Ask Caleb McCaleb about his success strategies for McCaleb Homes and he’s quick to cite putting women in key positions at his Oklahoma City, Okla., company.
“That’s the biggest secret is you let the women run the deal,” says McCaleb. “I promise if you look at the most successful builders they have turned it over to women. I get to make the financial decisions.”
A woman designs McCaleb’s homes, another plans the interiors. There’s a woman sales manager, accounts manager, and office manager as well. Only the construction manager is male, but McCaleb tells him to pretend he’s a woman when he’s looking at the final fit and finish of a home during a walk through.
For McCaleb it just makes sense. He sells a lot of homes to single women; and when a couple is buying it’s usually the woman who seals the deal, so it makes sense to create product that appeals to the female buyer. And his experience has shown him that a woman home designer can make a concrete difference in sales.
“There is no way a guy is going to be designing our houses,” he says. For McCaleb the proof of a woman designer’s worth came in the 1990s when Oklahoma was in a recession created by the energy bust. He went looking for a home designer who was drawing homes that people were buying. By word of mouth he heard about Carol Lavender, principal of Lavender Design Group in San Antonio, Texas. He hired her, built some of her plans, and noticed a difference immediately.
“What we found is that women would go into the house and go, ‘Aha, somebody knew what they were doing when they designed that,’” McCaleb said
So in 2005, when Lavender told him that he had to move to building smaller homes, he listened. “She saw the market starting to collapse and she said Country French and Old World [design] is done. Everybody has been doing it for 10 years,” he recalled.
They went into Oklahoma City’s older neighborhoods for inspiration and found it in Craftsmen bungalows from the early part of the last century. Lavender drew up some plans with open interiors in the 1,500- to 2,000-square-foot range with Craftsman details on the exteriors.
“I was skeptical until we built the parade home in the style. It had a wrap-around porch, a cozy cottage look. I was on the parade route every day listening to people and all of a sudden you realized that she was right,” McCaleb remembers. He had been building homes and selling them in the $600,000 range. These new homes were more in the $300,000 range, but he followed her suggestions.
“I went out and bought the land and started developing at that price point,” he said. “We had 10 speculative houses in that $500,000 to $800,000 range and you could hardly give them away. It was very, very fortunate that we found her.”
Carol Lavender gives McCaleb the credit for being willing to try something different. “He really stuck his neck out there,” she recalls. “It’s a rare case when somebody says, ‘I’ll take the whole package,’ and then you go, ‘Wow, gosh, that’s great. I hope I’m right.’”
It was Lavender’s suggestion 10 years ago that McCaleb start using home designs that are more flexible, where an extra bedroom or a third garage bay can be easily added to an existing plan, giving sales people a way to give buyers the ability to easily customize their homes.
Some of the other design details she focuses on are the simple details that make living in a home easier: the number of steps from the kitchen to the dining room, something that becomes important when you’re carrying the Thanksgiving turkey to the table; or the number of steps from the garage to where you unload groceries in the kitchen. She’s also a big proponent of keeping the laundry room off the entry to the home because the mess and laundry piles cause women stress when they walk into the home from work.
She designs kitchens where children can easily get drinks from refrigerator drawers in islands or operate microwaves that are placed lower to the ground.
McCaleb, of course, stresses that he doesn’t hire people just because they are women, but because they are the best people for the job. He went to Lavender because she had a reputation for designing homes that sell and she, coincidentally, happened to be a woman.
“You have to put the best people in the job,” he said. In the case of the company’s interior designer that person happened to be McCaleb’s wife, an Oklahoma State-trained interior designer.
“A lot of builders use their wives [as interior designers], but if she hadn’t been good, we wouldn’t have used her,” he said.
Teresa Burney is a senior editor for Builder magazine.