Wisconsin builder aims to dominate markets where nationals fear to go.

By Roberta Maynard

Bielinski Custom Homes. It?s an unusual name for a company that built 500 single-family homes last year and plans to double its volume in the next year or two. Its name is unchanged since 1960 when the Bielinski brothers started the Milwaukee firm with a dream of building 12 homes a year. CEO Bob Brownell isn?t likely to drop ?custom? from the firm?s moniker, though. Customization is central to the company?s plan to become an even bigger player in this quirky market, which, so far, has eluded the grasp of mega builders. Pulte, for one, who tried it out in the late ?90s and found the returns wanting, closed up shop and went to Chicago instead.

The trouble? Milwaukeeans have a reputation for not going with the flow. As Brownell puts it: ?They want what they want.? So far, that attitude and the typical production builder?s approach have mixed like oil and water.

?It?s an individualistic attitude. They don?t like being dictated to,? says Brownell, explaining why larger builders haven?t cracked the market: ?If you open up a 100-unit development, people will want lot 99. Public builders, who want those efficiencies, will want to build down a row. They want to be on lots 1 through 10 at the beginning of the project, not jump to lot 99.?

The Bielinski brothers built their 42-year-old reputation on letting buyers have a say. That gives them more than a foothold for expansion, the sibling founders believe, and a good chance of success for their new operational model. Now, Brownell is knee-deep in a strategy designed to have the best of both worlds: production efficiency and the level of personal service that these buyers want.

First things first

Frank and Harry Bielinski hired Brownell in 1995 to pick up the pace of growth, diverting their own income from the business to fund the ramp-up. One of the new CEO?s first priorities was to build up land inventory, which most Wisconsin builders lack, says Brownell, a former developer.

On the operations side, he had to begin with the basics as the company didn?t have a corporate culture, a mission statement, or a standard organizational chart. The firm was set up in a ?wagon wheel? reporting arrangement, with 14 departments and a central management hub.

?It?s a chaotic situation when everyone can run directly to the hub. With 10 to 20 people, you can do that, but not with our growing size. In its place, Brownell created a tiered structure similar to those he?d seen at national building companies he had worked with over the years. The new structure would accommodate more volume and help the company streamline processes to eliminate waste and duplication and to increase margins. He brought in strong talent, recruiting nationally to find a new purchasing director, a sales and marketing executive, and a new controller.

Customer service, Bielinski?s key differentiator, was the first department to get a re-design, followed by IT. The company created several teams of customer service reps and technicians and initiated training programs for all employees. Bielinski puts the same customer emphasis in its affordable single-family homes as in the 800 luxury apartments it manages.

?That?s one of the big things that separates us right now [from bigger competitors],? says Brownell.

His single biggest challenge has been to keep the support of directors and staff, helping them to see the vision and goals while minimizing employee turnover. ?We took our managers and involved them in the organization,? Brownell says. ?The last thing you want to do is have your managers perched in an ivory tower passing down mandates. The one thing I?ve learned is that keeping people in the loop is a virtue that a lot of people overlook.? Brownell says the company?s turnover is less than 5 percent.

The reorganization is still in a continual state of flux, kept flexible to adapt to market changes. Bi-weekly meetings with department directors and regular charrettes and buyer focus groups keeps the growing company on track.

Let the growth begin

Between 1995 and 2001, Bielinski grew from 60 to 145 employees, and its sales force doubled to 30. This year, gross sales will break $100 million, up from $30 million a decade ago.

The company is six months into its two-year reorganization. Once its house is in order, says Brownell, Bielinski can consider more aggressive expansion. Because of the unique buyer mentality of its home market, stepping into Chicago or Minneapolis ?would be a whole different ball game for us.? So, other Wisconsin markets will be first on the agenda, including Madison, Green Bay, Fox Valley, and the Stevens Point?Plover area.

In making the state?s largest building company look and act more like a national builder, Brownell hopes to get a jump on the competition, though he?s also realistic. ?We?d be kidding ourselves if we didn?t expect the national builders to come into this market one day.?

And he knows that marrying efficiency and customer care has been historically troublesome for big builders. ?We realize that there will reach a point where economies of scale can dictate differently,? he says. Depending on how the effort evolves, he continues, ?We may be able to look to markets beyond Wisconsin.?

Published in BIG BUILDER Magazine, June 2002