United Homes Group CEO and chairman Michael Nieri.
Peter Frank Edwards United Homes Group CEO and chairman Michael Nieri.

Thousands of executives have rung the Nasdaq bell to celebrate their milestones. It’s a definitive moment in a company’s history, a chance to show it is ready to take its place among the nation’s most respected businesses. 

But when Michael Nieri took his United Homes Group (UHG) crew from South Carolina to New York City on May 17, 2023, for its long-awaited initial public offering, the CEO and chairman of the board looked outside the company’s executive ranks to bang the historic bells, handing the hammer to his then 4-year-old grandson West Nieri.

“I chose West because I didn’t want this to be about me. He could run the company someday,” Nieri says. “I think we will always be builders. It’s one of the most satisfying businesses in America—more than half of your life is spent inside your home.”

The high-profile moment was fleeting in the company’s corporate timeline as Nieri, his family, key employees, and the company’s board of directors were on their way back home the same day to get back to the business at hand—building affordable houses and looking for new companies to acquire.

As a freshly public company, UHG ended 2023 closing 1,383 homes and 1,296 net new-home orders. At the start of this year, net new orders were up 7.4% in January and February compared with a year ago. Revenue for fiscal year 2023 came in at $421.5 million.

“This housing business moves,” Nieri says. “It’s a new thing every day. Maybe a different group of subs and different owners. It’s exciting.”

Michael and Robyn Nieri with their grandson, West, at the Nasdaq bell ringing.
Courtesy Michael Nieri Michael and Robyn Nieri with their grandson, West, at the Nasdaq bell ringing.

Builder of the Year

The stock listing was the highlight of last year for the company that has been named BUILDER’S 2024 Builder of the Year, an honor that will be bestowed upon the company at this year’s Builder 100 Summit in Dana Point, California, May 6 to 8. 

“The company’s accelerated growth on top of its public offering made for a strong case,” says Steve Ladurantaye, vice president of content at Zonda, BUILDER’s parent company. “It’s also impossible to ignore the company’s culture, which focuses on communication and openness.”

Headquartered in Columbia, South Carolina, Great Southern Homes announced a merger with DiamondHead Holdings Corp. (DHHG) in September 2022 before making its stock market debut in March 2023 as UHG. 

UHG completed two acquisitions in 2023, first expanding to Raleigh, North Carolina, where the company acquired Herring Homes in August. Now operating under the Great Southern Homes brand, the expanded footprint allows UHG to build more entry-level and first-time move-up homes with corresponding price points in the region. 

Two months after the Herring Homes acquisition, UHG acquired Rosewood Communities, a home builder in the upstate region of South Carolina. Rosewood Communities primarily builds in the rapidly growing Greenville and Clemson markets. Its unique cottage-style homes are targeted toward empty nesters and move-up buyers. The homes offer master-on-main and loft designs with appealing architecture and custom finishes. 

From left, United Homes Group CEO and chairman Michael Nieri, chief financial officer Keith Feldman, president Jack Micenko, and chief administrative officer Tom O'Grady.
Peter Frank Edwards From left, United Homes Group CEO and chairman Michael Nieri, chief financial officer Keith Feldman, president Jack Micenko, and chief administrative officer Tom O'Grady.

Kicking off 2024, UHG acquired the home building business and assets of Creekside Custom Homes, a home builder and land developer in the coastal region of South Carolina. Primarily operating in the rapidly growing Myrtle Beach market, Creekside’s product set is aligned with the existing Great Southern Homes brand.

The acquisition of Creekside nearly doubled UHG’s presence in the market, adding approximately 1,000 lots under control. It also allowed the company to control an attractive future lot position consistent with its land-light strategy. 

Nieri says all three recent acquisitions are going well. 

“Those owners seem to be relieved a little bit. I mean, when I took my company public, I didn’t know how much stress I was carrying,” he says. “You know, having to shoulder all financial burdens, people’s families, etc. It’s the same for them.”

While lessening the load to some extent, going public also expedited growth for UHG. 

“What I’ve learned is that this [going public] is the other piece that allows us to grow quickly,” Nieri says. “We’ll grow organically, but we can’t grow organically near as fast as we can if we’re acquiring other companies.”

From Humble Beginnings

It was a simple beginning for the company that would become UHG. In 1996, Nieri bought two Gateway computers and had his wife, Robyn, teach him how to use them so that he could run a business from home.

He had some experience. Three years earlier, Nieri built his first house and sold it, followed by two more in 1994 and ’95. Having graduated from Clemson University in the Construction Science and Management Department in 1986, he worked in the field for 10 years. 

He was ready to become a business owner and knew that home building was his way to do that, especially since he could start with little overhead. 

