Since their inception three years ago, Big Builder's APEX Awards have applauded the finest players in home building. However, rather than continuing to divide excellence into categories, this year's competition shines the spotlight on exceptional leadership–the "best in the business." The 2006 competition challenged builders of all sizes to identify the leaders in their organizations who drive the best practices that have made, and continue to make, their businesses succeed.

This year's APEX Award winners, all pictured with John McManus, editor of Big Builder, are: Scott Stowell, Southern California region president, Standard Pacific Corp, Tracy, Kim, and Troy Ence, owners, Ence Homes (bottom right). Dennis Ginder, Jacksonville division president, Mercedes Homes (bottom left, on right), David Barin, Space Coast division president, Mercedes Homes (bottom left) Photo: James Kegley This year's six APEX Awards winners hail from three different home building companies in three different parts of the country. Together, they show that business leadership excellence exists on local, divisional, and regional levels–despite the downturn. Winners won kudos for sales program effectiveness, innovative business systems, operational best practices, and effective talent management. (Check out each winner's accomplishments throughout this section.)

Raising the bar across the industry, the 2006 APEX Awards honored not only top performance but also top talent. And with the downturn expected to last well into next year, the need to identify and retain that kind of talent is critical. Now is the time to take stock of your best leaders' accomplishments, keeping this competition in mind. This summer, Big Builder will once again start accepting APEX Award nominations, with the winners announced at the Big Builder '07 conference Nov. 27-29 in Las Vegas. For more information, please contact Sarah Yaussi at

Local Leaders: Ence Homes

FAMILY TIES: Brothers Kim, Tracy, and Troy Ence (pictured from left to right) made their mark in the competition by working collaboratively to generate an average ROI of 70 percent. Photo: James Kegley For Ence Homes, exceptional leadership doesn't mean a single leader. The Utah-based company's success is owed to the collaboration of three rather than the contributions of one. Brothers and co-owners Kim, Tracy, and Troy Ence have worked effectively as a team ever since they purchased the company from their father and uncle in 1994, growing the company from 150 homes to 470 homes in 2005.

Although they anticipated closings for 2006 to be at about the 319-homes mark, between Kim's superior sales skills, Tracy's construction know-how, and Troy's operations focus, the company expected to generate an average return on investment in 2006 of nearly 70 percent–a considerable increase from 2005.

In the past, the Ence brothers have been focused primarily on improving the quality of the homes, even moving toward more energy-efficient construction. However, with the market changing, they say price is a big concern. "One of the challenges we're running into now is affordability," says Tracy. "Our goal is to build a home to our [quality] expectations but make it still affordable."

Dynamo Divisions: Mercedes Homes

The boom time of the past few years has propelled Florida-based Mercedes Homes to new heights, making the 100 percent employee-owned company the second largest private builder in the nation. Despite solid overall company performance, two divisions in particular stand out, even as some of Mercedes' mainstay markets have softened.

SPACE LAUNCH: Sticking to his personal principles helped David Barin successfully start up Mercedes Homes' new Space Coast division in Florida. Photo: James Kegley Under the direction of division president Dennis Ginder, Mercedes' Jacksonville division has gained significant market share. At the root of this improvement is not only Ginder's focus on construction quality–the average number of defects at closing is zero–but also his ability to motivate his sales staff. And it's paying off: The division's traffic-to-closing conversion rate is 40 percent.

Ginder says that with the downturn, he's focusing the division on gaining greater market share rather than growing just units or profits. And improving the customer experience is at the core of his strategy. He was "really excited" about the newest J.D. Power New-Home Builder Customer Satisfaction Study results; his division made a "huge jump" in the rankings. "We moved the customer back to the center of our business," Ginder explains.

ACTION JACKSONVILLE: Dennis Ginder's mission to improve customer experiences has helped Mercedes Homes' Jacksonville division gain significant market share. Photo: James Kegley But fellow division president David Barin wasn't about to let Ginder's achievements outshine his own successes. This year, his seventh as a division president for Mercedes Homes, Barin was charged with the launch of a new Space Coast division. To drive sales, Barin pushed ownership of the division's success from the top down through the ranks. He assigned each member of his management team to two to three communities and tasked them to spend a minimum of four hours each week in the communities, working with the superintendents, service personnel, and sales consultants. Each manager was then scored on various focus areas, such as improved cycle time or community appearance. The program boosted both sales and satisfaction ratings while reducing construction delays.

Barin says that the keys to good leadership during more challenging times are maximizing division strategies, exiting unprofitable segments, harnessing both customer and land developer relationships, and sticking to your core values.

Personal Mission

Mercedes Homes' David Barin, 2006 APEX Award winner, shares his 11 guiding principles.

  • Hire the best talent possible.
  • Be a mentor every day to each employee.
  • Rule with motivation; celebrate any and all successes.
  • Discipline behind closed doors; praise in public.
  • Develop daily and monthly systems for the division.
  • Agree to disagree as a management team, but focus on the best idea no matter who created it; don't forget to give that person credit.
  • Talk directly to the front-line staff to solve problems more efficiently.
  • Stay mentally and physically fit; that means read and exercise.
  • Give back to the community in which you build.
  • Encourage family involvement; most top performers have happy home lives.
  • Avoid becoming complacent; fire yourself often.

Regional Ruler: Standard Pacific Corp.

At the Big Builder '06 conference, Standard Pacific Corp.'s Southern California region president Scott Stowell proved to be the most bashful APEX Award winner. "I'm really embarrassed about this whole thing," he admits, noting that he was unaware he had even been nominated for the award until just days before the conference. However, with Standard Pacific CEO Steve Scarborough nodding in approval as Stowell collected his award before an audience of roughly 450 peers, it was clear that Stowell had little reason to feel self-conscious.

STANDARD BEARER: Many of Scott Stowell's initiatives have become "standard" practice at Standard Pacific Homes Corp. Photo: James Kegley Stowell's greatest strengths lie in process improvement and people development. He's spearheaded numerous projects, many of which have since migrated into other divisions and regions, becoming company best practices. He says it's difficult for him to identify a single initiative of which he's most proud, as all are like his "babies" and "you love all your children."

His major achievements include developing a scorecard to track the region's key drivers, implementing process improvement teams, creating employee satisfaction surveys, and launching a new supply chain initiative. These programs enhance the region's performance by improving the Standard Pacific experience for both customers and employees. And as proof of Stowell's commitment to this end, the region has a turnover rate just shy of 6 percent.

Stowell says his success in creating a positive group dynamic hinges on both communicating clearly and frequently with staffers and empowering them to make business decisions. "You have to make people understand how their work directly affects strategy," he explains.