"It's always been a challenging business," says Alex Akel, president of Delray Beach, Fla.-based Akel Homes, currently building 208 homes in a market just north of Miami, crawling with big public builders. "It's also always been a very rewarding business. To win, you're going to have to be patient, and you're going to have to take risks. It's knowing when to do which--be patient or take a risk--that's critical. That's how it's always worked, with highs and lows a constant in the market."
This sage fillip, coming as it does from a home builder operating in the throes of both macro uncertainty and a ferocious micro-market competitive scrum, is not so unusual in and of itself. It's the kind of wisdom home builders come to with experience, from dealing with ebbs and flows and the cyclical nature of the beast, and the competitive fury concentrated everywhere buyers of new homes are active. Builders get wise to these realities because they have to, over time.
Alex Akel, however, is 27. His company, which employs six staffers, not counting he and his father Ramsey, got going a little over 12 months ago as it broke ground on Villamar at Toscana Isles, Akel Homes’ first single-family community in Palm Beach County. This is a 27-year-old talking about the blend of patience and bold risk-taking the home building business demands of its vested and invested stakeholders.
Yes, the Akel pedigree goes back a stretch, a full generation in the real estate development and home construction business. His current partner, mentor, primary friends-and-family capital source, and father in Akel Homes, Ramsey Akel, spent 32 years working for his father-in-law at Ansca Homes, building some 4,000 homes in South Florida going back to 1986.
You could say that young Akel is wiser than his years. Or you could say that his raw intelligence, his studies, which include an advanced degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Design and fully-licensed status as a Florida state contractor, and his passion for what he calls solving this "ginormous Rubik's Cube" that is home building, add up to an accelerated learning curve.
"It's a business that has a lot of barriers to entry," Alex Akel says when he's asked why he thinks so few like-minded, young, talented, data-oriented, people get drawn into the field of building people's homes and communities. "You have to want to be a creator; this is not just about vertical construction--we get the property as a clean slate and we literally make value on it by taking it through planning, zoning, building codes, designing to market constraints, price for the lot, and a million other variables and moving parts where all these worlds [of subject matter expertise] collide. There are very few sectors of the economy where you get to directly impact people's life on so intimate a level for many important years of their lives."
Akel the younger is particularly drawn to the entrepreneurial rush that comes from the nimbleness, authentic local connection, and customer-centricity only a private home builder can deliver in a marketplace, which, he professes, "give a private builder a huge advantage because we can put the customer at the very center of our universe and business and operational model."
Akel works under no illusion that when it comes to resources, sheer heft, clout, and staying power the big public builders bring to their game in the markets they serve.
"When you're competing with public builders, they have almost unlimited spend when it comes to omni-channel marketing, geo-fencing, targeting by behavior, and other data and digital tactics we'd love to use, but don't have the same resources for," says Akel. "Ultimately, I don't have the same technology Lennar has, where they can micro-target and laser-pinpoint customers at the precise moment to engage, and then map them through their journey. That's definitely a barrier that keeps getting higher for us."
The counter-move every successful private home builder draws on as the money, power, and profit odds stack higher and higher against them, and one that Akel knows reflexively, even in his short years of experience is both the most simple and the most difficult code to crack.
Focus on the customer.
"Nothing beats going out into the community and getting in tune," says 27-year-old Akel. "Involvement in the local schools with programs, the community centers, and other public and community organizations, events for teachers, and municipal activities, we're committed to living with and participating, and having a stake in all of these groups. The 'human level' is something we feel can not be underestimated for its impact on our business. Everything, these days, lives and dies around the customer experience. Without customers, you can't have a business.""
Now, that's a pearl of wisdom that, as 27-year-old Akel proves, you either get immediately in home building, or may never get at all. It's that master imperative that defines what Akel believes to be two essential differentiating factors that will keep making customers prefer Akel Homes to those of his competition, one is the "concierge/boutique-style home buying experience" the Akel team provides its clients on a name basis. The other is a level of quality and finish bigger, more value-driven builders find it different to match.
Here, verbatim from a 27-year-old builder, is the Akel manifesto on both:
What Separates Akel Homes from Other Home builders?
1. Concierge/Boutique-Style Home buying Experience
- Personal Touches: At Akel Homes, our customers are not just a number. By buying from us, they become family. From the moment one first enters our sales office to well after closing, exceeding their satisfaction is our priority.
- No Corporate Layers: As a private company, upper management is not only accessible but proactive in building relationships with our customers. Each and every home is personally walked at several stages of construction by management to ensure quality and proper finishes. Our hands on approach allows us to truly listen to what our customers are saying and implement their feedback.
- Tailored Design Experience: Your home, your way. As a semi-custom production homebuilder, each community boasts its own on-site Design Studio with thousands of options and colors to choose from to customize your dream home. If there is something not available, just ask – sometimes we are able to work our magic!
2. Excellence in Quality
- Forward Thinking Architectural Design: Each and every community boasts a wide selection of floorplans tailored to different lifestyles. On the exterior, homes are designed with contemporary elevation styles. The interior of the homes are efficiently designed with open floorplans, designer kitchens with islands, expansive living areas, elegant bathrooms and ample storage.
- Masterfully Crafted Homes: The truth is – we build a better house than our competitors. No corners are cut. Homes are structurally designed above and beyond building code requirements, the highest quality building materials are sourced and most innovative construction methods are implemented.
- Energy-Efficient: Akel Homes incorporates leading energy-efficient technologies into every new home. When available, natural gas is brought into the community. Green construction products are installed across the board from paint, to windows, mechanical systems and so much more!
What I want to know is how we get more people like Alex Akel into the business.