David K. Hill is the chairman and CEO of Kimball Hill Homes, which he founded in 1969. Privately held, the company is among the top 25 home builders in the country. It traces its roots back to Kimball Hill, David's dad, who, in 1939, began building houses affordable to his fellow military veterans in the Chicago area. A father's influence: Asked what attracts him to a potential management employee, David responds “excellence and caring.” Hill chatted with Big Builder at Thanksgiving time.
BB: President Bush's Tax Advisory Board says: Kill the home mortgage deduction. Is this idea going anywhere?
DH: I have talked to many people and listened to a broad spectrum of commentary. I think it is dead on arrival.
BB: What do you see for home building this year?
DH: In terms of units, I project that it's going to be down nationally about 5 percent or 6 percent. But, if you look at the 75 major markets that large home builders are interested in, there is likely to be significant buoyancy and upward movement in 45 or so of those markets. There will be some cooling, but not nationwide to any extent.
DH: We are discussing three major projects with two different publics. The distinction is not between public and private.
The distinction is between large enough to be players versus not large enough to be players, and there are a number of private companies that are large enough to be players. Some public companies are actually too small to be players.
BB: How do you compete with the publics' deep pockets for management talent?
DH: Pay them as much or more, which is a good start because private builders often are as profitable or more profitable than public builders. Also, have more focus on the long-term plan, so when talented people join you they are interested in being with you long term.
BB: A belief in affordable housing is part of your company's core philosophy. Why is it so important?
DH: Housing affordability is becoming a challenge to more and more families. Solving that challenge is a satisfying quest. On the other side, these challenges require patience and skills. We have discovered that we can do just as well on infill properties and the affordable urban center properties.
BB: Clearly, home building is a passion for you. What else in life really moves you?
DH: I happen to be a religious person, and I am dedicated to understanding the role of religion in our culture. I am also interested in education. I would like to have time to play golf with my wife because I really love it, but I don't somehow get a chance to play too much. I read omnivorously.
BB: I hear you enjoy mystery novels and fine wine—give us a good pairing.
DH: Well, if you're going to read a Robert Parker [novel], then you really want to have a nice, old vine Zin. Don't put a Barolo together with Parker. They would conflict.
BB: An even better pairing is you and your wife Diane. What's the secret?
DH: Luck, luck, and more luck.
BB: Meanwhile, your son David pursues an acting career.
DH: Yeah, talk about the entrepreneurial spirit being alive and well in the Hill family. I've lost a couple of zoning hearings, but mostly I've won them. If he wins after an audition, he is a happy fellow. Mostly he loses, so hats off to him. It's a tough business and he's doing a pretty nice job with it.
BB: You play chess. Are there lessons for life there?
DH: Chess is an open game where your opponent always sees what you're doing, so you have to be thoughtful. Life is an open game too. People pretend that they can ignore it, but life is much more of an open book than those people tend to believe. It is a lot closer to chess than it is to poker.
BB: And how is it, after all these decades, having a World Series winner in Chicago?
DH: Of course, our second largest operation is based in Houston. If the White Sox hadn't won, we would have had to send them some deep-dish pizza. We ended up having great Texas barbecue. Pretty darn neat.