Custom builder finds market’s silver lining
Cora Johnston in December 2009 helped her son and daughter-in-law buy a lot and design and build a home on it.
Then she held an open house.
“I invited everybody in the business that I knew, all of our friends and local Realtors,” said Johnston, a homebuilder of more than 20 years.
One of her business contacts liked the unique finishes and asked Johnston to build her a custom home at St. Augustine Beach. That was the beginning of Generation Homes and of Johnston’s re-emergence as a homebuilder, starting over from scratch.
Johnston, a petite and personable but no-nonsense businesswoman, came into homebuilding through the sales and marketing side of the industry, rather than the construction side.
After moving with her husband in 1982 to Jacksonville, she took a job as a site agent for Summerhomes Inc.
The company president brought ideas like total quality management to his business. He also emphasized training, including cross-training.
“He trained builders on how to do sales and he trained salespeople on how to build,” Johnston said. “While I was working at the model, along with my training, I would go out to the job sites and talk to the plumbers and electricians, and I’d ask them questions.”
Nine years with Summerhomes prepared Johnston for the next leg of her career – a 16-year stint with Mercedes Homes, where she became division president.
The company sold homes like crazy through the 1990s and early 2000s. But the housing recession, a setback for all builders, took a bigger toll on Mercedes than most. The company went out of business.
“So — now, I’m making up a number — I’m say 52 years old, and it’s gone. So what do you do?” Johnston said. “You do what you can do.”
For Johnston that meant falling back on her strength — business and marketing.
She developed email lists of everyone she knew and bounced ideas off of them. She drove from St. Augustine to Fernandina Beach interviewing site agents, asking what customers who walked through their doors were looking for and why they weren’t buying.
The answer she got the most was there’s nothing fresh. Everybody’s floor plans looked the same. The exteriors of the houses all had the same materials.
“I knew I had to start from scratch, that I couldn’t copy from someone else, that I had to do something different,” Johnston said.
Generation Homes would come to deliver unique concepts to Jacksonville’s consumers, such as GrowHOMES, a house designed to easily build additions as the family grows, and Shades of Green, a house customized for energy efficiency. The core of her business was always custom homes designed hand-in-hand with the buyer.
The sales campaign didn’t end with market research on what to build.
While working at St. Augustine Beach, Johnston and her operations vice president, Stuart McDonald, would hang out on their truck’s tailgate during breaks, sweep the streets and stop cars and meet people. A Generation Homes sign and “take-one” box filled with brochures were on the lawn.
That led to more contracts. For Generation Homes, each job site, kept perfectly clean, would become a marketing tool for the next home. And, taking a page from Summerhomes, Johnston trained her tradesmen in sales.
“My builders in the field are as likely as any site agent to stop you on the street — because you’re driving slow and you’re looking — and say ‘Hi, I’m with Generation Homes, is there something I can help you with?’” Johnston said.
In its first year, Generation Homes sold three houses, in its second year, nine. Now four years into the business, it’s on track to sell 40, Johnston said.
“What’s fun about owning a custom homebuilding company is it means working one-on-one with homeowners and building their dream,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what price point of a home it is, it’s the same experience every time.”