These builders crush the competition by collaborating with their employees, subs, and buyers. By Alison Rice/List research by Loretta Williams

At the founding of Amber Homes, the "team" was very small indeed. "We started the company literally in our family room--me, my wife, and Tom [Hoban, who was construction manager at the time]. We'd go around the table and discuss floor plans, development issues, and more," remembers Jim Harmon, president and CEO of the Aurora, Colo.-based builder. "As the company grew, I found it a very effective way of involving people in all aspects of the company."

Amber Homes has reaped the benefits. Last year, the company generated $31 million in revenue on 213 closings, making it the fastest-growing builder in terms of closings and the second fastest in revenue growth among this year's Fast Track home builders.

How did Amber do it? Through a collaborative approach that encourages speed, decision making by empowered employees, and information sharing across traditional barriers.

"The major advantage [to teaming] is brainpower," says Michael Beyerlein, Ph.D., director of the Center for the Study of Work Teams at the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas. "In a hierarchy, the thinking and the decision making is done at the top. The bottom is told what to do. You don't engage the full brainpower of the organization."

In contrast, teamwork does just that, allowing a builder to draw on the expertise, knowledge, and skills of everyone: the corporate office, field staff, subcontractors, and even buyers. Armed with more information, team members make better decisions individually and as a group, creating a company that's smarter, faster, and better.

For proof, just look at David Weekley Homes, which has increased revenue 15 percent since 1999, hitting $938 million in 2001. Teaming starts at the top for this Houston-based builder, where a "home services team" (a.k.a. the corporate office) supports a division team, which manages the project teams that oversee individual David Weekley communities.

But teamwork is more than a word at Weekley--it's a culture. Everyone must read books such as The Wisdom of Teams or Nuts! Southwest Airlines' Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success. Every new "team member" attends Weekley 101, a two-day orientation that includes building a Lego house as a team. Project managers must know both builder and sales jobs before being hired. The information sharing doesn't stop there: All project managers meet quarterly as a group with senior managers, where they share results and best practices, offering new solutions to problems others may be encountering.

"It really pays dividends in our ability to execute," says Mike Humphrey, vice president for operations at the large, private builder.

Fellow fast-growing builders agree. "Not one person can do it alone, especially in construction, where there are so many segments," says Brian Hanly, president and CEO of Syncon Homes, Roseville, Calif. "If they don't work together, the customer is going to have a terrible experience."

Inspiring employees

Builders with big plans know employees can have a critical impact on a company's growth curve. "You're only as good as your weakest link," says Zudi Karagjozi, CEO of Kara Homes, which leapfrogged to the top of this year's Fast Track list.

That elusive people factor is why smart fast trackers plan for growth with their employees just as they do with their construction or accounting systems.

Fast Stats
What does the average fast-growing builder look like? Here's a snapshot, based on the responses of this year's fast trackers:
Average revenue growth rate: 44%
Average closings growth rate: 100%
Average 2001 revenue: $266 million
Average 2001 closings: 1,089
Average number of employees: 317
Average number of years in business: 18

They don't always discover what they expect. In early 2000, as Sarasota, Fla.-based Lee Wetherington Cos. Prepped for expansion, the president and CEO surveyed his buyers and his employees. "I was ready to go into a growth mode, so I wanted to make sure I had the systems in place," says Lee Wetherington. "What I found was that I had some very unhappy people."

He addressed the problem in multiple ways, replacing top management, instituting profit sharing (budgeting $400,000 for this year alone), and establishing monthly team-building exercises to redevelop the cooperative, motivated company he sought. "It's not just about going to a seminar once a year and that's it," Wetherington says. "It's about changing the culture of the company."

The builder believes he has. "The [employee] surveys are 180 degrees different than they were," he says. So are his numbers. Customer satisfaction is up 8 percentage points. Revenue surged 57 percent from 2000 to 2001, outstripping a 47 percent closings jump.

