Customer of a different color

Horse barn buyers have a dream that builders must learn

The old adage about a “horse of a different color,” used to denote something beyond the ordinary, turns out to be an apt description of a horse barn customer.

“Equine construction isn’t driven by the bottom line,” explains Nigel Hawman, a project manager for the Jasper, Inc., office of Morton Buildings. “There’s a certain romance around horses, something in the look and feel of the lifestyle. Horse barn customers have a dream, a dream they’ve often had even before they acquire the property to build on.”
Working with a horse barn customer, says Hawman, starts with a personal visit to the proposed site. “I meet with the customers to learn about their dreams and plans, and then I have to be patient until they’re ready to build. Sometimes that can take up to two years.”

Hawman’s company builds all types of residential, commercial, and agricultural post-frame buildings. “Outside of horse barns,” he notes, “for every other type of building I do, 99 percent of my customers are men. With outbuildings like a hobby shop or with commercial buildings, the person I deal with is nearly always a man.” By contrast, he estimates that with horse barns he deals with a woman at least 75 percent of the time.

“When the customers buy their property,” Hawman continues, “even before they’ve built their house, the woman may already have an idea or a vision about the relationship of the house to the horse barn. I remember one woman whose dream was to wake up each morning, look out of her bedroom, and see her horses poking their heads out of the Dutch doors of her barn.”

Not surprisingly, Hawman says aesthetic considerations are greater with equine projects than with other buildings that Morton constructs. “With horse barns, people are pursuing their hobby and so these projects are always more of an emotional enterprise,” he points out. “And a ‘horse woman’ isn’t timid about what she wants. She has to put in a lot of time and effort into maintaining a horse. So a barn is a high-profile project for her.”

Yet despite the lofty dreams of equine customers, they can be down-to-earth about details. “By the time they’re ready to build,” Hawman notes, “they’ve done a lot of their own research and know what they want.”

For that reason, Hawman encourages rural builders “not to be afraid of the equine market.” Different theories abound regarding items from ventilation to stall sizing, so most barn customers have already researched these issues and stick to their favored notions. “It’s not required for you to know everything about horses,” he advises, “but you do need to know where to get the information you need.” In his own case, being a Morton builder gives Hawman access to the expertise of the national office and of fellow Morton builders around the country.

“In the past, people owned horses the same way they owned dogs , as pets,” Hawman believes. “But today horses are pretty expensive to maintain. So in the future I think it’s going to require even more affluence for people to own horses. For rural builders, that translates into the prospect of serving a very profitable market.”

Horse fancier
That trend is confirmed by Jim Rollins, the Southeast Regional vice president for Walters Buildings. Rollins is based in Lawrenceburg, Ky., and his firm builds post-frame commercial, agricultural, and equestrian projects. “Horse barns aren’t agricultural buildings anymore,” he affirms. “They’re more like commercial buildings, only fancier. We’ve built horse barns with interior marble tile and wood trim, laid stone fireplaces, and curved staircases.”

Satisfying horse barn customers starts, Rollins advises, “with being a good listener.” Equine projects are highly personalized to each owner, so no two structures are alike. “You can’t build your customer a barn that you’ve already built for one of their neighbors,” he says. “As a builder, you have to listen and then give customers what they want. People who train horses have different needs, for example, than pleasure riders. And people who keep one breed of horse may have different needs than customers who keep a different breed.”
Rollins says his company, which serves the famed Kentucky horse country, is at the high end of the post-frame market. Typical contracts range from $170,000 to $300,000, and have exceeded $700,000 in some cases. One recent project called for an 81×260 riding arena with attached stalls.

Even at the upper end of the equine market, Rollins says he usually deals directly with the building owner rather than a property manager or other employee. “Unlike a commercial building which is driven purely by dollars and cents,” he explains, “a horse barn is driven by the particular look that the owner is trying to achieve. So they tend to be directly involved in the project.”

With a commercial building, Rollins continues, a customer might switch from a drywall ceiling to a drop ceiling in order to save money. But with a horse barn, he says, the owner is more likely to upgrade the ceiling from simple drywall to perhaps tongue-and-groove wood paneling.

Reaching horse barn customers can also require going where they go and, indeed, becoming part of the world they inhabit. “Our company attends some horse shows, maybe to exhibit or maybe to sponsor some seminars,” Rollins points out. “Name recognition and having a track record is what gets you referrals, and 90 percent of our equine business is referrals. Of course, we didn’t start out with referrals. You have to gain the trust and confidence of horse people. That’s why the horse barn business is something you must evolve into.”

