GHO Homes made it through the recession despite being sold and then bought back, despite choosing second-tier markets, and despite offering every customer endless choices. But look closer, and it’s clear those seemingly risky moves actually played a big part in GHO’s survival and current success.
Dan Handler, a former builder/developer of shopping centers, started GHO Homes in 1983, steadily growing the company until it was building homes along Florida’s East Coast, from Daytona Beach to just north of Fort Lauderdale. Seventeen years later Handler’s son, Bill, took charge.
In 2005, GHO caught the attention of Woodside Homes, a large Utah-based builder on an expansion track. It made the Handlers an offer they couldn’t refuse. “My father was looking to retire and the world was so crazy [with land prices and home prices soaring], that it was hard to make sense of it.” The Woodside offer, he continues, was a good deal. “Dad got to retire and they wanted me to stay on and manage it.”
That arrangement continued until 2010, when Woodside, in bankruptcy, retrenched to its core markets in the West and offered Bill Handler the chance to buy back what was left of his family’s company.
“We worked out a deal and I was back in business in a couple of days in the middle of 2010,” says the younger Handler. He retrieved between 700 and 800 lots and a model home, all assets he knew well.
But the recession was far from over, with home prices continuing to fall. “I had people tell me that I was out of my mind,” says Handler. “Nobody wanted home lots. I figured at the worst I would build houses for practice [with no profit] for a while and call it even.”
In the end, the Handlers’ timing was nearly perfect, selling at the peak and buying back close to the trough, with Bill Handler getting paid to manage the company in between.
GHO was profitable a year after Handler bought it back. An improving economy helped because older buyers moving to Florida are a big share of GHO’s market. But he says: “We are still fighting for every deal. No deal is easy.”
GHO’s market is smaller than at the boom’s peak, comprised of 11 communities in Vero Beach and Port St. Lucie. Choosing to build in secondary markets, where there is less competition from larger builders, has helped contribute to GHO’s revival.
GHO does have competition from a few bigger builders, such as Kolter, Minto, KB Home, and the omnipresent D.R. Horton, but it isn’t fighting against the gaggle of public builders that Florida’s larger metros host.
Competing with Big Builders
To compete with the national builders, GHO offers to customize beyond what other production builders will do, such as adding extra bedrooms. The customization option plays well with older buyers who know exactly what they want and are willing to pay more to get it. “We tell them ‘Tell us what you’re looking for,’ ” Handler says. “That is what you can’t get with resale and you can’t get with a national” builder.
Handler agrees it’s more difficult to accommodate so much customization. But during the downturn his company installed accounting systems to make the process easier, and he struck deals with trades to charge by the volume rather than bidding a set price on a floor plan.
With extreme customization came extreme customer service. “Whatever we can do to make everything right with the customer, we do. If they want an extra tree ,they get it,” says Handler. “We don’t hide from the customer. Everybody’s number is on the business cards.”
It’s beginning to pay off. Handler expects sales to more than double in 2013 and to close to 90 homes.
GHO Homes, Vero Beach, Fla. Founded: 1983
2012 Closings: 43
Home Prices: $180,000 to $700,000
Markets Served: Vero Beach and Port St. Lucie, Fla.
Success Strategy: Extreme customization, customer service
Teresa Burney is a senior editor for BUILDER.