Coming back for more

Heard the one about the architect who designs a client’s home and then gets invited back to design the horse barn?

Talk to most equine builders and they’ll tell you stories about residential architects who tried their hand at horse barns: The ventilation was insufficient. The site plan was cockeyed. All the bells and whistles doubled the cost.

But have you ever heard of a client who asked their horse barn builder to come back and design their home?

Todd Meinhold has. The president of H+D Quality Builders in Roanoke, Ill., is now putting the finishing touches on 6,800-square-foot home for Greg and Deb Harmon, seven years after building them a 20-stall horse barn that was named a 2002 Building of the Year by the National Frame Building Association.

“The fact that we designed and built the Harmons’ horse barn first — and then were invited to build their home — is a good illustration of our business philosophy,” explains Meinhold. “We manage the customers’ experience so that they want to use us again. They see that we’re quality builders. Period. We can handle whatever needs they might have.”

In the Harmons’ case, for example, H+D is also now building a 45-foot riding arena and 8-stall addition to the original award-winning horse barn.

Unlike many equine builders, Meinhold admits, “I’m not a horse person.” For that matter, neither did he grow up swinging a hammer.

Instead, his background in management and sales has given him a firm grasp of “the business side of the business.”

Vision and a plan

Since he purchased H+D in 2005 Meinhold has taken the company to the next level by introducing best practices in business as well as in building.

H+D was founded in 1990 by two partners —­ named Howard and Dave — that focused on general residential and agricultural repairs, remodels and small-scale builds. Two years later the company became a Borkholder Buildings dealer, a relationship it maintains today, and then through the mid 1990s expanded into the religious and commercial construction markets.

The founders sold the business in 1999 and a year later the new owner approached Meinhold about becoming his sale rep.

The Harmon horse barn is a good example of the business model Meinhold introduced to H+D upon joining the company in 2000.

“I sat down with the Harmons, listened to their wants and needs, and at each step I would ‘refine and define’ the design elements,” he recalls. “And by using a design/build approach we kept everything under our umbrella. That allowed us to positively manage the Harmons’ experience, give them a realistic budget and provide the convenience of a single source of responsibility.”

A matter of trust

Throughout the process Meinhold and H+D were gaining the Harmons’ trust. Their collaboration began in 2000 with a machine shed and then a horse barn.

“Greg and Deb have a commercial boarding operation on 142 acres of property they bought,” he continues, “and they planned someday to build their home and live on the property. So even in 2000 when we were designing the horse barn, we also gave them a site plan for their future house and other structures which would accommodate expansion of their boarding operation.”

H+D gained the Harmons’ confidence and Meinhold stayed in touch with the couple even after the barn was built. The result was a phone call in 2006 when Greg and Deb were ready to start the design process for their new upscale custom home.

Then in 2007 a stall addition, riding arena, a sawdust and hay storage building — and even a 100-foot-long private bridge — were also folded into the project. And like the original barn that included a future site plan, the latest phase is being constructed with later expansion in mind. The riding arena, for example, is currently unheated and yet rough-in electrical wiring and gas piping is being included.

By the time the Harmons were ready for a new round of construction, Meinhold had become the owner of H+D Quality Builders.

“The previous owner was getting overwhelmed by the growth in the number of employees and projects,” he relates, “and so I bought the company in 2005 with the intention of using my business background to take H+D to the next level.”

Versatility and variety

That has indeed happened as H+D is now active in residential, commercial, agricultural, religious, recreational, mini-storage, metal roofing and equine construction. The company has served as general contractor for jobs as diverse as churches, commercial projects, custom-built homes, and residential developments.

“And though we’re a post-frame builder,” Meinhold notes, “we can also offer our customers stick-building and steel framing.”

Through it all, Meinhold’s business savvy has led the way. “Previously our company had a ‘sell it/build it, sell it/build it’ approach,” he states. “But today, rather than do projects one at a time, we always make sure there’s a steady flow of projects in the pipeline.”

And though H+D maintains a construction crew on its payroll, Meinhold and his team now emphasize their role as building consultants who manage the activities of numerous trade contractors, all of whom understand the H+D approach to customer service.