After much thought and consideration—but without sharing it out loud—Nieri quit his full-time job. He then went home to tell his wife, who was pregnant with their twins and juggling a 3-year-old, that he was starting the business.

“I was pretty confident in what I was going to do, but I didn’t explain it,” he says. “Timing in my mind was right because my dad and a friend of mine had bought some lots for me, and they were right across the street from where we lived.”

With his two computers and a lot of grit, Nieri formed his home building company, which changed its name to Great Southern Homes in 2004. 

In the early stages, Nieri began building affordable-style homes and would keep them as rental properties—before single-family rentals were a known concept. With his dad as his financial partner, he constructed roughly 150 homes. “I’d build them, and, as my renters wanted to or got in a better situation to buy them, I’d sell them,” he reflects. 

As everyday home building began to pick up, Nieri left his rentals behind to focus solely on for-sale homes. After he had his best year yet in 2005, he began to watch the market unravel.  

“I just never thought that our affordable housing market would collapse along with the rest of the country,” says Nieri.

“You know, I still made money in 2008, 2009, and a little bit in 2010 and ’11, but all bets were off in 2012. It reversed itself,” he says. Approximately 14,000 homes later, Nieri says he’s “still not bored” with home building. 

In fact, the ever-evolving challenges and constant movement have kept him occupied for over 30 years, building homes throughout South Carolina, Georgia, and, most recently, North Carolina. 

Nieri has been focused on the upstate business near Clemson for about six years—an area near and dear to him. His three children and two daughters-in-law are Clemson graduates, and his wife is an honorary alumna. As a proud alumnus, he says his recreational activities are orientated around Clemson football. “I don’t golf, fish, or hunt because it’s too slow,” he says. 

Because of Nieri’s natural pull toward Clemson, UHG operates 19 communities in the market, including the communities acquired through Rosewood, and it plans to expand further.

With a spirit of competition, Nieri says, “It’s fun to go into a new area and see if you can become a larger builder there. It’s a very competitive business, and that’s the beauty of home building for me. It’s a competition.

“When I see someone else buy something or sell more homes, I’m disappointed in myself that I couldn’t achieve that. Then I put things in place and try to do better,” he says. “I wasn’t a star athlete in high school, so I always go back to, ‘Well, I have home building, and I’m competitive.’ That’s my athletics.”

From left, United Homes Group executive vice president of sales Robert Penny, CEO and chairman Michael Nieri, co-executive vice president of construction services Pennington Nieri, co-executive vice president of construction services Jeremy Pyle, and chief operating officer Shelton Twine.
Peter Frank Edwards From left, United Homes Group executive vice president of sales Robert Penny, CEO and chairman Michael Nieri, co-executive vice president of construction services Pennington Nieri, co-executive vice president of construction services Jeremy Pyle, and chief operating officer Shelton Twine.

Looking Ahead

President Jack Micenko says, in addition to organic growth, mergers and acquisitions will continue to be a focus for the business. Still, the terms will have to be suitable to move forward. “It has to be a good market, a good product set, a price point we understand, and we will not deviate from being land-light. We can go to some of these ancillary markets—that’s the neat part about South Carolina. Everything is two hours from each other,” he says.

Nieri brought on Tom O’Grady, who serves as chief administrative officer, a couple of years before the transition. “Michael has a superb operating team,” O’Grady says. “When I met Michael, it felt like a good alignment, but the path forward was about assembling the best talent we could. We took an existing, very, very capable building team and married it with the sort of expertise that you need to do a public transaction.

“I’m a great believer in getting the best people you can, and that is what we did. What we’ve done is a credit to both Michael’s leadership and the team in general.”

The executive team includes Shelton Twine, the chief operating officer who has been working alongside Nieri for 22 years, and Keith Feldman, who was chief financial officer of DHHG and assumed the same position with UHG following the transaction.

“Going public feels like I’m not swimming upstream by myself,” Nieri says. “It’s more like I’m in a boat rowing with a crew.”

O’Grady notes that Nieri’s strategic vision and empowering leadership style allows everyone on the team to thrive. “He sets the tone in terms of how people relate to each other,” O’Grady says. “He knows where he’s driving this, and he’s a very experienced and capable home builder. Working for him is great because he’s transparent, and when he hires people because they’ve got a specific area of expertise, he lets them function with that expertise.”

That empowerment has kept some team members with the company for nearly 20 years. Carrying transparency in customer service and professional interactions, Nieri’s team credits his honesty and “what you see is what you get” mentality as significant contributors to his success. 

Yet, Nieri says he has become just as much a salesman as a builder. He adds, “I find myself selling my ideas to my employees, subs and vendors, customers, board of directors, and bankers.”

