car makers and their parts manufacturers continue to transfer in consultants, advisors, troubleshooters, turnaround specialists, and new blood in hopes of jump-starting their fortunes.