In a crisis, the most precious commodity is a positive attitude—and that’s what Sandy Dunn, the incoming NAHB president, brings to the association. Dunn, who took over B.J. Builders in Point Pleasant, W.Va. from her father, Bartow Jones, was taught early on that quitting is not an option. Jones had a large sign over his desk with the word “CAN’T” and a big black brush mark painted through it. The sign was a reminder that the word “can’t” was not acceptable, an important lesson for a woman who would ultimately work—and thrive—in a male-dominated profession. Dunn joined the NAHB in the mid-1970s and has been an important force in the emerging clout of BUILD-PAC, the NAHB’s political arm.
Dunn comes to politics naturally. Her great-grandfather was a member of Virginia’s House of Delegates, and her grandfather was chairman of the Democratic party in Mason County, W.Va. Her father chaired the Mason County Republican party and served in the State Senate.
Dunn’s brother Brereton Jones served as governor of Kentucky and her brother Ned Jones served in the W.Va. State Senate. Likewise, Dunn has been involved in politics. She served as an elected official on the city council in Point Pleasant from 1978 to 1982. And she is the second woman to serve as NAHB president. The first was Shirley Wiseman in 1989.
What attracted you to the home building industry, and how did you get started?
My father, Bartow Jones, was a builder who started in the early 1940s. He founded B.J. Builders in 1953. After college, I married a builder, and we moved back to Point Pleasant. My husband then went to work for my father. I loved to help my husband draw house plans and go out on jobsites with him. In 1970, my husband was offered the job as the head administrator at the local state hospital. At the time, he was building a house for the state of West Virginia, and it would have been a conflict of interest for him to finish the house. I kept telling my husband and my father that I was the logical person to finish the job. This met with a lot of resistance. In the end, I convinced them, but only after I agreed that once the job was done I would return home to take care of my little ones, which included a set of triplets. As I was finishing the first house, a young couple came to me and wanted me to build them a small house. By this time, I knew that I wanted to stick with the business. So I drew up the plans, got their loan approved, and sold them one of my father’s lots. Then I approached my Dad and told him I was going to build another house. He said, ‘Absolutely not; you are going back home to take care of your family.’ I said, ‘Well Dad, you have two choices … you can either let me build the house or send me to jail.’ His eyes got as big as saucers, and that was when I told him that I had signed his name to the contract to build the house on his lot. To say I was nervous was an understatement, but deep down I knew he would be proud of me for fighting for what I wanted. His response was, ‘Okay, but once this house is finished, you go back home to take care of your children,’ and my answer was, ‘Yes sir.’ Mom and Dad then left for a two-month vacation, and when they returned home I had two more houses started, and Dad never asked me to go home again. For the next 22 years, Dad and I worked side by side. What an unbelievable experience; he taught me so much.
What type of homes do you build? What’s your company’s niche in its local market?
I have built everything from a 900-square-foot home to a 6,500-square-foot house, both custom and spec. Right now, we’re doing spec building on entry-level homes at a price point of around $110,000 to $175,000. I’m a small builder. I’ve never built more than 12 homes in any one year. Since we don’t have the big builders putting up large projects in Mason County, we really provide a service by offering entry-level spec homes. No one else does that in our trade area. Sure, I could build a $250,000 house, but I would eliminate 75 percent of my potential buyers. Our customers tend to be first-time home buyers, retired couples wanting something smaller, and some move-up buyers. It’s a very manageable company. I’ve got the same foreman who started with me in 1970, and our office manager has been with us 29 years. I also own a real estate brokerage, Homestead Realty, and the assistant who runs that company has been with me 28 years.
How did you get interested in the association?
Sometime in the mid-1970s, I bought a panelized home package from National Homes. The salesman, Carroll Hoffman, was very hands-on. He would come over, put on a nail apron, and help put the house up. We became good friends, and in 1975 he encouraged me to join the NAHB. He said I would gain more building and management knowledge and help the company become more professional. The closest NAHB chapter was 56 miles away in Charleston, W.Va. During the first year, I only attended four meetings and really didn’t take advantage of what the association offered. When I realized that I hadn’t put much into it either, I decided I was going to get involved ... .