"It's all about people," Wetherington says. "If they're not customer service-oriented internally, they're not customer service-oriented externally."

Creating that type of attitude within a company can be challenging. As any builder knows, "there's a natural animosity between sales and construction," says Peter Shaddock Jr., president of Plano, Texas-based Sotherby Homes, which has "worked hard" on teamwork in that relationship. Buyers are benefiting, and so is the builder; Sotherby has hit the Fast Track four years running.

Money helps. Fast-growing builders with financial incentive plans say the plans motivate employees toward higher performance, more cooperation, and a greater focus on the bottom line. "People are more willing to lend a hand to each other," says Matt Thompson, president of Thompson Homes, which established profit sharing in 1999. Since then, customer service has improved, revenues have increased (up 16 percent in the past three years), and an experienced work force has become one of the company's greatest assets, thanks to generous cash bonuses for performance.

"Obviously, we have no turnover," says Thompson.

That's a huge advantage for the West Chester, Pa., builder, who can forge ahead without the slowdown of replacing experienced employees. "Everyone chases the dollar," says Thompson. "It's easier for me to reward employees and know they'll stay with us for the long haul."

If employees do leave, the cross-training often involved in teamwork eases the transition. Ole South Properties learned that in a tragic way after a division president died last year. "It devastated us for three months," says John Floyd, president of the Murfreesboro, Tenn.-based builder, where now every employee must be cross-trained in another job. "We need to have more people in the know," he says.

Making a partner

Of course, fast-growing builders rely on far more people than just their employees. They also use tradespeople, subcontractors, and suppliers, who all affect the costs, quality, and ultimate profitability of a home.

Recognizing that, fast trackers big and small are applying the team approach outside their company, turning subs into trade partners by offering more business and opportunity for involvement in return for the subs' commitment to the builder.

"That's really the next frontier of teaming," Beyerlein says. "It's really a shift from a contractual arrangement to a relationship arrangement."

It's also an acknowledgment of what many in the home building business have realized all along. "A subcontractor needs a builder as much as the builder needs the subcontractor," says Randy Myers, president of Brownstone Homes in Portland, Ore. "Builders need those subcontractors to expand their business."

Trade partnering can make that expansion go far more smoothly. Before Brownstone adopted the concept, the fast-growing urban infill builder was plagued by punch-list items and timing problems that delayed moving dates by months. But no more, thanks to bimonthly trade partner meetings and a new scheduling approach. "Everyone knows we're in this together," says Myers, who expects to close 189 homes this year, a 70 percent increase from 2001.

Getting subs involved early can solve problems before they emerge. At Amber Homes, Harmon turns to a subcontractors' council for insight and expertise. "We can't have these things happening in a vacuum," believes the builder, who says he's saved time and money thanks to sharp-eyed subs who've pointed out technical issues--problematic air duct placements, for example--in floor plans.

Growing big builders like the system too. "People suspect us of trying to drive the price down, but we're trying to drive the price down by driving the costs down [for everybody]," says Kevin Hake, vice president and treasurer of K. Hovnanian Enterprises in Red Bank, N.J., which saw quality improvements when it implemented trade partnering in the Northeast. "We feel we'll all work more efficiently by concentrating volume."

They're certainly saving time and money. According to Jim Hoffner, director of quality assurance for Hovnanian's Northeast region, the builder has reduced cycle time by 14 days per home in communities with trade partnering, potentially saving the company $1.7 million in carrying costs.

Bonding with buyers

The final--and potentially most important--member of a fast-growing builder's team? Buyers.

"We're not in the service industry where we're serving buyers every day, but they're an integral part of the process," says Andy Mitchell, president of Syncon's Nevada division. "They're going to be in the process for a while, and they're going to be talking about us."

