It’s doubtful anyone at Ozark Adventist Academy had a senior project like brothers Curtis Cowgill, 30, and Nick Cowgill, 27. Each was given the opportunity to design, price, build, and sell a house during their senior year of high school. “‘The money you make is yours to keep,’” recalls Nick. “It gave us an overall idea of what it takes to build a house and whether it was something we wanted to pursue.”
The Cowgill brothers already knew something about home building. As the third generation at Wichita, Kan.–based Nies Homes, a family-owned custom builder that celebrated 50 years in April, the two grew up sweeping floors after school and talking about the trade around the dinner table. Building their own homes meant walking the process from start to finish—a challenge Nick recalls favorably: “Being a home builder means using my skills in different ways: design, sales, operations. There are always new opportunities for growth.”
Today, Curtis is the company’s marketing and IT manager, and Nick is the operational manager, though their roles often color outside title lines. Where Curtis claims the role of computer guy, Nick identifies as the process guy. As they expand into leadership roles, the brothers are preparing as if they’ll be running the company one day.
Nies Homes expected to close 65 custom-built homes in 2014—its highest volume to date—and in 2013, its staff more than doubled, from eight employees to 19. In light of this growth, the Cowgills are focused on transferring knowledge from veteran employees to the next generation.
“There’s an incredible amount of industry experience here,” says Nick, noting that he’s grateful for those who have worked with his family’s business for more than a quarter-century. Using technology, he is working to translate that knowledge into processes that could be scaled up in the future.
Heading the in-house advisory board is 79-year-old company founder Clifford Nies, who still comes to work each day. Curtis is working with Clifford to impart his wisdom to younger staff: “Clifford has always done an incredibly good job of balancing concerns for the economy with how much we put out there,” Curtis says. “Learning his reasoning is important.”
Bucking the reputation of swashbuckling millennials, Curtis is humble. He envisions how his role will evolve. “The company that Clifford created and our mother, Cherie, helped to carry on is one that people want to be a part of,” he says. “It doesn’t make sense for us to come into a 50-year-old company and say, ‘This is how we’re going to do things.’”
Nick and Curtis are strikingly like-minded regarding the company’s future. Before considering expansion, they see room for operational improvement and perhaps a transition to a semi-custom model.
“As we transition to the next generation, we may have to alter the company to fit our skillset,” Nick says. But there’s no doubt Nies will continue the tradition of focusing on exceptional product and services.
Curtis is optimistic about what’s to come. “My hope would be in another 50 years our grandkids would throw us a 100-year anniversary party like we did for Clifford this year.”