By Kevin Hogencamp, Contributing Writer
If a picture can be worth a thousand words, J. Rene Dostie’s architectural drawings are priceless.
To his family, at least.
Some of the late homebuilder’s methodically penciled plans, dating back to the 1950s, are proudly displayed in frames in Dostie Homes’ boardroom.
The pre-construction illustrations help document a rich family history in the homebuilding business.
Rick Dostie says the drawings are particularly remarkable considering his grandfather had a junior high school education and no architectural training.
“He was one of the smartest people I’ve ever known — way before his time,” he said.
Rick and his brother, Chris, are continuing a family legacy — but not because they were prodded to do so.
“Just like my dad, I didn’t necessarily want my sons to be builders,” concedes Richard Dostie, J. Rene Dostie’s son, and Rick and Chris Dostie’s father. “It’s a risky business.”
Dostie Homes is among Northeast Florida’s multigenerational family contractors to survive harsh economic downturns and fierce competition from national builders. And each other.
Other Jacksonville’s homebuilders with a strong family lineage include North Florida Builders’ Howard White and his son, Jason; ICI Homes’ Don Wilford and his sons, Matt and Michael; and Tom Trout General Contractors’ Tom Trout Jr. and his son, Tom Trout III.
Matt Wilford, a Marcus Allen Homes project manager, is among the Jacksonville homebuilders to follow their forebears’ footsteps — but with different companies.
“I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if it wasn’t for my father and his uncanny ability to do what he does well,” he said
The Family Business Institute, a Raleigh, N.C., consulting firm, says 30 percent of all family businesses survive into the second generation, 12 percent in to the third generation and 3 percent into the fourth generation.
The topsy-turvy construction industry, in particular, is notoriously harsh on families — and secession plans.
It’s too early to tell yet whether any of Rick and Chris Dostie’s children, who range in age from 2 to 10, will continue into the business.
But already, they all like to tag along with their fathers at job sites.
“My message to them will be similar to my dad’s was to us,” Chris Dostie said. “I’ll help them any way I possibly can, but I would never want them to feel any pressure to get into it.”
Richard, Rick and Chris Dostie, Dostie Homes
A homebuilding novice who’d previously been in sales, J. Rene Dostie enlisted the help of a brother-in-law with extensive construction experience to start Dostie Builders in 1955.
As his cousin Albert Longchamp had done six years earlier, J. Rene Dostie migrated from Canada to Florida in 1958 to pursue better opportunities.
“My grandfather’s cousin told him that if you want to get out of the cold weather, Jacksonville is a small city on the rise,” Chris said.
It was truly a family business. J. Rene’s wife, Doris, and her sister painted, dry walled and straightened bent nails so they could be re-used.
“They didn’t waste a thing,” Chris said.
Rick and Chris say their grandfather’s humble beginnings established the foundation to value ethical business principles and a hard day’s work.
And overcome adversity.
“There were plenty of times when it looked like houses weren’t going to sell and they’d have to move back up north,” Chris said.
So goes the construction business.
Dostie Builders’ reputation steadily grew — as did business. J. Rene began developing subdivisions in the 1970s as sons Richard, Rene Jr. and David joined him in the industry. Over three generations, six Dostie family members have operated separate construction companies.
“It was my grandfather’s idea to separate the companies, but to do everything under the umbrella of the family business,” Chris said.
Richard Dostie, J. Rene Dostie’s oldest of three children, says he’d just wrapped up his sophomore year of college when his father sensed Richard wanted to join him in the business.
“My dad said … ‘why don’t we give it a year and see if you like it?’” Richard said. “He never pushed us to get in or stay in the business.”
The duo formed J. Rene Dostie & Son, mostly building starter homes on the Northside and Westside.
Later, Richard would make similar propositions to son Rick. Chris Dostie joined the firm after graduating from Auburn University with a political science and government degree. The third of Richard’s children, Michael, is an Atlanta real estate banker.
“I have friends who sit in cubicles who are jealous of what I do. But they don’t go home with some the stresses and pressures that I do,” Rick said.
The Dosties have been active in the Northeast Florida Builders Association for decades. In 1987, the family business was selected as the organization’s Builder of the Year.
“We’ve always believed in the NEFBA mission,” said Chris, who serves on the trade organization’s executive committee. “We all know that when the homebuilding and development industry goes south, the rest of America’s economy seems to go south, as well.”
