John Wieland Homes And Neighborhoods, Atlanta
1,608 Units JOHN WIELAND DOESN'T DAYDREAM about unit count, gross revenue, or profit margin. Instead, his mind's eye focuses on how to continue making the company he founded years, that concentration has centered on building more than houses that happen to sit side-by-side; he spends his days envisioning and creating whole neighborhoods—the way those homes complement each other and are complemented by the community entrances, landscaping, and amenities surrounding them.

“John thinks with both sides of his brain. He can see the big picture and the details,” says Debbie Babb, vice president of marketing, who has worked with Wieland for 29 years.

That attention to both sides of his home building business has helped Atlanta-based Wieland succeed in what he calls “the sweet spot of the market,” between entry-level production and pure custom builders. No doubt Wieland's vision has facilitated much of the company's growth—including into a handful of other Southern markets—but the focus on distinctive design, customer service, and community involvement, administered by many long-serving employees, has solidified Wieland's position as a top builder.

John Wieland (left), chairman and chief creative officer; Terry Russell (center), CEO; Eric Price (right), president and COO
John Wieland (left), chairman and chief creative officer; Terry Russell (center), CEO; Eric Price (right), president and COO

“Our name isn't accidental,” Wieland says of the company that bears his name. “Five years ago we were really good home builders. Now we're very good neighborhood creators and very good home builders.”

That's due in part to a move Wieland made a year ago, when at age 68, he created a new role for himself. Now, in addition to his title of chairman, he serves as the company's chief creative officer, responsible for the big picture: new neighborhood creation. He handed the reins of day-to-day operations to his two long-time managers, Terry Russell, now CEO, and Eric Price, president and COO.

These days, Wieland concentrates much of his effort on the company's land acquisition. His strategy is simple: Find affordable parcels that fit with the company's ideas for new neighborhoods. “You shouldn't buy land you don't have a vision for,” he asserts. “You should close your eyes and see the houses and have a sense of the neighborhood and community that should be there in three or five years.”

Recently booming land prices might have led other builders to overspend on dirt, but Wieland has stood firm, continuing to refuse to pay “super premium” prices for land. Though that strategy might mean buying fewer lots or in less hot areas, not being locked into a certain amount of growth is one of the benefits of being a private company, he explains.

NO PLACE LIKE HOME: John Wieland Homes and Neighborhoods strives to create destination developments that include attractive amenities.
NO PLACE LIKE HOME: John Wieland Homes and Neighborhoods strives to create destination developments that include attractive amenities.

Price acknowledges that some of those pieces of land have been on the edge of the hot market. But, he explains, that strategy allows the builder to spend less on land and more on amenities and details that enhance the neighborhood, such as a golf course or clubhouse. “We can turn it into something special for the customer,” he says. “Then, if they have to drive an extra 10 or 15 miles, that's not as important as driving through the entrance and having a sense that they've arrived at their home and neighborhood.”

The neighborhoods Wieland builds are becoming increasingly diverse, with mixed-use and traditional neighborhood developments (TND) added to the mix in recent years. Mixed-use, higher-density neighborhoods counterbalance higher land prices in sought-after areas, Price says, while TNDs respond to the desire of local governments to redevelop their city centers.

The builder has just celebrated a first anniversary in Ivy Walk, its first mixed-use development in Atlanta. When completed, the project will include 60,000 square feet of commercial space, topped and backed by about 130 townhomes, which will sell from the $300,000s to the mid $500,000s. (Wieland started a separate commercial division to develop and build the office and retail spaces.)

Financial Performance
Financial Performance

The move into mixed-use and TNDs has only improved business. Gross revenue increased by 20 percent in fiscal year 2004, while unit volume was up 14 percent. What's more, it's propelling expansion, as the company moves into a large TND in new market Louisville, Ky., this year.

Winning Formula
Behind John Wieland's vision for compelling neighborhoods lies what he describes as the true driver of the company: unique design. “If you drive into one of my neighborhoods,” he asserts, “you might say it costs too much, it's the wrong location, or you don't like the architectural look, but you will never say you can find the same thing across the street.”Russell says that distinctiveness keeps Wieland ahead of its competition. “When we start competing on price only, we don't do well,” he says. “We do well when we add value to the consumer through better execution. We can't discount our way to success.”

For this builder, incorporating value starts with researching other builders' approaches to neighborhood creation, Russell says, combined with the company's creativity and knowledge of what a given market's customers are looking for. “We want to create a sense of community that is unique to that location,” he says. “We design club facilities to be used, not just to look good. We design entrances that mature over 10 years, not two.”

Wieland has a long-range view with its warranty, too. While a 2/10 warranty is common among the builder's competitors, Wieland offers a five-year warranty on all mechanical components of the home and a 20-year structural guarantee.

