One sale blossoms into dealership

Willie Kimmons was selling flowers when, at age 40, “I decided I was ready for a change.”

When an acquaintance mentioned that Wick Buildings was looking for dealers, Kimmons’ interest was immediately piqued.

That was 10 years ago.

Today, the Merrill, Wis., resident not only sells post-frame buildings of all types, but also designs and estimates them. Recent projects include a 25,000-square-foot equestrian center that has won national recognition in the National Frame Building Association’s Building of the Year competitions. Not bad for someone who admits, “When I started in the building business, I was scared to death!”

But in 1998, Kimmons sold his first building, a municipal storage facility for the city of Tomah, Wis.

“From then on,” he recalls, “it was word of mouth, as one project led to the next project.”

At first about 90 percent of his jobs were suburban shelters, outbuildings to house snowmobiles, pontoon boats, recreational vehicles or whatever his customers needed to store. But in time his work diversified until now he pegs his business at 50 percent suburban shelters, 35 percent commercial and equine and 15 percent residential.

“I’m a dealer,” Kimmons explains, “and so I don’t construct any buildings with my own forces.” Since Wick Buildings is headquartered in nearby Mazomanie, Wis., crews from the company come to deliver and erect the structures. “But I sell the buildings and, since each one is custom-designed, I also do the design and estimating for the customer.”

Kimmons was able to make the leap from storage sheds to designing and estimating more complex projects — including the 25,000-square-foot equestrian center — for what he believes is a simple reason.

“Ten years ago I was selling flowers,” he explains. “I hadn’t grown up swinging a hammer, like a lot of rural builders do. So as a newcomer to construction and to post-frame building, I chose to be a dealer with a national company. That way I got the support I needed while I was learning about selling, designing and estimating different kinds of structures.”

For example, Kimmons learned that with equine facilities “you’ve got to know how the right ventilation is needed to keep the animals healthy.” As the prospect of building horse barns entered the picture a few years ago, he adds, “I’d go to Wick Buildings’ annual sales meeting. There are always 200-plus dealers and builders there. I would listen to them and pick their brains about ventilation and other things that go with building horse barns.”

Then in 2002 came Kimmons’ first chance at the equine market. “In addition to word-of-mouth, which is my number-one advertising tool,” he relates, “I also advertise in the local papers and the yellow pages, put out job signs and do charity events. And I make a big point of keeping in touch fairly frequently with past customers. In fact, I stop in and visit the ones that live within 60 miles of my home base.”

However he got the lead six years ago, Kimmons remembers how “the phone rang one day and, when it was done, I had agreement to build a horse barn — in fact, commercial boarding facility — for the first time.”

Yet rather than feel worried, Kimmons knew he possessed the most important quality to succeed as a horse barn builder.

“It’s listening to the customer,” he states, “followed by working through the details and helping with appropriate suggestions.”

Because nearly 100 percent of his horse barn customers are women, Kimmons continues, “showing respect is vital in selling a job. A lot of building contractors are used to dealing with men and, if we’re not careful, we can sometimes talk down to women.”

Altogether Kimmons had built five equine facilities in the last six years. That’s a fairly significant number for someone who has averaged about 10 buildings a year since 1998. Suburban and residential projects generally come in at around $40,000, while commercial contracts range from perhaps $150,000 to $350,000.

To win commercial contracts, Kimmons benefits from his good reputation but also believes in networking. By keeping up his contacts in the regional building community he can learn about new project opportunities.

“That’s how I learned about the Stonegate Equestrian Center project,” he says, “from a contractor friend of mine. I was sitting at a jobsite in another town, talking with the excavator. He told me about the project and suggested I call.”

Kimmons did call and, in 2006, found that Race and Lynne Foster of Hazelhurst, Wis., were planning a new facility for themselves and the dressage clinics they conduct. Among those in training are the Foster’s daughter Katie, who in March won the Federation Equestre Internationale Junior Team Test held this year in Florida.

“By the time I entered the picture,” he recounts, “the facility was already designed. There were a lot of features in the design which aren’t normal for a post-frame building.” The Fosters had talked to another builder which, the owners felt, insisted on doing the project its “own” way. But just as Kimmons learned with his first equine project, the key to getting the Stonegate job was simply being a good listener and then helping the customers work through the details.

The amount of detail required, however, was a daunting task. The facility includes a two-winged barn, with 10 stalls, measuring 36×110 and boasting a 13-foot ceiling. The entryway alone is 24×12, while the Fosters’ riding arena is 81x204x16. An office, restroom, tack room, wash stall and raised viewing area round out the remaining 25,000 square feet.

Blueprints were sent to Wick Buildings, which then engineered the facility. Kimmons himself did not oversee the sitework or interior finishing. But for one year — from the arrival of the Wick crew on October 16, 2006, to when the crew departed “almost exactly a year later, to the day,” he says — Kimmons was busy overseeing the work.

“Completing our portion of a facility that size on 12 months required us to work through the winter, which at times was brutal,” he relates, “but the results were certainly worth it.”

Stonegate Equestrian Center was also completed in time for the 2007 National Frame Building Association Building of the Year awards competition, placing second in the category of Horse Barns/Facilities over 10,000 Square Feet. Exterior and interior details are too numerous to mention.

Whether visitors look down (to the entryway paved with original bricks reclaimed from the streets of old Milwaukee) or look up (to the 6 x 6 center cupola rising 25 feet above floor level and fitted with glass windows), the effect is stunning.

Though Kimmons calls Stonegate a once-in-a-lifetime project, life nevertheless must go on for the Wisconsin building dealer.

“When you work at home like I do, you never get a break,” he acknowledges. He also works a strawberry farm which, in season, can keep Kimmons quite busy. At the same time, he adds, “I see the equine construction market continuing to be a growing part of my business. In fact, just last night the phone rang and it was a lead for another horse barn ….”

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