The Dosties developed Cobblestone and Eagle Harbor subdivisions, among others, and have a footprint in many of Northeast Florida’s other signature neighborhoods, including Palencia, Glen Kernan Golf & Country Club and Pablo Creek Reserve.
Much of the family’s work occurred under the umbrella of Richard R. Dostie New Home Collection; which formed in 1974 and was sold to Toll Brothers in 2003.
Today, brothers Chris and Rick have a single company — Dostie Homes. Chris, 35, is the firm’s president; Rick, 38, is executive vice president.
Richard, 62, is spending much of his retirement assisting his sons in a consultancy role.
“They run the business, but sometimes they’ll ask me to look at a property and tell them what I think,” Richard said. “It’s a fun relationship and a great way to spend quality time with your children.”
Don and Michael Wilford, ICI Homes, and Matt Wilford, Marcus Allen Homes
Long before drywall became prevalent, saving builders time and their customers’ money, Don A. Wilford was a master plasterer.
Then the Great Depression came.
The Michigan native found work as a prison guard until the homebuilding industry rebounded.
Ultimately, Wilford began building homes himself, thanks to a post-World World II construction boon.
Along the way, he taught the trade to son Donald D. Wilford, who followed suit by mentoring son Donald P. Wilford, who then mentored his three sons.
“He gave us guidance, but certainly didn’t pressure us anything,” Michael Wilford, 36, says of father Donald P. “Don” Wilford.
Don, president of ICI Homes’ North Florida division, is a fifth-generation construction tradesman.
His great grandfather was a skilled carpenter whose primary avocation was farming, and his great-great-grandfather was a stone mason.
It’s no wonder Don could build a house when was 18.
“I regret not getting an education (beyond high school), but I had all these opportunities because my father taught me what he knew,” he said.
After initially working for his father, Don managed job sites for apartment developers in Ohio. By age 25, he oversaw five projects and 50 workers.
“I was doing work that people 10 or 15 years older than me did,” he said.
By age 28, he was antsy and wanted to move south, where opportunities were plentiful.
With his boss’s encouragement, he chose a Jacksonville job offer over a Dallas offer.
“I remember the stern look on my boss’s face and him saying, ‘Go to Jacksonville. Something’s fixing to happen in Dallas — and he was right,” Don said.
As it turned out, Texas was on the cusp of a financial collapse.
Don’s been with ICI for nearly 21 years. In 2014, the company was selected as NEFBA’s Builder of the Year.
Don says the construction industry has endured as many as six recessions in his 43-year career.
None was harder than the recent economic downturn, when ICA laid off 72 of its 87 North Florida division employees.
“This last (recession) nearly killed us; they turned off the faucet,” Don said. “It was gut-wrenching … but our owner (Mori Hosseini) was convinced all along that we were going to make it.”
Hosseini was right. The company rebounded and now has about 60 employees.
“We are leaner and meaner and building a better house,” Don said.
He and his wife, LouAnn, have three children: Michael, who directs ICI’s computer-aided design (CADD) and drafting services; his twin brother, Matt; and 34-year-old Justin, a Jacksonville firefighter.
Michael, who began learning CADD in high school, says it was invaluable to his career to know how to build a house before he knew how to design one.
“That was my dad’s idea,” he said.
Don fancies the idea of another Wilford generation continuing in the construction trade. Among the candidates is Matt’s 12-year-old daughter, Madeline.
“She’s already showing an interest,” he said. “I know there’s another generation or two left in us.”
In addition to his involvement with NEFBA, Don often speaks to high school classes about apprenticeships and other opportunities in construction.
“Robots aren’t going to build a house; you’re always going to need good people,” he said.
Tom Trout Jr. and Tom Trout III, Tom Trout, General Contractor
Tom Trout III says he nearly let his inflexibility get the best of him — and the construction firm his father founded in 1962 — early on in the Great Recession.
Before the downturn, business was booming.
Then, it all dried up.
Initially, Tom Trout III was determined to stick with the company’s bread and butter: remodeling.
Finally, the notion of diversifying hit him — and stuck.
The company added custom home and commercial projects to its offerings.
“There were a lot of subcontractors out there pounding on my door wanting some work, so it wasn’t hard to find and create these new relationships,” he said. “I was stubborn up to that point.”
The father-son tandem says over 54 years, the company periodically has had to adapt to changing environments.
“I’m enjoying that diverse service we now provide,” said Tom III, who joined the company full time in 1980 as project manager and took it over in the mid-1990s.
