"Mikemike" Nieri, on the job site of his mom and dad's new home, being built now with help from Grandpa Michael Nieri, a 2020 Hearthstone BUILDER Humanitarian Award honoree.
"Mikemike" Nieri, on the job site of his mom and dad's new home, being built now with help from Grandpa Michael Nieri, a 2020 Hearthstone BUILDER Humanitarian Award honoree.

Look up. The future is bright. A 2020 vision, resplendent in hope, excitement, joy.

And, if the genes kick in as they're apt to, Mikemike, the newest-minted member in a line of "Mike" Nieris may well be knocking around some subdivision job site by 2034 or so, helping with the painting, the drywall, or some such. That's right around the age-range his father, and his father before that, and his great-grandfather before that got the building bug.

The future is bright because, very, very likely, along with the gifts of his home building-prone genetic make-up, Mikemike--actually Pennington West Nieri, Jr.--is a new green shoot in a family-tree full of character, humility, and a salt-of-the-earth sense that helping other people find belonging goes hand-in-glove with life, work, passion, and purpose.

For Mikemike's grandfather--Michael Nieri, founder, president, and principal of feisty 16-year-old Irmo, S.C.-based Great Southern Homes--the journey, the genes, and the rich blend of character and commitment traits began, like now, when the future was bright in the 1970s.

"My dad graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in civil engineering in 1960, and he went to work for a large general contractor, the Vick Corporation, which specialized in commercial, heavy industrial, and highway construction," Michael Nieri, our Hearthstone BUILDER Humanitarian Award honoree, tells me. "By my first year in high school, my brothers and I where doing our summer jobs on the construction sites, working with the painting crews, doing drywall, working with the surveying crews. I fell in love with the job site then, and haven't got tired of it yet."

We caught up with Michael Nieri this week for a few reasons, one of which was to check in on the health and well-being of a man, his family, and his extended-family team of associates at Great Southern we've saluted in 2020 with the Hearthstone Award.

With so much focus on the bleak and grim and foreboding circumstances of the moment--seized up as it is with our obsessive preoccupation with the novel coronavirus pandemic and its world-upending collateral damages--we can, we will, and we must remember the "foreverness" of people in home building like Michael Nieri and his team at Great Southern.

Not so ironically, the Great Southern team--their heads down, their noses to the grindstone, their social distancing, Zoom-based meetings, staggered work-schedules, and more-disciplined-than-ever logistics planning--is doing just fine.

"We had banner sales months March and April, and the first 10 days of May, we've doubled our sales pace," says Nieri. "We've sold about 600 homes so far in 2020, just about on pace with where we thought we'd be at this point. When this [COVID-19 outbreak] all started to surge, we made the decision to pull as many permits for new homes as we could, before any local shutdowns could start impacting that, and fortunately, that's been a positive for us to keep moving through this."

Genes, character, and no-quit. The work ethic and the giving ethic weave together--a double-helix--into the Nieri, Great Southern DNA.

"I get to get up every morning and feel excited about creating something for people," says Nieri. Belonging. That's what he's creating, across an array of value streams, both in market-rate housing development and in charitable giving. You can read about Michael Nieri's multi-layered initiatives in humanitarian giving here in BUILDER staffer Symone Garvett's Hearthstone profile. What's hard to capture in a profile--shining, as it does, a bright spotlight on an individual's career of accomplishments--is Nieri's deep and natural and infectious humility. "It's all well enough that I say, 'let's go build homes, or facilities for this cause or that,' but it's my team members that do all the work, all the heavy-lifting, all the tedium and commitment," says Nieri. "This award is really about the Great Southern team."

That's true, and it's really about the teams of people in home building and their partners in capital, manufacturing, distribution, development, architecture, and construction, and the way, day-in and day-out, they awaken with the same sense of excitement and purpose Nieri mentions above. "Creating something for people."

This simple intention, and its power to focus, motivate, and layer in patience and drive, took its fully-clarified form in Michael Nieri's character as he worked through his years as a bachelor of sciences student at alma mater Clemson University's Construction Science and Management Department in the College of Architecture, Arts, and Humanities in the early 1980s.

"I remember my architecture professor ribbing me outside the classroom one day about my old, brown pickup truck in the parking lot," Nieri recalls. "I told him, some day, I'm going to build my own company, starting with this truck." The future was bright then. It is now.

The stretch from that old brown pickup to Great Southern Homes took about a decade of jobs in commercial, institutional, and light industrial construction, engineering, and planning. In about 1993, he built a house for his family. Long story short, the rest is history.

There's nothing people create for one another that matters more than belonging. Belonging cuts through difference, it rids one of prejudices, of class and race and creed distinctions, and sparks in human souls a sense of gladness and peace that meaning brings. Belonging erases the gap that separates those who are vulnerable and those who can provide shelter, well-being.

This is why the future is bright. Because, literally, the genetic make-up you see in this heartbreakingly happy face above, and the deep well of character, and grit, and purpose young Mikemike will get to tap in his upbringing--of fast learning and slow knowledge and remembering--is quite unique to the community of people who build belonging for a living.

This is also why the work of Hearthstone ceo Mark Porath and Cindy Gilmore, Hearthstone's senior vp for Originations, is in itself, an industry treasure. Each year, now well north of $6 million in 21 years, they starting from scratch. They appeal to executive peers at home building's leading organizations to take part in elevating and celebrating the charitable work of people like Michael Nieri and teams of people like the ones at Great Southern. People whose sweat and fire and determination focus on this prized, one-of-a-kind feeling that crosses all human boundaries and connects us. Belonging.

We can see through the scary fog of the present. We can see a bright, glad, bubbling, and intent future ahead. And we can be thankful for people like Nieri and Porath and Gilmore, who ask us to join in giving that one thing everybody needs most. Belonging.

Thanks to the genome, Mikemike's physical features, mannerisms, and maybe even his vocational focus will draw directly from his parents. Thanks to the DNA of home builders, future home builders are the hereditary beneficiaries of dominant traits as well: Open-mindedness to knowledge, patience to practice, hunger to learn, and generosity to give.

Here's the way 2020 Hearthstone BUILDER Humanitarian Award honoree Michael Nieri--and his Great Southern Homes team--would caption the photograph above, verbatim.

"The future of great southern homes! I hope I’m alive to see him run the business!"

We all hope for the same, Mr. Nieri. The future is bright thanks to the likes of you.