Fifty years ago this April, Clifford and Joan Nies started to build homes in their hometown of Wichita, Kan., while Clifford was still a full-time employee at Boeing.
At the time, Cliff was in charge of overall operations while his wife, Joan, helped purchasers with the decorations of new homes and managed the rental side of the business. “It keeps your family together,” Joan had said of working for a family business in a 1980 BUILDER profile. “You have the same interests, the same things in common. Not all families get along, but we do.”
The Nies’ two daughters and their husbands worked for the company as well. Cherie (left), who was 22 at the time of our 1980 feature article, was in charge of construction bookkeeping and also helped with the interiors of homes.
Today, Cherie Nies-Cowgill heads the company’s sales operations and is its lead designer. In this role, she manifests her father’s vision of what a design/build firm can accomplish with individualized attention to each buyer.
Over the years, Clifford encouraged a company culture that would work to meet the unique needs of each family he served, even as Nies Homes grew to build up to 60 homes per year.
When Nies-Cowgill first meets with clients, she asks them to bring a wish-list and budget. In that same meeting, she opens up SoftCad and immediately has the buyers communicating their shared vision. “No one else can do what Cherie does,” says Clifford Nies. “People walk in with an idea and walk out with a set of preliminary plans. That’s a real advantage.”
While Nies still arrives at the office each day, it’s the next generation of his family who is steering the ship into the next half-century. Another daughter, Patty Nies-McCullough, is a certified public account and oversees the business operations. Nies-Cowgill’s adult sons, Nick Cowgill and Curtis Cowgill, are Nies Homes’ operations manager and estimating manager, respectively.
Their succession story is familiar to many sons and daughters of builders—this writer included. When Nies-Cowgill moved into a leadership role, however, she took strategic steps to fill her new seat at the company by taking CAD classes, attending consecutive International Builders’ Shows (IBS), and joining a 20 Club, which is a program offered through the NAHB for builders and remodelers to help members build better businesses. Nies-Cowgill says these actions helped the company maneuver through the last recession.
Today, Nies is focused on the future. Shortly after the company’s 50-year anniversary in April, BUILDER sat down with Clifford Nies and Cherie Nies-Cowgill to hear what’s next for the family business.
BUILDER: How has Cherie’s integration of sales and design changed the way a Nies Home comes together?
Clifford: It’s one of the key things we do differently; Cherie does all of the design and the CAD drawings. She designs the homes on the computer screen while they sit in the office. She’s an artist. She’s really learned how people live in their home.
Cherie: I am passionate about what I do. I love being able to design everything on our buyers’ wish list. You know, they say the woman makes 92 percent of household buying decisions. When customers sit down and I start asking questions about how they live, we make a connection and start to get comfortable. They fall in love with what we’re making for them.
With 50 years behind you, any words of wisdom on how to weather uncertainty and downturns?
Clifford: As you know, the cycles of housing go up and down. The main thing is to be flexible if you want to survive. Don’t get your overhead over proportion, or else you’ll have to lay people off. This is an aircraft town, and the first thing people can live without is their airplanes.
Cherie: In this last [recession], when I decided to step in and be involved in the business and run it, Clifford was concerned about building being a male-dominated industry. I joined the 20 Club, wanting an extra set of eyes to help me maneuver through this. It served me well through this last downturn, especially as a woman in a male-dominated industry. Things like not carrying a big inventory load were key. Joining the 20 Club was one of the most valuable things I did.
How has Nies adapted its designs to target millennials?
Cherie: My son Nick likes to put a younger spin on things. In a recent spec we built, Nick said, ‘Do you mind if I take this and put a spin on it for my generation?’ It became a fabulous blend of creative ideas. He put a lot of detail in it, a lot of features that people his age would love. There are more clean lines, clean trim details. He took out all my arches, squared things up. Also, he specs the technology—Nest thermostats, things like that.
Nick: We really focus on developing a high-end feel for little cost in the kitchen, with features like 48-inch-tall upper cabinets with glass in the upper doors and a simple metallic faux-finish range hood to look like a high-end metal hood. We have been able to utilize the exact same kitchen from a $250,000 house in a $400,000 house because of the high-end feel the extra details add.
What sustainability initiatives has Nies Homes taken on?
Cherie: We push the enveloped as much as we can in terms of what the market will pay for here. We’re in the Midwest, so it’s a little different than the coasts. For most of the past decade people would opt out of our energy efficiency package. But now we’ll include a high-efficiency AC furnace, low-E windows, finished basements, and upgraded insulation.
Do you have plans to expand outside of Wichita?
Cherie: We’re determined to be here for the next 50 years, so we’re on the cautious side. There are so many builders that got caught [with too much inventory] on the last downcycle. But we’ve considered it, and are considering opportunities now. The boys would like to do that, though they feel like they want our operations set up exactly as they want here, at home, first.
Clifford: We worked really hard for our money in the past 50 years, and it’s easy to lose money quick. I like to sleep at night. I think there’s a comfort level here, but if they want to move on and move outside, I’ll be here to support them. We’ve got Kansas City, Oklahoma City, all within three hours from here. But then again, there are builders there that know the market and we don’t. You’ve got to be careful.
What are your biggest challenges moving forward?
Cherie: We’re in a good place here. For me, it’s the unknown about interest rates and how that’s going to affect our market. Land isn’t an issue for us. Because we’re in the Midwest, there’s plenty of land in any direction. Also, the labor issue is not really a problem. We are consistent; our subs want to work for us. In many cases, the majority of their work comes from us.
Clifford: New competitors are always a challenge. Anyone with a pick-up truck and a saw can become a builder. When the times get good, new ones always come up. Though, Cherie has the talent that no one else has. People walk in with an idea and walk out with a set of preliminary plans. That’s a real advantage.