Five years ago John Wieland was busy buying a multi-million-dollar sculpture to donate to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, spending leisure time in his New York City penthouse, and envisioning new communities for his thriving company. "That was when the living was easy," quips the 72-year-old founder and CEO of John Wieland Homes and Neighborhoods.
Now the recession has driven the legendary builder back to the front lines at his 38-year-old company where he's working to generate cash to keep his bankers happy and his decimated business alive.
The Midtown Manhattan condo overlooking Central Park and the company's 75,000-square-foot headquarters building near Atlanta's airport are for sale.
And, in an effort to spur sales of his 300-plus inventory homes and reenergize his remaining employees, Wieland himself has hit the road in a lime-green Winnebago for a home-selling marathon.
By day, he hopscotches between his communities, preaching to customers that now is the right time to buy. By night, he sleeps on a twin mattress on the floors of his empty spec homes, vowing to return to his own comfortable bed in Atlanta when 101 are sold.
"I felt like I had to make this personal statement," Wieland said of his road trip and sleeping arrangements. "This is the right time for the CEO to get out there with the people."
After seven rounds of layoffs, which left the company with only a fourth of its former workforce of 1,100, and watching his homes sit unsold month after month, Wieland felt the need to do something more hands-on to improve the company's situation.
Yes, sleeping on the floor of his unsold houses is "a little weird," agrees Wieland. But the weirdness helps garner attention to his message. And it's not as weird as some other schemes he had dreamt up.
"I didn't say I was going to live in the Winnebago and hold my meetings on top like NASCAR," he says. "Somebody told me, 'Why don't you try staying in the houses since you own so many of them.'"
So Wieland loaded a twin mattress from a spare bedroom at home and a battery-powered lantern for reading in bed at night and headed out in the custom-painted RV. After busy days of traveling through Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Tennessee and chatting up customers and employees, Wieland spends the evening hours in the RV, dubbed the Wiebago, working on a laptop docked in the dining banquette. Often, happy homeowners knock on his door, bringing him cookies and other treats. Other times, he thaws out a Lean Cuisine for dinner.
At about 10:30, he walks or rides his yellow gas-powered scooter to whatever house he's scheduled to sleep in that night.
"Then you go to the home and you are like a homeowner," says Wieland, sitting in the Wiebago's beige banquette one rainy morning after his 22nd night on the road. The immersion has allowed him to see things from a different perspective. "When you wake up in the morning in your own neighborhood, you see things that you have never seen just driving through. You say 'Oh my gosh, I can see why nobody buys this home.'"
But finding flaws within his communities and rallying his employees is not the central purpose of Wieland's trip. Raising cash and showing his banks what he's willing to do to get it is the big goal.
"That's the reason for this sale and the reason for the tour," says Wieland. "Our cash position is good but not what it should be. … We are still in compliance with all our [borrowing] covenants and we will be for a couple more quarters. But we are appropriately nervous."