Archive for August 2007

In the News! Your Business Section of Augusta Chronicle

August 27, 2007

If he builds it, they will buy

By Laura Youngs  | Staff Writer Sunday, August 26, 2007

It’s barely 10 o’clock on a humid August morning. Already, the thermometer is climbing past 90 as construction workers trek through the dry mud and hammer away at one of Keystone Homes’ latest neighborhoods, Sage Creek in Graniteville.

Lamar Crowell couldn’t be more at home.For the 41-year-old CEO of Keystone, construction is second nature. He grew up in real estate development, helping his father pass out fliers and stuff envelopes for his development firm, Crowell & Co., and later pouring concrete and digging ditches during summers in college for a construction crew.Although the sound of hammers and saws in the morning isn’t music to most people’s ears, for Mr. Crowell, it signals growth for a company that’s just 12 years old.Though he has stumbled along the way, learning what works and what doesn’t, Mr. Crowell has turned a small startup with 10 houses a year into a 55-employee firm that builds around 300 houses annually on the formula of affordable, easy-to-build homes that appeal to first-time buyers.Despite leading one of the biggest home-building companies in the area, Mr. Crowell knows he didn’t do it alone.“I don’t see this being my company,” he said. “I have partners. We’ve got 50-plus people here who are critical to the company.”He remains a relatively low-key person, happier to guide the company’s direction from behind the scenes – perhaps the reason he didn’t lend his name to his firm.“I named it Keystone for a reason,” he said. “It’s not about me.”

Staying busyAs he sits in an armchair in his Stevens Creek office, Mr. Crowell’s hands hardly stop moving.It’s no real surprise for a man who is almost always occupied, whether researching building trends, visiting field sites or fixing old cars.“He always needs a hobby,” his wife, Wendy, said with a laugh. Those hobbies right now rotate among golf, woodworking and restoring one of his two classic MG cars, she said.When he was growing up, no one ever lazed around on a Saturday afternoon in the Crowell household. Whether he was participating in sports, bagging groceries at the Winn-Dixie or earning extra money working for his father, Otis, Lamar had to do something.“Keep ’em busy,” his father said. “They stay out of trouble.”The need to keep moving could partly be behind Mr. Crowell’s ability to take a startup home construction company and turn it into one of the area’s largest home-builders.“Lamar is very focused and very intense,” Keystone President Mark Gilliam said. “He’s relentless.”He first came into development by way of his entrepreneurial father, who started Crowell & Co. in the late 1960s when Lamar was an infant.“I thought it would allow me more growth, more control,” his father said.The family remained close even after Lamar’s parents divorced when he was in first grade. Weekends and afternoons were spent with his father, and he was with his mother the rest of the time.“Dad was always there for us. Mom was always there for us,” he said.

He said his father never pushed him or his siblings into the field, but having always been around it, he knew that’s what he wanted by the time he left for the University of Georgia in 1984, where he later met Wendy.He studied economics at school and spent summers digging ditches and pouring concrete for now-closed Ivey Homes Inc., a construction company that later came under the umbrella of Crowell & Co.Though doing the dirty work isn’t required to be a successful builder, “that benefited him tremendously,” Otis Crowell said of his son. Lamar understands the building process from start to finish and can relate to the guy working in the hot sun, he said.In 1989, Mr. Crowell decided he was burned out on school and wanted to get to work. He left and took a full-time post at Ivey Homes, cutting his teeth supervising home-building projects.“He learned how to take a house from start to finish,” said Jake Ivey, who ran Ivey Homes and now heads builder J.W. Ivey & Associates Inc.Mr. Crowell said he also learned from Mr. Ivey how to work with people, which is necessary when a project can involve hundreds of subcontractors, crew members and the homeowner.His father had tried at first to get his son to go to Atlanta, where he could experience something new.

 Lamar said he knew that the market there in the late 1980s was tough, though, so when the few leads he had died, he decided to stay in Augusta.After four years with Ivey Homes, his father asked him to join him in real estate development. The younger Mr. Crowell had grown up in the field and decided it was time to give it a try.“He wanted me to pursue development, and I thought I did,” he said.Despite his goals, he soon found real estate development to be a slow process that didn’t suit his personality.“Things just move slow, and you’re so dependent on things that are out of your control,” he said. “There’s still lots of stuff out of our control (in home-building), but we have a little more control.”Building houses still means inspections and other requirements, but there’s more waiting around in development, said his brother John, 31, who has taken over daily operations from Otis and is now president of Crowell & Co. (Lamar is the CEO).“When you go from a piece of raw land to a finished neighborhood … the majority of government issues are in development,” he said. After development is over with, “you really pick up the pace.”