Some fast trackers spell out their team orientation for buyers, so customers know what's expected. "We explain to them that they're part of the team, that we understand [building a house] is an emotional process, and that if they have a misunderstanding, we want to work out the misunderstanding," says Wetherington, who believes the approach has kept his company safe from expensive lawsuits and time-consuming arbitration.

That idea--that buyers aren't just end users, but members of the home building team--represents a shift from builder/buyer relationships of the past. "Years and years ago, we used to keep sales and construction apart we thought we couldn't let buyers near the superintendent because he couldn't control them," Mitchell says. "We've flipped that 180 degrees."

Not surprisingly, teamwork has made it happen. At Syncon, the effects of more cooperative project teams and a schedule-based system rippled through the builder's operations and beyond. "Where we're really seeing the strongest improvement is in the relationship with buyers," says Mitchell. "We keep them involved throughout the process, and the end result is a much stronger relationship with the buyers. It's a snowball effect."

Fast Track 2002: Rankings #47-91

Rank Company/Address % Gross Revenue Change 1999-2001* 2001 Gross Revenue** % Closing Growth From 1999-2001 2001 Closings (What They Build) Year Founded No. Of Employees
47

Grand Homes 8350 N. Central Expwy., Suite 900, Dallas, TX 75206

32%

$195

38.35%

736 MU

1986

172

50

Westfield Homes USA 4300 West Cypress, Suite 980, Tampa, FL 33603

31%

$227

79.44%

1,353 EL, MU, LUX

1980

181

51

Lee Wetherington Cos. 6009 Business Blvd., Sarasota, FL 34240

30%

$52

37.38%

147 LUX

1981

60

52

Brookfield Homes of California 12865 Pointe Del Mar, Suite 200, Del Mar, CA 92014

29%

$630

15.24%

1,134 MU, LUX

1996

265

52

Woodstock Building Associates 78 Prospect St., Woodstock, CT 06281

29%

$5

83.33%

11 MU

1978

21

54

Kingsborough Homes 8750 90th St. S., Cottage Grove, MN 55016

27%

$13

21.62%

45 MU, LUX, SEC

1996

12

54

SeaGate Homes 185 Cypress Point Pkwy., Palm Coast, FL 32164

27%

$21

48.78%

183 EL, MU

1994

36

56

Kenco Enterprises 13736 N.E. Johnson St., Ham Lake, MN 55304

25%

$47

27.50%

255 EL, MU, LUX

1984

29

56

Essex Homes of W.N.Y. 8940 Main St., Clarence, NY 14031

25%

$25

10.71%

62 EL, MU, LUX

1992

23

56

Woodland Homes of Huntsville 1955 Blake Bottom Rd., Huntsville, AL 35806

25%

$14

43.90%

59 MU

1995

16

59

Toll Brothers 3103 Philmont Ave., Huntingdon Valley, PA 19006

23%

$2,230

22.59%

4,358 MU, LUX, AA, SEC

1967

2,725

59

Inverness Group 11305 Reed Hartman Hwy., Suite 201, Cincinnati, OH 45241

23%

$41

47.26%

215 EL, MU, AA

1994

42

61

Parkside Homes P.O. Box 272349, Fort Collins, CO 80527

22%

$12

57.58%

104 EL

1996

18

61

Park Square Homes 5200 Vineland Rd., Suite 200, Orlando, FL 32804

22%

$95

38.62%

481 MU, SEC

1984

83

61

Barry Andrews Homes 1 Vale Rd., Suite 100, Bel Air, MD 21014

22%

$46

36.07%

166 EL, MU, LUX

1987

42

64

WCI Communities 24301 Walden Center Dr., Bonita Springs, FL 34134

21%

$1,000

22.18%

2,049 MU, LUX, AA, SEC

1946

2,800

Rank

Company/Address % Gross Revenue Change 1999-2001* 2001 Gross Revenue** % Closing Growth From 1999-2001 2001 Closings (What They Build) Year Founded No. of Employees

