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May 2011
Building Relationships
By Casey Jacobus

     Surviving recessions is nothing new for Willis Spivey. He started his business, Spivey Construction, in 1975 during the recession forced by the Arab oil embargo and has withstood four additional recessions, including the current one. Over time, he has acquired valuable experience navigating through rough economic times.

     “I’ve learned there is always another recession coming,” says Spivey, “so you can’t get so extended during the good times that you forget there is another one on the horizon. It seems recessions rear their ugly heads about every 10 years, but that really means only five or six productive years in between. I’ve found it an important lesson.”

     And Spivey has walked the walk. During the absolute boom of the mid-2000s, he continued to manage his business conservatively. Unlike many other builders, he resisted the temptation to invest in speculative housing. He kept an even balance of residential and commercial projects in his portfolio. He built under contracts, so when the project was completed, he had the money.

     “This recession has taken out a lot of good builders,” says Spivey. “It’s not their fault. The good times were just too good. They waited too long to stop building spec homes. We are true custom builders, always have been. I just don’t build many spec homes.” Although the current recession is longer and deeper than any since the Great Depression of the ’30s, Spivey is confident that construction will rebound. And, when it does, Spivey Construction will still be building—the conservative way.

 

Building a Foundation

     Spivey began building homes in Vero Beach, Florida, in the turbulent ’70s. Spivey’s employer, a general contractor, was down to his last project and forced to reduce his crew one by one. Spivey was the last to go and at age 24, he found himself waiting in an unemployment line with hundreds of others.

     “After about 20 minutes, the line moved three feet,” recalls Spivey. “I thought, ‘I can’t do this.’ But I knew I had a talent for construction and I understood it—plus I was desperate.”

     Spivey stepped out of line, crossed the street, walked into a bank, and asked for a loan. Much to his surprise, he was approved. He used the money to build a spec house. He was lucky; the spec house sold quickly and paid the grocery bill. He bought the land next door when the bank approved him for a second spec house. By the time he had completed his third spec house, the country was coming out of recession, and Spivey began building contracted houses. Spivey Construction was in full swing.

     In 1978, Spivey and his wife relocated to Seneca, South Carolina. They wanted a climate with four seasons to start a family. They built a dream home on 12 beautiful acres. Spivey Construction had become very successful building custom homes in the 1,500 to 3,000-square-foot range.

     By 1981, Spivey Construction had expanded into the commercial market, targeting the remodeling of local area restaurants, and within two years they were the company of choice for several fast food chains throughout the Southeast. The company’s primary focus shifted to this new market until 1990, by which time they had built or renovated over 200 restaurants all along the east coast, and as far inland as Kentucky.

     They built and renovated over fifty Mrs. Winner’s Chicken and Biscuits, as well as countless Wendy’s, McDonald’s, and Burger Kings up and down the East Coast. “Even now I can tell them apart just by the smell,” says Spivey, who very seldom eats fast food.

     The fast pace and personal demands of putting crews on the road to meet the 10 to 12-week schedules required by the chains began taking a toll. Spivey and his wife divorced in 1989 and she moved to Greensboro. Spivey crossed Lake Norman numerous times to visit his children, and each time he thought how beautiful it was.

     So, in 1991, he relocated Spivey Construction to the Lake Norman area and closed the Seneca office, returning to the company’s roots in residential and light commercial construction.

     Over the ensuing years building in the Lake Norman area, Spivey Construction has become recognized as a leader in the custom home and commercial building industry. It has built a solid reputation for innovative designs, a passion for detail, and excellent customer service.

     “We offer true value,” Spivey says. “Our prices normally are not the lowest, but very seldom are the highest. I can promise no one cares more about their clients.”

 

Quality Relationships

     Born and raised in southern Georgia, Spivey grew up in a town where people greeted you on the street, exchanged pleasantries in the local store, and cared about those in need. Treating others with kindness and respect was just as important as working hard. Hard work has always been a part of Spivey’s profession, especially during the early years in restaurant construction. Although the business was good, Spivey missed interacting with clients, missed hearing their stories, and missed the chance to form friendships.

     When he moved to Mooresville in 1991, trees and farmland still dominated the landscape and he met people who greeted him and took the time to talk. It felt like home. Since then, he’s developed many quality relationships.

     Whether building homes or commercial buildings, Spivey is committed to making clients’ dreams become reality. Spivey knows the building process is emotional, but it’s the emotions that drive him to do the best job he can.

     Spivey says his most important goal is for clients to become his friends. If a friendship isn’t formed by the end of the building project, the project was not a success for him.