The flow of home-building was faster, and his friends and co-workers said that better suited Mr. Crowell, who is methodical and technical.In 1995, therefore, he founded Keystone Homes Inc. as a wholly owned subsidiary of Crowell & Co. With his father’s financial backing, he built his first house in Asbury Hill in Richmond County. He sold it three months later for $99,900 (around $160,000 in today’s market). Soon he moved on to the next house, and then another.Mr. Crowell said he picked Keystone as the name because it’s the critical stone that supports an archway, and it appealed to him as a builder.By the end of his first year, he had 10 homes.By 1997, he sold 34 homes.The side-by-side efforts of father and sons have made for a powerful force, with Crowell & Co. developing real estate while Keystone handles construction on neighborhoods such as Riverstone in Augusta or Walnut Grove in North Augusta (though Keystone has used outside developers from time to time).Mr. Crowell has built his company on his own, his father said. The partnership makes for an even more efficient machine, Lamar said. The development side knows exactly what kind of land Keystone wants to build on, he said, saving time and headaches.Working with family isn’t always easy, and the three Crowells are independent and entrepreneurial. There have been arguments and disagreements, but never anything that made Mr. Crowell want to leave, he said.“It’s been challenging at times, but it’s been very rewarding, too,” he said.The dynamic has changed as his father focuses solely on what he truly enjoys – acquiring land. Having four independent, strong-willed men, including Mr. Gilliam, the president, means making room for everyone at the table.“We all have to check our egos at the door, and that’s tough,” Mr. Crowell said. “But my family comes first.”

Running the showLamar’s experiences made completing his first house easy, but building a business was another matter.At a fledgling company, everything – from supervising projects to bookkeeping – fell onto Mr. Crowell’s shoulders, Mr. Gilliam said. Though Mr. Crowell – who put in 50 to 60 hours a week – said he could handle the day-to-day tasks such as accounting, he has a short attention span and prefers the long-term-strategy work he does now.“You’re doing a lot of things that aren’t necessarily your strengths, so you don’t do your best work that way,” he said.Despite the struggle of running his own business, he already knew a thing or two about building, and in an industry of disorganization, his organizational and technical abilities gave him an edge early on, his friends and co-workers say.He was tinkering with computers since his youth, his dad said. By the time he was working for Mr. Ivey in the early 1990s, he was modifying plans and using computers, which was unusual at the time, said Keystone’s director of construction, Darren Gresham, who worked with him at Ivey Homes and joined Keystone in 1999 as the eighth employee.Mr. Crowell used software programs and other systems at Keystone so he could create a database of customers and calculate ahead of time whether a home would make a profit, making it easier for the customer and the company.“I’m a geek at heart,” he said. “I love technical stuff.”Over time, that methodical, technical approach has created a “one-stop” shopping atmosphere that keeps home prices down.After a customer chooses from about 30 floor plans, they visit the design studio at the Stevens Creek office (added about three years ago), which allows the buyer to choose everything from the lighting and flooring to countertops in a couple of hours.It limits choices, but it keeps price points lower and appeals to first-time buyers, though Keystone sees everyone from first-timers to retirees, locals to out-of-towners from all over the country.It also takes out a certain amount of hassle for clients, said Rhonda Oellerich, the vice president of sales at Keystone.When building a home, customers often go from store to store with an allowance, picking out each item. The studio lets folks design the house at one location.

Each of the 30 floor plans comes with a set number of variations, which limits customizing but minimizes costs.The approach doesn’t appeal to everyone, but “you can’t be everything to everybody,” Mr. Crowell said.Minor changes, such as moving a door or a wall, mean plans have to be redrawn and expenses shoot up, he said. With Keystone’s approach, prices can stay between $110,000 and a little above $300,000. “He’s made it a lot easier for people in that market,” Mr. Ivey said.Early in its existence, Keystone tried to do small adjustments. About a decade ago, the firm built one of the phases of Baker’s Ferry, where houses ran into the mid-$200,000s (around $400,000 in today’s money) and perks, such as basements, were added. In the end, the format didn’t suit Keystone’s style, and the firm lost money on some of the homes“It was painful,” he said.With higher prices, people want more choices. Mr. Crowell has been called a cookie-cutter, but “most people can’t afford to have a custom house built,” he said.“We offer a lot of features and a lot of warranty and a lot of stability that the average builder cannot,” he said.He’s not doing anything new, he said; he has gleaned ideas and learned through builders’ groups and research how to create an efficient system.Mr. Crowell’s approach has helped the company grow significantly. When the housing boom took off at the beginning of the decade, Keystone doubled the number of houses built, reaching 164 in 2001.“Lamar and Mark … they didn’t grow because growth could be had,” Mr. Gresham said. “For a while, anyone could (build) a house. We rode the tide like everyone else. But it was all planned, too.”The next five years saw numbers climb steadily, eventually hitting 300 in 2005. The firm was the first Augusta builder to move into Aiken, a tactic that proved rocky at first.“It took us awhile to get going in Aiken,” he said. The market has been up and down, but Aiken has been good to Keystone, where it builds everything from townhouses to houses in the mid-$100,000s. Competitors Bill Beazley Homes and Nordahl Homes command a bigger market in Columbia and Richmond counties, he said, while Keystone is strong in Aiken.

At some point, he said, he hopes to stretch his legs outside the Augusta-Aiken area and move into other markets when the housing industry picks up again.“We have no distinct plans for any particular area or any particular timing,” he said in an e-mail. “When the time comes, it would be in the Southeast.”