While the Trouts say a huge chunk of the company’s business is referral-based, the firm famously gets a lot of attention from its billboard.
Interstate 95 travelers are treated to a rotation of humorous and wise expressions from the sign, which stands out beneath a catchy, fish-shaped Trout logo.
In 2000, Tom Trout Jr. honored his wife, Joan, on the sign — noting the two had been married for 20,000 days.
“It hasn’t hurt to have a logo for a name,” his son said.
Construction is Tom Jr.’s second career.
After graduating from Florida Southern College with a business administration degree, he started Duval Appliance Co. and built it up to five stores.
Tom Jr. sold the business in 1959 unsure what he’d do yet.
Nearly three years later, he ran into a former business associate, William Leggett, at a coffee shop.
Leggett seemed particularly relaxed.
“I said, (the remodeling business) certainly looks like it’s agreeable to you,’” he said. “And it had been.”
Before too long, the elder Trout was remodeling for a living.
“(Leggett) kind of got in my mind that it was a 9-to-5 job. It was an all day and all night job,” he said.
But Tom III says the long hours often were his father’s choosing.
For one, he’d routinely schedule appointments on weekends
“My dad and I are different in that I always manage to find time to hunt and fish,” he said.
It was an unfamiliar avocation to Tom Jr. “So I hired the best contractor I knew (Wilbur Jarvis) to show me how to do things,” he said.
Jarvis served as the company’s construction manager for about 25 years. Another key employee, field superintendent Eddie Crosby, was on board for about 40 years.
“Wilbur and Eddie really helped shape the company. They shared my father’s ideals and ethics,” Tom III said.
Today, 89-year-old Tom Jr. remains his son’s mentor.
“He’s a great consultant. I’m always asking him for advice,” Tom III said. “Most of all, he instilled in me the importance of maintaining the company’s reputation and principles.”
Active with NEFBA, the Trouts have been honored with the organization’s Remodelers of the Year award.
The jury’s out, meanwhile, as to whether the company will continue to be led by a Trout upon Tom III’s retirement.
Of his three children, one — 26-year-old Tom Trout IV, who is in the final leg of a six-year sting in the U.S. Navy — has expressed interest in carrying the family flag.
“Whatever he decides to do is OK with me,” Tom III said.
Howard and Jason White, North Florida Builders
Like many of his multigenerational homebuilding peers, Jason White learned every aspect of the business from his father.
And, like many others, White’s on-the-job training started early and was rarely easy.
At about age 8, he started sweeping homes at construction sites for the homebuilding company owned by his father, Howard White.
“I think my dad tried at times to scare me into doing something different, because of how volatile the market gets,” said Jason, 39. “But I was hooked early on.”
Howard, 69, concedes he tried to steer his son toward another line of work.
“It didn’t take me long to figure out that wasn’t going to happen,” he said.
Howard’s first experience with construction was as a Jacksonville mortgage banker.
After 13 years of helping builders and developers with loans, the Alabama transplant changed careers.
“What really interested me was helping people create something from nothing, literally, but lines on a piece of paper,” he said.
He quickly caught on. Business grew steadily, largely due to word-of-mouth.
“It was really nice that Jacksonville was a big small town where word spread fast –– good and bad,” Howard said.
Within a few years, the company was co-developing subdivisions. Its signature is on the Julington Creek, Kendall Place and Secret Woods communities, among others.
North Florida Builders’ toughest era, Howard says, began during the late 1980s.
“People don’t remember how bad it was then,” he said. “But we came out as a more focused builder.”
Rather than trying to be “all things to all people,” as Howard White puts it, the company concentrated its effort on what it did best: luxury custom homes.
Today’s version of North Florida Homes builds custom homes in Atlantic Beach Country Club, Queen’s Harbor and World Golf Village, among other communities.
It also is a remodeling specialist.
Jason, whose two brothers opted for non-construction careers, advanced through the ranks of his father’s company before starting JW Custom Homes in 2007.
Jason changed his company’s moniker in 2010 to North Florida Builders, marking a return to name of the company his father founded in 1977.
Howard sold his company in 2004 to then-national builder Woodside Group, but retained rights to the name.
A former NEFBA president, Howard is now his son’s right-hand man, albeit as a retiree in an advisory role.
“I’m very proud of him and happy to lend a hand when it helps,” Howard said.
Jason, who has two young children, says his father taught him much more than how to build a good house.
“I think the part that has kept me going in the business was always seeing my dad doing the right thing even through the toughest times,” he said.