RANI HONG WAS A HOMELESS 8-year-old girl in India when an American family named Clark adopted her in 1979. One year later, Rani's future husband, Trong Hong, arrived in the United States from Vietnam when he was 9 years old under virtually the same circumstances. It was fitting that they would later marry and then become partners in Tronie Corp., the Olympia, Wash.–based home building enterprise they started in 1997, which generates $6 million in annual sales from the 15 to 20 custom homes it builds.
“We came from living on the streets, having nothing. But we were determined to make it,” she says.
That same determination drives other minority and women builders who are staking their claims in this large and sometimes alien business culture. While there are few statistics tracking their numbers, these groups of owners aren't the anomalies they might have been a generation ago.
One-third of the 2,100-plus members in the NAHB Women's Council are builders, estimates Carmel Naman, the council's assistant staff vice president. Julie Fielek, who owns Fielek Builders, near Ann Arbor, Mich., is serving as the first woman president of the Michigan HBAin that chapter's 52-year history.
Emil Martinez traces his builder roots to his Mexican-American father, who built homes in Durango, Colo. Educated as an architectural engineer, Martinez worked on the construction side for several builders, including Richmond American Homes, before he and his wife, Christine, used savings and a bank loan to start Tucson, Ariz.–based Ducati Homes in 2000. Five years later, Ducati Homes controls 400 lots and is on track to build 95 homes, which is about the annual production pace at which he'd like to keep his company.
Martinez, 38, doesn't see his ethnicity as an advantage or disadvantage for his business, which builds in diverse middle-class communities. But race and gender have been known to surface in builders' relationships with customers. Hong notes that buyers of Asian descent seek out Tronie Corp. because its owners are bilingual, “which is difficult to find in this market.” And Allen Warren, the 40-year-old black owner of Sacramento, Calif.–based New Faze Development, a 15-year-old company that builds more than 100 homes per year, observes that “the African-American community is apprehensive about how it is perceived and will come to us almost automatically.” Indeed, black customers constitute a sizable portion of black-owned builders' clientele. Courtney Gray, a builder of Jamaican descent, says he relocated to Atlanta from New York to start his business, Conyers, Ga.–based Gray Design, in 1995 because of Atlanta's plethora of affluent minorities. Black-owned Amenity Plus Homes in Houston sells entry-level and move-up homes and recently completed a project whose buyers were evenly divided among whites, blacks, and Hispanics. Yet 70 percent of Amenity's usual customers are black, says owner Jaromey Roberts II.
Women more readily acknowledge that gender plays some role in their home designs and interactions with buyers. “The first thing a guy looks at is where his toys fit, but what I look at is how workable the house is—the kitchen, the storage, whether the dishwasher is close to the sink,” says Roberta Colmer, who co-owns Calabasas, Calif.–based Colmer Construction with her husband, Wayne. Joanne Chappell-Theunissen attributes part of the success of Howling Hammer Builders—the Mount Pleasant, Mich.–based design/build firm she owns with her husband, Mike—to her taking the lead in dealing with clients: “Men don't like explaining things, but women are more sensitive to what the buyer is feeling, and more approachable.”
But sharing a buyer's skin color, language, or chromosome makeup is no guarantee of a sale, as Nicole Goolsby discovered when the female partner of a couple her Lake Norman, N.C.–based company, Rion Homes, was pitching declared that she was “uncomfortable” with a woman building her house. “And she was a professional,” says Goolsby.
VARIED BACKGROUNDS Before launching Rion Homes in April 1999, Goolsby managed construction for a local developer. Quite a few of the 17 owners BUILDER contacted were in construction before going out on their own. George Williams, the 57-year-old black owner of Dallas-based Vivid Custom Builders, was a framer before he borrowed money to start his business in 1983. Joseph Shieh, the Chinese-American principal in Alexandria, Va.–based McShay Homes, toiled on the procurement side for U.S. Home and other builders. Gray says he has a degree in building and was a construction superintendent in the 1980s. And Liz Jackson, president of San Diego–based Jackson-Pendo Development, managed projects for other builders.
After her last employer, Pacific Bay Homes, folded, Jackson and her husband, Jim, whose background is in land development, started Jackson-Pendo in 2002. But she actually entered the industry through the side door of Kenneth Leventhal, the real estate consultant. Other builder-owners took more roundabout routes: Fielek was a 30-something gym teacher when she went back to school to learn drafting and design. Linda Lock was an X-ray technician supervisor before she switched careers and went to work for Brighton, Mich.–based Maplewood Building and Development, which in 2000 sold its construction business to Lock and her husband, Jerry, who at the time was an engineer with Ford.