Gearing up for growthAs the company grows, Mr. Crowell has begun looking at other possibilities for Keystone.The housing market in Augusta-Aiken, though slowing, isn’t in dire straits like Las Vegas or even Atlanta. The local market enjoyed growth during the housing boom, but it didn’t create a bubble that would later burst.He said he expects to do as well as in 2006, when the company built 296 houses, possibly better. The key is to monitor trends, which he does by spending hours reading up on the market to stay ahead of the game, and meeting with builders from across the country.The company plans to grow in volume but has no plans to move into higher prices, Ms. Oellerich said Keystone is working in the Trolley Run neighborhood in Aiken, where houses run about $350,000, but beyond that, it gets too complicated with demands for customizing, he said.“There’s a point where people are fine with a production-oriented house, which is what we are,” he said.The company has toyed with the idea of using manufactured housing, but low building costs in the Augusta-Aiken area and the negative connotations surrounding them make stick-built houses a better deal for now, he said.In the end, Keystone’s style provides a steadier market in an unsteady industry.“People always need a home, but people don’t always need a half-million-dollar home,” Mr. Gresham said.

Keeping perspectiveEven as he focuses on growing Keystone, his family has made him take a step back and realize the bigger picture. With his older sister Beverly (who is the executive sales assistant at Keystone) battling uterine cancer for the past year and a half, he finds himself focusing more on his family and helping her get through it. After spending a recent Tuesday at the hospital with her, he finds it hard to discuss.“When I did get back here Tuesday, I didn’t get anything done,” he said. “I stared at a wall.”At times it has distracted him from work, but he said one silver lining is that it has brought the family closer. The family had always done a good job of staying close, but with his sister’s illness, it has rallied, he said.Keystone donates money and volunteers for the American Cancer Society.It’s a situation he has faced before, when his father’s battle with cancer was a wake-up call.Since then, Mr. Crowell said, he has paid more attention to what he eats and even bought his staff bicycles for Christmas three years ago. Each year, the staffers come in for voluntary blood pressure checks and health screenings. Although it helps with health insurance premiums, it also helps employees stay healthy, he said.Even so, he stays focused on Keystone. Though he has come this far, much like his father, Lamar Crowell doesn’t sit still and doesn’t plan on hanging up his hammer anytime soon.“What would I do if I retired?” he said. “If you love what you’re doing and you’re passionate about it, why change“I can’t sit in a rocking chair and look at a lake.”  

Otis Lamar Crowell Jr.

TITLE: Chief executive officer, Keystone Homes

BORN: May 23, 1966, in Augusta

EDUCATION: Westside High School 1981-84; University of Georgia 1984-89

CAREER: Project manager, Ivey Homes Inc. 1989-93; project manager, residential development, Crowell & Co., Inc. 1993-95; president of Keystone Homes Inc. 1995-2006; CEO of Crowell & Co. Inc., 2007

CIVIC: Board of directors, Savannah River Banking Co.; Aldersgate United Methodist Church; Sales and Marketing Council; Builders Association of Metro Augusta (and Aiken); Heritage Academy; American Cancer Society

FAMILY: Wife, Wendy Wells Crowell; son, Travis William Crowell

HOBBIES: Golfing and restoring old cars, especially British cars  

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End of Summer Update

August 21, 2007

With school back in,  summer is officially coming to a close.  Although it’s safe to say you wouldn’t know it from the temperatures outside.

Keystone has had a busy summer with many productive discussions and changes to make us more efficient as a company so we can deliver the ultimate in customer service and construction.

 One way we are able to improve is based on your feedback.  After closing, you will be sent a postcard that asks “Would you recommend Keystone to a friend or family member?”  It then asks for contact information if you wish to be contacted for further discussion.  The information gathered through these surveys is invaluable.  Your experiences, expectations, and feedback allow us to see where our systems are working well and where they can be improved.  Please take the time to fill this card out and let us know how your home buying experience went.  It will make a difference.

 This summer also afforded us the opportunity to become involved with Heritage Academy and what an honor that has been.  Beside monetary support we were able to send a team one Saturday to help paint the stairwells in the new building.  We were graciously invited to attend the ribbon cutting ceremony and were blown away by the community support for this organization and the impact they are having on our area’s children.  We encourage all of you to learn more about Heritage Academy and organizations like it that strive to make a difference in our community.

 If you’ve caught any of the news over the last few months you’re sure to have heard about the state of the current mortgage and housing market.  While these industries are going through some changes housing is still one of the best investments you can make.  Our markets are particuarly strong and offer much in the way of affordability and quality.  There are plenty of lending opportunities available and homes to choose from.  Keystone offers an unparalleled homebuying experience and we are here to answer any questions you may have. 

 One way of utilizing our knowledge base is through this web site and our contact us page.  We now have a dedicated staff member to answer your emails and respond to any inquiries through the contact us page found on our site.  Don’t hesitate to talk with us about any questions or concerns you may have.

 Well that is it for right now.  Have a great August and stay cool!