Michael Nieri (center) with his sons Pennington Nieri, who serves as co-executive vice president of construction services for United Homes Group, and Patrick Nieri, who owns Nextar Homes.
Peter Frank Edwards Michael Nieri (center) with his sons Pennington Nieri, who serves as co-executive vice president of construction services for United Homes Group, and Patrick Nieri, who owns Nextar Homes.

Growth as a Public Builder

As a newly public company, UHG is maturing and growing. 

“It has been great to see the excitement and energy this transaction has brought to our employee base,” Twine says. “As we broaden our footprint, it is nice to see these guys and girls who have been here over the years get rewarded with new opportunities, new challenges, and the integration of new builders.”

In addition to an executive team with a wealth of experience in home building operations and financial capabilities, Micenko says Nieri’s focus on growth and his goal of eventually ranking in the top 15 or top 10 builders sets UHG apart from other publics. 

Micenko adds, “This is his hobby and his interest. Whether it’s Saturday, Sunday, 7 p.m., or 7 a.m., this is what he does. And you know, that can’t help but weave its way culturally through the organization.”

Nieri and his team’s drive to move forward is also cemented in building relationships, Twine says. “As we continue to grow into these new markets, we still really want to focus on being local and building local relationships. That can be everything from employees to developer relationships to builder relationships. You’re always going to see us at the local home builders’ associations or the chamber of commerce. If I pull into the Friday night high school football game, I hope our banner is going to be somewhere on that field because that’s the way we’ve built our business.”

Aside from its land-light strategy and focus on local interactions, UHG differentiates itself by standardizing product selections to streamline the building process and eliminate the delay of waiting on materials. 

“We know that we can deliver a quality product within the time frames that we need to and not have a house sitting,” Twine says. “We want to make sure that we keep our project moving.”

This strategy helped the company more easily navigate the supply chain issues, material delays, and shortages that many builders faced during the pandemic-induced housing boom. 

To keep revenue flowing, UHG also adjusted home sizes to accommodate the buyer who still wants the bells and whistles but can’t afford the 2,800-square-foot house anymore. Yet, they can afford the 2,400-square-foot house. “Everything has gotten a little bit smaller but still has the amenities they’re looking for,” Twine says.

Combating rising home prices and high mortgage rates, Twine nods to the company’s joint venture on the mortgage side before going public as an advantage for the recent challenges in home buying. With the ability to offer lower rates on select inventory and additional financial perks, Micenko says, “It was important to get that in place. Looking back, I think we’re thankful that we had it fully built out certainly before we moved into the summer of ’23.”

Although Nieri insists “building homes is still building homes,” he says UHG is trying to be more opportunistic and nimbler. But mostly, the team wants to focus on doing what is right.

“There’s a ‘do the right thing’ aspect that permeates the organization,” Micenko says. “When it comes to homeowner issues or anything, ‘do the right thing’ is the mentality from the most junior employee all the way to the most senior. We have titles, but we don’t. Everybody takes out the trash—everybody does what they need to do.”

The company works in an “inverted pyramid” style where Nieri and the management team are at the bottom as the foundation.

“As you move up that inverted pyramid, it’s the folks that are at that top line that are in the field—the superintendents building the houses, the sales agents selling the houses. And guys like me and Jack are here to support them,” Twine says. “They’re the ones that are making it happen on a day-to-day basis, and that’s really what is at the core of our philosophy.”

O’Grady says, “You’ll find that same demeanor if you’re in the office and talking to people, and that is a tone that Michael has built the company with—that attitude toward human interaction.”

A Valuable Team

With a belief that happy employees are vital to having happy customers, Nieri values his team and the new members who come on in M&A transactions. “The first thing that Michael will talk about is how he wants to retain those people,” Twine says. “He knows that he needs the project managers and the sales staff on the front lines, and that’s one of the top priorities.”

Nieri expects its team of nearly 200 employees to possibly double by the end of the year. Whether new or seasoned employees, he says he wants everyone to “think like owners.” 

“I have a whole team of people working in unison,” Nieri says. “They’re now stockholders and have a little more to gain than just a paycheck.”

After all, everyone from the top to the bottom of the inverted pyramid has helped build the company’s 61 active communities. The company that started with a couple of lots and a couple of computers is slated to keep growing, especially now as a public builder. 

Nieri is grateful for his team and is deeply proud of his wife and family for supporting him while he has built this business that he loves. “I spend my waking hours seven days a week doing this,” he says. “It’s something I can’t get away from. People ask me, ‘How long are you going to do this?’ I don’t know, but I’ll probably die with my boots on.”