Subcontracting and outsourcing not only reduce overhead, but give H+D the flexibility to simultaneously manage multiple projects in various stages of development. The consulting approach likewise allows Meinhold to leverage what H+D does best.

“With our design/build project delivery method,” he explains, “we offer a cost-effective approach that puts the designer, architect, engineer and builder all under one roof.”

As such, customers get realistic budgets and realistic designs that are practical, as well as aesthetically satisfying, to build. While the construction industry has traditionally concerned itself only with the upfront capital cost of a building, Meinhold brings to his clients a concern for the long-term operating costs of their projects. For example, H+D has become active in selling and installing “cool” metal roofs that reduce owners’ energy costs.

Good sense and sensibility

“We take a ‘sensible’ approach to projects,” Meinhold continues, “looking at the customer’s economics and operating costs. With churches, let’s say, we’ll even consult on their capital campaigns. All of our projects are custom-built, rather than using standard models or designs. We build the building to how the client functions, rather than expect the client to function within the parameters of how the building is built.”

Though equine construction only accounts for about five percent of H+D’s bottom line, Meinhold was so meticulous in listening to the Harmons that his company ended up winning a NFBA Building of the Year award, a real honor for the couple as well as for the company.

“We don’t ‘attack’ the equine market,” Meinhold concedes, “but we let the projects come to us through referrals and repeat customers.

“Horse barns are a steady business for us because this part of Illinois has a lot of manufacturing headquarters,” Meinhold observes. “People around here are relatively affluent. They buy a piece of land and put up a small barn to quarter their own horses. The Harmons’ barn was a big project, but mostly we build smaller equine facilities.”

H+D Quality Builders and its “sensible” approach, which pays attention to long-term operating costs, may be attractive to hardheaded owners of commercial construction projects. But how does it fly with horse barn customers? Do they really care about costs when the time finally comes to build their dreams?

“Yes, equine customers have an emotional attachment to their projects,” Meinhold concedes. “Their horses are their ‘babies.’ Yet I also find that horse barn customers are very detail-oriented. They’ve often done a lot of research on their own. So they can be demanding because they want what they want.”

For that reason Meinhold asks horse barn customers right upfront to name a total budget figure. Some clients are initially wary, believing that builders will automatically charge them the maximum amount the customer can afford.

“But I tell them, ‘If I don’t know your budget, I can’t design your barn.’ And I reassure them the goal is to build what they need and want, around what they can afford,” he says.

Knowing what to expect

To gain their confidence Meinhold begins by giving clients, at a set price of 50 cents per square foot, a design, rendering and realistic budget. In the next step, this time at a set price of $1 per square foot, the company furnishes a set of plans and a contract price to do the job.

“Horse people are a small community and they talk to each other,” he observes, “and so our clients quickly see that our prices are in line with general expectations.”

Yet because H+D is experienced in many types of construction, the company can build in extra value.

“We take our experience from commercial construction and home construction,” Meinhold relates, “and apply that to the equine market. We can give you things like a cool metal roof, or spray foam insulation, that will make your operating costs as efficient as your office or home.

“Of course, horse barns aren’t airtight like a house. The animals need fresh air,” Meinhold points out. “So in buildings where horses and people coexist, some creative solutions might be needed. We can pull from our knowledge of all types of construction to find those solutions.”

Referral and repeat business, like the Harmons’ new project, give Meinhold confidence that “the equine market will continue to be steady for us. Customers are often empty-nesters whose kids are gone. They’re financially stable and have saved up the money to build the horse barn they always wanted.”

The wisdom of Meinhold’s approach to managing customer experiences is evident as the economy turns down and general construction activity slows.

“Despite the economy,” he reports, “we’re already well ahead of last year’s pace, so that 2008 is clearly a growth year for us. We’re even expanding our metal roofing business. When times are tough, clients look for builders with quality, honesty, and integrity.”

In 2006, H+D opened a design center and showroom “so that our customers can see and touch and imagine what their projects can look like,” Meinhold adds. “That’s all part of the experience. And when the construction starts, we make sure our subs attend to details like how their crews dress and act. Our whole process is geared to taking the fear out of building. The customers get a good experience — and that’s what sustains our company.” n

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