by Michele Newbern Gillis
John Kenny of John Kenny Construction doesn’t like to be in the spotlight. He likes to fly just under the radar, do a good job and keep on working.
Even though he doesn’t hog the limelight, his name is known by most and it brings a certain distinction to the communities he builds in.
He doesn’t market or run ads; his customers come from word-of-mouth and referrals.
Kenny was born and raised in Jacksonville. When he graduated from Bishop Kenny High School, he and his friend John Denneen started doing construction. He earned a bachelor’s degree in building construction from the University of Florida’s School of Building Construction.
In 1978, he got his general contractor’s license and decided to open his own construction company, John Kenny Construction.
Twenty-five years later, it is still going strong.
“When you have always worked construction, you can always pretty much get a job doing something,” said Kenny. “I had a lot of contacts around town. Everyone wanted a room addition or something renovated, so I said, ‘Why not open my own company?’”
Denneen joined the company shortly after and they have been partners ever since.
They started out doing room additions and renovations and have evolved to be a custom homebuilder in some of Jacksonville’s most prestigious communities.
The company builds about 15-20 custom homes a year starting at $500,000. They don’t really have a niche, per se — they say they build what the market wants.
“We try to match the style to the market,” said Kenny. “Right now, there is a big demand for Mediterranean homes. But, our model in Palencia is sort of a coastal style. We do what we feel the market wants us to do. Styles are always changing and you have to be sensitive to that or it goes right by you.”
As many small builders do, Kenny utilizes outside designers and subcontractors to design and build his homes.
Denneen handles all of the operations of the company and oversees the construction sites. Kenny handles the administration. He also helps the buyers design their house and handles the finances for the company.
“I’m the one who makes the promises, and he’s the one who keeps them,” said Kenny.
Working in the trenches himself gave Kenny a unique perspective on homebuilding.
“It makes me realize the value of the relationship with your subcontractors and home owners,” said Kenny. “I’ve always told people that I felt that communication was the key to a successful job. I think that is more and more evident the longer I do it. If you are not responsive to your customers and subcontractors, you won’t have them.
“I think that relationship is a tremendous part of the business and communication is the cornerstone of that. You have a problem you aren’t communicating with them, all the way down to the laborer on your job. We try to instill pride in those guys and treat them with respect.”
Over the years they have built in many communities in Jacksonville including Julington Creek Plantation, Marsh Landing, Plantation Oaks, Hampton Glen and Palencia.
With the national conglomerates coming to Jacksonville and eating up the smaller builders, one wonders how John Kenny Construction has managed to stay alive.
“I think we are probably too small,” said Kenny. “I stay under the radar and I do things the big national companies can’t do. For instance, I give my customers my home telephone number. I tell them to call me any time day or night. They don’t abuse it.
“Only once have I had a phone call after 10 p.m. — a woman’s roof was leaking and water was coming in through a light fixture and she wanted to know if she should turn it off. I told her to put a bucket under it and I’d be there in the morning. I got there at 7:30 a.m. and we got a roofer out there to fix it.
“Those are the kind of things that it is impossible for a large national company to do. When you build in upscale communities for an upscale buyer, they want my kind of builder.”
Since he started working in construction, Kenny has seen a great deal of change in the construction business.
“There is more technology and education in the field today than there used to be,” he said. “It used to be how tough you were; now, it’s how smart you are. Maybe it’s just the position that I’ve grown to that makes me see it that way.
“There is so much technology out there today. When I started out, builders that I worked for were making decisions based on instinct. Now, they are making business decisions based on information and technology. Those things weren’t quite as available back then. The industry has become far more business-like than when we originally started.”
These days, he says, construction students need to be prepared better in business management, finance and marketing before entering the building market.
“When John and I first started, we thought you just build a good house and someone will come and buy it,” said Kenny. “And that’s not quite the case. We have survived through attrition, not through brilliance.”
Dealing with the constant increase of prices is one of the hardest things Kenny says he has to deal with as a builder.
“Gasoline costs more, lumber costs more, land costs more and labor costs more,” he said.
Even with the rising costs, Kenny said perseverance and honesty are keys to success.
“Name recognition is important,” he said. “A lot of the opportunities that people have given us is because of who we are as people. A lot of times people buy houses from us because of who we are as people. They meet one of us and know that they are dealing with one of the people who are actually going to build the house. If they have an issue, they don’t have to climb a tree to find someone; they know just where to go.”
The company is currently building in Palencia and Ponte Vedra Beach and its next project is to build on 15 oceanfront lots and 14 cottage lots on North River Island in Vilano Beach in early 2004.
As a small builder, John Kenny Construction has a tough road ahead.
“I think that for builders like me, it is going to get more difficult all the time to find lots,” said Kenny. “That will be the challenge. I know of three builders who in the last week were bought out by national companies. They come in with a pocketful of money and buy up all of the lots they can get. The people who want to live in those communities have to buy from them. We have limited resources. That’s going to be the challenge in the future for us.”
So what’s a small builder to do?
Kenny said several small builders are getting together to buying sections of communities together.
“Builders are a pretty resilient group,” he said. “They can basically overcome most anything. They do what they have to do. So there will be partnering up and you will go in with a couple of builders and buy a whole section of a development and do what you have to do. Builders will become developers. They will buy land, join together and develop pieces of property.”