Price says the strong quality of Wieland homes—which he says has increased significantly during his 14 years with the company—enables the company to offer the substantial warranty. “When you're building great homes, you can offer great warranties, and it doesn't put you in a bad position,” he says, adding, “It's a tremendous marketing tool.”

In many cases, though, the company need look no farther than its previous buyers to find its next customers. By Babb's count, of the 21,000 home buyers who have worked with Wieland, about 2,200 have returned for another new home.

Team Work
John Wieland's 1,200 employees work hard—but for many, their long employment histories attest to their fondness for the company. Price's tenure stretches back to 1990. Russell has been among Wieland's top managers for 19 years. And there's Babb, who has witnessed—and help lead—the company's evolution. “I've been here 29 years, and I've never been bored,” she says. “It's not been like working at the same company for 29 years, just working with some of the same people for a long time.”

Babb attended the company's first vacation, something Wieland started to reward employees when the company wasn't making much money but has now become a tradition. (Employees who have worked for Wieland for two years or more are eligible for the trips.)

Like the company itself, the trips have evolved: In addition to a few business meetings, they now include “Olympics,” in which the employees are split into teams and compete. They've also expanded significantly from the first year, when 23 people went. This year will be the grandest vacation yet: Wieland is footing the $1 million bill for the staff, and their spouses, to travel to Hawaii.

But the company isn't content to take the quality of its staff for granted; the executives know they must keep mining for talented employees. In the wake of a lawsuit alleging racial bias in its hiring practices, Russell says the company has strengthened diversity practices and policies. While declining to comment specifically on the case, he says, “We definitely will learn from it. We have made changes that will improve us going forward.”

The company also continues to strive for excellence in its community involvement, as well. John Wieland has long set the tone for giving back to the community. This year, he and his wife, Sue, made the lead gift for the expansion of Atlanta's art museum, and John chairs its building committee.

Employees have eagerly followed Wieland's example. “It's demonstrated from the top and driven from the grass-roots level,” Russell says. The company created the Second Mile program in 1983 as a vehicle for employees to give back to the community. Today, more than 90 percent of the employees donate to the program through voluntary payroll deductions, and hundreds participate in hands-on events. Each Wieland division has a Second Mile committee, through which employees decide how to allocate the contributed funds. In its 20-year history, the Second Mile program has donated more than $2 million to worthy causes.

To celebrate the program's 20th anniversary, Wieland built off its long-standing relationship with the Atlanta Union Mission, which serves homeless and addicted women and their children. With the help of 92 of the company's trades and suppliers, Wieland built and, last July, donated the Second Mile Home. The building, worth $1 million, includes 11 apartments for women to live with their children for as long as two years while they transition from substance abuse recovery to permanent housing. “This was a great collaboration,” says David Coleman, the mission's president and CEO. “Even better, it introduced us to a lot of people who didn't know about us.”

Since the dedication of the Second Mile Home, employees have gone on to work on other community projects, including a Habitat for Humanity home and ongoing service with area schools. In addition to those activities, though, Second Mile will continue to foster its 20-year relationship with the Atlanta Union Mission when Wieland begins renovating an administrative building and a day-care center into additional housing later this year.

As for Wieland himself, he'll be continuing the work he started three decades ago, too—as the architect of the company's next unique developments. “I would like to continue to have distinctive neighborhoods,” he says, looking ahead to the future. “Special survives the good times and the bad times.”

John Wieland Homes And Neighborhoods
Chairman and Chief Creative Officer: John Wieland
CEO: Terry Russell
President and COO: Eric Price
Focus: Products include detached single-family homes, mixed-use developments, and traditional neighborhood design communities, with prices starting in the $300,000s. Employees: 1,191
Founded: 1970
Notable: Employees drive the Second Mile club, the corporate charitable giving arm; the club donated a $1 million home to the Atlanta Union Mission in celebration of its 20th anniversary; employee recognition programs include company-wide trips.

School Days
Wieland University ensures employees never stop learning.For employees of John Wieland Homes and Neighborhoods, professional development starts the day they're hired—and continues straight through their careers with the home builder.

To start, every employee takes part in a two-day orientation in Atlanta, which includes a general overview of the company and a tour of some of the company's neighborhoods. Those hired as associate signature builders—the entry-level position for field work—immediately enter the signature builder program, in which they must complete 120 hours of classroom training and field assignments over about a year's time. After passing the International Residential Code test, they are promoted to signature builder.

But home building is just one of five schools of continuing education administered through Wieland University, the company's own training division. (Other tracks include sales, leadership, technology, and professional development.) Each employee receives some type of training every year, whether in person or via video conferencing or the Internet. The employees develop their curriculum for the year during performance appraisals with their supervisors, says Laura McMurrain, vice president of organizational development.

But the employees aren't just students: More than 100 of them are teachers at Wieland University, too, leading courses in which they are subject matter experts. “That's the biggest credit to the entire university,” McMurrain says.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Atlanta, GA.