I went to the state convention later that year and didn’t know a soul, but I left knowing the names of 40 people. During that first convention, one of the field reps from the NAHB office explained the workings of the NAHB to me and how I could get involved. At the convention, I went to the Spike Club luncheon and was told if you sign up new members, you get Spike credits. The Spike Club is a prestigious group within the NAHB that works on membership recruitment. Because I lived so far away from my local chapter, I thought it would be difficult for me to recruit new members, but when I got home I decided I was going to try. I spent the first hour each morning calling suppliers, builders, bankers, and lawyers, convincing them that they needed to join the NAHB. By the end of the month, I had 26 Spike credits. I then went to the 1976 International Builders’ Show in Dallas and just got hooked.
What have you gained from all your years with the NAHB?
The most important thing is friendships. There’s no way you can put a dollar value on the friendships I’ve made over the years with people all over the country. What I like about our group is that builders by nature really help one another. They aren’t afraid of sharing their successes. I find that I learn as much sitting around with groups of people as I do attending the meetings. Through the seminars and classes, I’ve really honed my management skills. I am a better builder and businesswoman because of the NAHB. The time and money you spend to be involved pays big dividends.
What are the most important issues confronting the industry today?
The most important issue is the credit crunch. We’re very much aware of how severe the downturn has been for some of our members. It has hit states such as Arizona, California, Florida, and Nevada very hard. Since this whole credit crunch started last summer, the NAHB has been working with a lot of important players such as Treasury officials, people from major commercial banks, key members of Congress, and the CEOs of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. When the NAHB met with Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke in September, all of the Fed’s Board of Governors attended the meeting. That’s very unusual, because typically when the NAHB meets with the Fed it’s just with the chairman.
What progress have you made thus far?
We have made members of Congress and government policy makers more aware of the importance of the home building industry and its role in building a healthy economy. We have also started a continuing dialog concerning the government-sponsored enterprises and the modernization of the FHA to assure financing for affordable housing, and we will continue to push to bring liquidity to the housing finance market.
Why do so many builders tend to blame the downturn on the press?
The main point we’d like to get across to the media is that the sky is not falling. Not all markets across the country are bad. The myth is that home values are in a free fall. To argue that values will decline and never recover, you’d have to prove that it will cost less to build a new home a few years from now. That would mean the cost of materials, labor, and land would be cheaper, and that isn’t going to happen. All the fundamentals are in place for more growth, most notably the population is growing and generating more demand. If you read what they write in the press, you would think that it’s all over. But people are going to need housing. What’s being hit the hardest are the markets that were the hottest. The NAHB’s analysis of the S&P/Case-Shiller report for last September found that the nation’s hottest 20 markets sustained a 4.9 percent price decline from September 2006 to September 2007, but those same markets had gained 95 percent since January 2000.
What will the NAHB be doing this year to promote green building?
A lot. We’ll kick things off at the International Builders’ Show on Green Day, Feb. 14, when we’ll introduce the Certified Green Professional designation for builders and remodelers and launch the NAHB National Green Building Program. People are a little confused about the difference, so I usually say the designation is about the builder, the program is about the project, how green the home is. We have a brand-new national certification tool at www.nahbgreen.org that local verifiers will use to score the house after inspection.
Builders will also use the tool to determine in advance what score they can achieve based on what their customer wants to pay or what the market preference is. We’re also looking forward to the 10th anniversary of the NAHB National Green Building Conference in May in New Orleans. We expect to almost double our attendance at the conference this year.
What do you think it will take for the industry to pull out of the downturn?
I’ve been a builder since 1970. Until 1992, our industry used to cycle every four years. After 1992, we weren’t hurt, but I learned some important lessons in going through those downturns: Tighten your belt, build to your market, and diversify. We’ve been down this road many times, but it will take time to recover. History proves that housing is very resilient, and builders are tough. There’s a demand for 18 million new homes and apartments over the next 10 years. We will recover and come back stronger.
What are your priorities for the association moving into 2008?
One of the things I want to do is energize the grassroots. I want to get more young people involved. The NAHB needs the wealth of knowledge of its experienced members, but we also need new blood. Having worked with my Dad for 22 years, I experienced how a mix of youth and experience can benefit a company.
I also want to make our advocacy program even bigger and better than it already is. BUILD-PAC is the NAHB’s political arm. It gives us access to people we need to see and helps us stay politically involved and strong. In the last election cycle, we raised $4 million. This cycle, we will raise $5 million, but that’s not enough. I hope to broaden BUILD-PAC’s base of support by encouraging all of our members to make a contribution, no matter how small or how large. My No. 1 goal is to make our political action committee No. 1 on Capitol Hill and our advocacy program second to none. B