Down to details
At Wick Buildings, a national post-frame supplier based in Mazomanie, Wis., marketing coordinator Tami Newman counsels builders that “whether the barn is tiny, or whether it’s big and complex, customers want the details to be absolutely perfect.”

Newman agrees that most horse barn buyers are women. “Even if you’re dealing with a married couple,” she explains, “it’s the woman who makes decisions about the barn design, the safety issues, and all the rest.” Newman likewise concurs that “horse barns aren’t just utilitarian structures” and “people who build horse barns have a dream and a passion , and the income to make it happen.”

For that reason, she suggests, “the challenge for a builder is to get enough information from the customer so that you can draw out a picture of the ideal barn out of their heads. If you don’t give your customers the horse barn they’ve always dreamed about, then they won’t be pleased.” Being a horse barn builder also requires empathy, Newman continues, since “your customers are emotionally attached to their horses.”

Thus, if a customer wants a masonry stall because it may be easier to clean, the builder who simply rejects such a request is unlikely to win the contract. Instead the builder must keep the needs of the horse in mind , perhaps by pointing out that a kicking horse is more likely to injured by masonry; or that if the horse lies down and is unable to get up, a masonry wall cannot be disassembled.

“The owner thinks to herself, ‘These are my horses!’ So if you’re empathetic about what’s best for the horses, you’ll be more likely to get the contract and be able to work with the owner on design suggestions,” advises Newman. On the other hand, she points, horse barn customers “usually come to you, the builder, after they’ve already done a lot of research.” As for upselling opportunities, she says, “your best shot is to suggest upgrades on the interior.”

Some horse barn customers prefer to act as their own general contractor, having the builder erect the shell and then finishing the barn themselves. Other owners would rather receive a turnkey project and have the builder provide everything from shell to interior to fencing. “It’s hard to generalize, though, and say that horse barn customers usually prefer one approach over the other,” Newman believes. “The main thing is going to shows where horse barn customers can get to know about you.”

As to the demographics of horse barn customers, Newman says they typically range in age from their late thirties to the late sixties. “You’ve got the baby boomers who’ve gotten older in years and are ready to pursue their dream,” she observes, “and sometimes you have their grown kids who now have the income and the time to keep horses.”

Yet Newman believes the horse barn market will remain steady, even after today’s baby boomers have retired. “I go to lots of clinics,” she says, “and I see a whole lot of young people who want to learn about horses.”

Making the effort
Like other suppliers, sales and marketing director Chris Spaeth of EPS Buildings agrees that “more women than men are involved in decision-making about horse barns.” Working through local dealers, EPS manufactures pre-engineered buildings for the upper Midwest at its headquarters in Graettinger, Iowa. Equine projects often employ post-frame components for the uninsulated portions of a barn, with solid-core panels and post-frame used for insulated sections such as barn offices and living quarters.

“Our local builders have the flexibility to either erect the barn shell, or to give the owner a turnkey facility,” Spaeth says. Many rural builders around the country only put up the actual barn building, he notes, “but the ability to do a turnkey project is a nice service to provide for owners who don’t have the experience to be their own general contractor.” In general, he observes that owners of smaller barns often prefer to do their own general contracting, while owners of larger projects often want the builder to handle everything.
Nevertheless, winning the contract requires some groundwork. “Horse barn customers pre-qualify builders and base their selections on word of mouth, reputation, and referrals,” Spaeth advises. “Generating that kind of word-of-mouth activity has to go hand-in-hand with any advertising you do.”

Rural builders who enter the equine market, Spaeth continues, must be prepared to spend more time with their customers than perhaps on other types of projects. “Horse barn owners want a unique barn,” he explains, “and so all of the details and the service you must provide requires a lot of hands-on involvement.”

Equine projects take longer than other buildings, Spaeth adds, and “even from the start, you may have to do more proposal drawings than you would on other projects.” For many barn owners, he explains, “this is the first time they’ve done a building of this magnitude; it’s not like, say, a commercial project where the owner has constructed buildings before.”
Why make the extra effort to serve the horse barn market? “It’s true that builders have to spend more time listening, finding out what horse barn customers want, and explaining the options,” Spaeth admits. “But barn owners want great aesthetics, and these kinds of details are expensive. So horse barns, especially the bigger ones, have high rewards for builders.”

Because most of today’s horse barn customers are baby boomers who may be nearing retirement, Spaeth believes that “as builders, we must adapt as the market changes in the future. For example, I’m starting to see some land developers put in a community equine facility as they would a community pool. Over time, horse barn customers will change and could become younger as the baby boomers leave the scene. So, builders have to find ways of making horse barns more affordable for the next generation.”

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