64

Kimball Hill Homes 5999 New Wilke Rd., Suite 504, Rolling Meadows, IL 60008

21%

$714

13.03%

3,184 EL, MU, LUX, SEC

1939

630

64

The Villages of Lake Sumter 1100 Main St., The Villages, FL 32159

21%

$402

34.33%

2,074 AA

1959

1,874

67

D.R. Horton 1901 Ascension Blvd., Suite 100, Arlington, TX 76006

20%

$4,728

19.59%

22,772 EL, MU, LUX, AA, SEC

1978

5,000

67

The Thrush Cos. 357 West Chicago Ave., Chicago, IL 60610

20%

$60

29.17%

217 EL, MU, LUX

1980

25

67

Don Simon Homes 2800 Royal Ave., Suite 210, Madison, WI 53713

20%

$50

17.06%

247 EL, MU

1963

55

70

Intervest Construction 2359 Beville Rd., Daytona Beach, FL 32119

19%

$153

3.91%

638 EL, MU, LUX, AA, SEC

1980

109

71

Michael Crews Development P.O. Box 300429, Escondido, CA 92030

18%

$21

11.63%

48 MU, LUX

1980

64

71

Venture Homes 1580 Terrell Mill Rd., Marietta, GA 30067

18%

$74

31.74%

440 EL, MU

1984

85

71

Realen Homes 1040 Stony Hill Rd., Suite 100, Yardley, PA 19067

18%

$139

45.18%

482 EL, MU, LUX, AA

1968

170

74

Thompson Homes 981-a S. Bolmar St., West Chester, PA 19382

16%

$23

-9.68%

28 LUX

1975

18

74

Morrison Homes 3700 Mansell Rd., Suite 300, Alpharetta, GA 30022

16%

$696

11.25%

2,936 EL, MU

1977

675

74

Choice Homes 1600 E. Lamar Blvd., Arlington, TX 76011

16%

$424

18.23%

3,652 EL, MU

1987

375

74

Warmington Homes California 3090 Pullman St., Costa Mesa, CA 92626

16%

$338

0.91%

773 EL, MU, LUX, AA

1926

300

78

T.H. Properties 345 Main St., Harleysville, PA 19438

15%

$69

27.60%

319 EL, MU

1992

120

78

Hayden Homes 2622 S.W. Glacier Pl., Suite 110, Redmond, OR 97756

15%

$41

10.13%

337 EL

1992

26

78

Ashton Woods Homes 1405 Old Alabama Rd., Roswell, GA 30076

15%

$494

27.67%

2,404 MU

1990

375

Rank

Company/Address % Gross Revenue Change 1999-2001* 2001 Gross Revenue** % Closing Growth From 1999-2001 2001 Closings (What They Build) Year Founded No. of Employees
78

David Weekley Homes 1111 N. Post Oak Rd., Houston, TX 77055

15%
$938
14.92%

3,412 EL, MU, LUX

1976
980
82

The Hamlet Cos. 470 E. 3900 S., Suite 200, Salt Lake City, UT 84107

14%
$38
10.13%

250 EL

1994
55
82

Brighton Homes 1311 N.W. Freeway, Suite 310, Houston, TX 77040

14%
$157
17.05%

707 EL, MU

1975
150
82

Spectrum Skanska 115 Stevens Ave., Valhalla, NY 10595

14%
$194
51.43%

265 EL, MU, LUX, AA, SEC

1985
175
82

Beazer Homes USA 5775 Peachtree Dunwoody Rd., Suite B-200, Atlanta, GA 30342

14%
$1,805
19.37%

9,059 EL, MU, AA, SEC

1985
2,800
82

Highland Holdings 4110 S. Florida Ave., Suite 200, Lakeland, FL 33813

14%
$31
32.59%

297 EL, MU

1996
30
87

Centerline Homes 12534 Wiles Rd., Coral Springs, FL 33076

13%
$81
16.54%

310 MU, LUX, AA

1994
75

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