Hayden Watson relaxes in the kitchen of one of his firm's model homes.
Robbie McClaran Hayden Watson relaxes in the kitchen of one of his firm's model homes.

As Hayden Watson led his family’s company to grow to three home building firms across three states, he never lost sight of his main mission: helping others.

The Redmond, Ore.–based builder has a passion for making houses available to those who otherwise might not be able to afford them. His First Story charity, founded in 1998, helps prospective homeowners qualify for mortgages on newly constructed homes from his company, Hayden Homes. So far 77 hardworking families have received a home from First Story, with 15 more in the pipeline throughout Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. The goal is to have 150 homes completed by 2030. The charity has also donated nearly $1.3 million to other housing-related causes.

First Story arranges 30-year, no interest, no down payment loans with payments ranging from $400 to $700 a month. Watson’s company builds the new homes in accordance with the aesthetics of the local community. They are typically three-bedroom, three-bathroom, move-in ready homes complete with appliances, washer and dryer, blinds, fencing, and landscaping. The homes are sold through First Story’s favorable loan terms.

For his dedication to supporting the American dream, Watson will receive the 2019 Hearthstone BUILDER Humanitarian Award this month at the Housing Leadership Summit in California. The award—presented by BUILDER and Hearthstone as well as founding sponsor Kohler Co.—honors builders who have shown a lifetime commitment to making their communities better.

Hayden Watson's commitment to helping others spans many organizations. He is shown here at a Community Center Credit Union fundraiser.
Courtesy First Story Hayden Watson's commitment to helping others spans many organizations. He is shown here at a Community Center Credit Union fundraiser.

Now in its 20th year, the Hearthstone program has given more than $6 million to charity, making it the largest philanthropic award in the home building industry. “In today’s housing environment, it’s so important to highlight and recognize the accomplishments of leaders like Hayden Watson who provide the model for constructing affordable housing for families across the country,” says Mark Porath, CEO of Hearthstone.

The notion of helping others was ingrained in Watson from an early age. Supporting local charities was a practice that began with Watson’s parents even during the lean, early years of Hayden Homes, he says.

“My parents were part of the greatest generation. They were not presumptuous, and unearned entitlement was not part of their life,” he says. “But beyond giving money, from a time and energy standpoint, they were always ready to help people. They set a really great example and it’s embedded in what we do at Hayden Homes and at First Story. That giving spirit comes from the last generation.”

Watson’s community-focused upbringing is evident to everyone who knows him, says Claire Duncan, executive director of First Story.

“It’s the first thing he thinks about: How can he make somebody’s life better?” she says. “His parents’ spirit runs through him.”

Ramping Up
The learning curve was steep for the early First Story projects, Watson, 48, recalls. “After we did the first one we started to understand the paperwork and the bureaucracy that goes behind getting into the nonprofit affordable housing business and then we figured out how to scale it,” he says. “Once we knew how many dollars it took to build each house, we knew what people we could call in to help frame the house for free or donate lumber and we started figuring out how many houses we could do each year.”

The program is designed to provide affordable housing to families in need of a hand up. Candidates are identified with help from local charities like NeighborWorks, a nonprofit with 240 branches around the country that creates innovative housing solutions for underserved populations through strategic partnerships.

Hayden Watson introduces a First Story client and her son to their new wheelchair accessible home.
Courtesy First Story Hayden Watson introduces a First Story client and her son to their new wheelchair accessible home.

Helping families attain homeownership is a mission that’s more critical than ever as a growing number of Americans have trouble affording a place of their own, says Duncan. “I don’t think I realized before how difficult it is for families that are working so hard to own a home,” she says. “Teachers, nurses, caregivers, I couldn’t believe how out of reach it is for so many families, it was really eye-opening; 50% of our homeowners are single moms.”

Not content with just one nonprofit, Watson created the One Build program to serve as an outreach and fundraising arm of his vision for housing low-income Americans. It also serves as an education tool for anybody interested in the finer points of home building.

“One Build helps identify a community partner like a hospital or a bank that wants to contribute and support affordable housing,” says Watson. “So they’ll make a large donation between $25,000 and $50,000 and we will dedicate that house to them. We’ll bring their company along with Hayden Homes and other people together who helped build the house—it’s a great social environment for people to see what home building is all about and to volunteer their time and money to give somebody the opportunity to own a new home.”

Watson’s generosity involves his three home building companies, Hayden Homes, Simplicity Homes, and WiseSize. Ten percent of each year’s profits are committed to charitable causes including ¹/8 percent of every Hayden home sold. Nearly half of Hayden’s 211 employees make a charitable contribution through a regular payroll deduction which is in turn matched in full by Hayden’s companies. This “Give as you Go” commitment has been happening since the company was formed and has resulted in more than $18.5 million in charitable giving.

Full Circle
Watson believes that it’s second nature for home builders like him to want to give back to their communities. “I think builders are people oriented,” says Watson. “I think they have big hearts and they are committed to their communities because the community has taken care of them. They’ve invested a lot of time and energy in relationships, and when they have the opportunity, they give back.”

Watson comes by this wisdom via spending a lifetime in the home building and real estate business. The roots of Watson’s career can be traced back to his grandfather who served as the commissioner of real estate for California in the 1950s and 1960s. From there the legacy went to his father, a real estate developer in central Oregon. “My dad Robert H. Watson still is my biggest hero, my best friend, and biggest mentor,” Watson says. “Growing up I always wanted to work with my dad. I was trying to get out of college as fast as I could so I could go to work with him.”

With Hayden working beside him, Robert launched Hayden Homes in 1989. Since then, the company has built more than 16,000 homes in small markets in Oregon, including Bend and Redmond. It also has a presence in central Washington, North Idaho, and the Treasure Valley and does most of its own site development.

Watson has been leading Hayden Homes for close to three decades, starting as CEO in 1999 when Robert retired, and becoming chairman in 2016. Under his leadership, the company has become one of the top private home builders in the country, with an economic impact of more than $3 billion since inception.

These days, the greatest challenge Watson faces is overcoming regulatory and political hurdles. “We kind of make a point of staying out of the Portland and Seattle areas because they’re so expensive to build in because of their housing policies and the cost of doing business along with the permitting process,” he says.

Other ongoing challenges to the firm include rising costs that Watson attributes to the labor shortage. “As the cost of subcontractors has gotten more expensive, we find the biggest challenge and asset is finding and growing good people,” he says.

Hayden Watson at an Ice Bucket Challenge at his firm's headquarters.
Courtesy First Story Hayden Watson at an Ice Bucket Challenge at his firm's headquarters.

Despite the roadblocks, Watson believes the unpredictable nature of the home building industry is part of its charm. “Every day is a new day,” he says. “Plus all of the new technology and all the new people coming into the business that are taking the devices and quick information and social media, it’s ever-changing and super fascinating.”

He cites the joys of working with so many different stakeholders including bankers, financiers, manufacturers, engineers, salesman, marketers, and operations people. Above all, he’s thankful for those who came before.

“I’m eternally grateful for some really great parents and having a ton of amazing mentors around me when I was young who showed me how to live, how to treat people, and what it means to be an American,” he says.