It was almost 22 years ago, but Zack Jones recalls the moment like it was yesterday. After going through the formalities of his first interview with a home builder—the paperwork, typical questions, and so forth—the hiring manager stopped the interview and said, “I have some concerns about hiring you.” Perplexed, Jones asked why. “Let's take a walk,” said the manager. “From now on, it's off the record.” Jones's dismay turned into shock. The concern, the man said on the walk, was the color of Jones' skin.

Not that this particular building organization itself had a problem with it, he insisted. They were more concerned about how subcontractors would interact with him—and, more specifically, how Jones would react.

The home building world has changed. But by how much? Builders want to be viewed as sophisticated corporate enterprises rather than pickup truck operations, but if you use diversity as a yard-stick to compare them with glitzier industries, clearly they lag behind. According to data from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, African Americans, for instance, comprise only about 1.5 percent of “officials and managers” in the residential building construction category. The number for telecommunications is 11.5 percent.

Builders even have a powerful profit incentive to diversify—to reach burgeoning markets. The University of Georgia's Selig Center for Economic Growth projects an increase in the nation's black buying power from $761 billion in 2005 to $1 trillion in 2010. That's up from $318 billion in 1990. According to Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies, the number of African American home buyers is growing. In the first-time home buyer category alone, African Americans totaled 4.3 million in 2003, compared with 3.2 million 1991. In the trade-up category, African American home buyers totaled 2.1 million in 2003, up from 1.4 million in 1991. And those numbers should continue to rise—particularly in the South, a region that's already among the hottest in the country, says Eric Belsky, executive director of the Joint Center. Belsky notes that the African American market segment has not received the attention that it might deserve, because of all the focus on the burgeoning Hispanic market, which is more impressive in percentage increases. Yet African Americans look impressive in terms of numbers.

Still, home building is one of the oldest industries around, and it can be said further that African Americans are the oldest ethnic population not to break fully into the business. “They haven't been leaders in this field,” says Dr. Roosevelt Thomas, president and founder of the American Institute for Managing Diversity. “They're just starting out.” Meanwhile, he says, companies in other industries are a generation ahead, working to figure out how to “take it to the next level.”

In spite of this, several African Americans are leaving their imprint on the home building industry, possibly suggesting a slow shift in diversity levels. Further, a look at some of the stars in the business—both those emerging and those in peak flight—may shed some light on what home builders can do if they want to broaden their talent base.

As for where the industry will be in 10 to 15 years, Lance Gunn, a hungry young talent at Pulte, sums it up: “It's going to become where it's not even worth writing a story about.” FALSE START: Despite Zack Jones's inauspicious introduction to the industry, he overcame obstacles with a positive attitude.

ZACK JONES TITLE: Former Dallas division president, Choice Homes

CAREER: Jones' home building career got off to a rather inauspicious start at Gemcraft Homes, but he remains grateful for the opportunity. He did end up dealing with a lot of people who used the “n” word, just as the hiring manager had expressed concern over. But, “it turned out to be a real positive experience because I was positive,” he says. Most workers who used the word, he said, didn't even realize it had a negative connotation, so Jones simply started carrying around a dictionary with him and did some educating.

At Gemcraft, he served as project manager and community manager, with exposure to sales, construction, and marketing all in one job. After three years, in 1987, he moved to New Jersey to take a position with Union Valley Corp. because he thought the opportunities would be better up north; in addition, Union Valley developed its own land, and he wanted to learn that side. In 1991, as his family yearned to return to Texas, he caught on with D.R. Horton as a construction manager—and then came Choice Homes, a builder “so small they didn't have any management positions.” To Jones, that meant opportunity. “My wife thought I was crazy,” he said, “but I liked the people.”

At Choice he started out as a superintendent and moved up to Dallas division president, a post he left in November 2005, after 12 years with the company.

STRATEGIC POSITION: Currently, Jones consults with minority builders and, as a free agent, is in discussions with other builders for a full-time post. Just as with Choice, gelling with his future colleagues is the deal-maker. “Having fun making money is my philosophy.”

ON DIVERSITY: Jones has seen a world of change since that 1984 interview back in Texas. “There aren't many [minority leaders] that I'm aware of, but the attitudes are different,” he says. The issue now, he says, is one of human nature. Managers, he says, “hire people they know.” To get beyond that, Jones suggests “going to all the schools, not just the black schools.” He urges that employers be sincere, going after talent first—“because it's out there.”

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Los Angeles, CA.