     “It has always been service, service, service,” explains Spivey. “I can’t stand it if we have a customer who isn’t happy. It’s their money, their home or investment; we want them to have it their way. If there is a problem, we work it out. There is no one-year warranty with Spivey Construction.”

     After a recent storm a homeowner called Spivey about damage to her roof and front gates. Although Spivey built the house over 10 years prior and this was not the original owner, he was pleased to be contacted and gladly helped her get the damage repaired.

     “I have always cared more about our customers than about any other aspect of my job,” says Spivey. “Once you are my client, you are my friend.”

     Spivey believes building should be a collaborative process. To that purpose, he has assembled a team of professional subcontractors, building and interior designers, engineers, and landscapers who work closely with the customer as a “team” to build their dreams.

     His construction manager of 15 years, Brad Stuart, has been in the business almost as long as Spivey himself. Together they are approaching 70 years of experience. “We strive to be perfect with every project,” asserts Spivey. “We know perfection is not realistic, but we still try.”

     Spivey Construction averages four or five custom homes a year and about the same number of commercial jobs, primarily office buildings, medical buildings, and day care centers throughout the Charlotte region.

     The company’s experience with residential projects translates to its commercial ones, showing up in the finishing touches and small details. As well, their experience in commercial translates to the residential projects allowing them to build the larger homes with commercial engineering required for the massive open areas and tremendous wind loads.

 

Moving Forward

     Spivey Construction is a small, family-owned business. Spivey’s second wife, Renee, is office manager as well as manager of Stepping Stones Academy, a preschool they own together in Mooresville. His daughter, Heather, is the company accountant and son Lewis is a project manager. Spivey says that by keeping the business small, he can stay personally involved with every project.

     “Big is not necessarily better,” says Spivey. “By keeping a tight nucleus, we maintain control and deliver a better product for all of our clients.”

     Spivey doesn’t build cookie-cutter homes. He builds custom homes to fit each client’s needs and lifestyles. Never building the same project twice means solving occasional problems as they arise. It also means pricing a project carefully, so the client is seldom surprised by hidden fees and costs.

     “Promising a teasingly low price upfront is a tactic too often used by builders to secure a client,” says Spivey. “The end result is a client being surprised by high fees and costs as the construction project progresses. This always ends as a stressful and distrustful relationship between the client and builder.”

     By using good, professional subcontractors and his “team” approach, plus his 36 years of experience, Spivey provides clients with an accurate and reliable quote. He openly discusses prices, fees and costs throughout the entire construction process.

     “We are not the cheapest builder, but I feel we are the best value,” asserts Spivey. “There is nothing a competitor does that we can’t do, but there are many, many things we won’t do.”

     In addition to building homes and commercial projects, Spivey also does smaller renovations and remodeling projects. He calls this division, “Little Spivey.”

     “We can do just about anything,” Spivey declares. “From enclosing porches, remodeling kitchens, garage additions, a $400,000 project or a $4 million one, we bring the same dedication to every project.” Large or small, Spivey gives all his clients the same respect and attention.

     Spivey Construction is well-positioned to emerge from the current economic recession healthy and strong. Spivey’s conservative approach resulted in zero spec houses when the market dried up and they have continued building homes and commercial buildings through the downturn. By putting his clients first and addressing their needs before and after construction, Spivey has built a loyal following, resulting in many return customers.

     Spivey believes the local construction industry will continue to suffer until a majority of the foreclosed and spec homes on the market are purchased. “There are too many homes for sale at reduced costs,” he says. “Although we are all working on smaller margins, construction costs haven’t decreased much. Until the glut of foreclosures and specs has disappeared, construction will remain sluggish.”

     In addition, Spivey foresees a housing shortage in two to three years because fewer are being built. Foreclosed and spec homes are being purchased, but not replaced.

     Eventually there will be an increased demand for housing. Although additional regulations in the banking industry will affect the building climate, Spivey still remains optimistic. “You can’t quit for fear of what may happen. I’ll continue to get up every morning and build. I believe there will always be something to build.”

     Spivey knows there is another recession ahead, followed by an upswing. Each one is a little different from the one before, but there is always another wave of good fortune. Although this recession is the longest and deepest one Spivey has seen, he expects it to end just as surely as the four previous ones he has survived. And, when it does, he is sure people will still want to move to North Carolina.

     “Why wouldn’t you want to live here?” he asks. “It’s beautiful, safe and friendly. We have perfect weather, great recreation, major sports and four distinct seasons. As soon as our nation regains momentum, allowing families to sell their homes in other areas, they’ll be moving here again. I expect we’ll be busier than ever.”

 

Casey Jacobus is a Lake Norman-based freelance writer.
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