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June 2007
Golden Legacy
By Ellison Clary

     At 88 years old and with his company celebrating its golden anniversary, Hubert Whitlock remembers a big turning point for his custom home business. He calls it “the best mistake I ever made.”

     He got a chance to construct a home for Russell and Sally Robinson. Bidding against two of the best custom builders in 1960s Charlotte, Whitlock’s number was low—by quite a bit. Whitlock got the job, but soon discovered he left out the cost of foundation masonry.

    “I decided I was going to build a really good house,” Whitlock recalls. “I put a lot into it. I built a house I’ve always been proud of, and we’ve been friends and they’ve referred a lot of people to me.”

     Hubert Whitlock Builders, Inc. marked its 50th anniversary May 19 with a big barbecue on Hubert Whitlock’s birthday. Hubert Whitlock, daughter Stephanie Whitlock Hazard, and sons Scott and Steven Whitlock, all of whom hold leadership positions in the company, were among those welcoming employees, their spouses, subcontractors, vendors and friends.

     They celebrated the success of a custom home building and renovation firm that has emphasized integrity and quality performance, precepts instilled by its founder.

     Robinson, senior partner at Charlotte law firm Robinson Bradshaw & Hinson, fondly recalls his homebuilding experience with the elder Whitlock.

     “Hubert did a superb job,” Robinson says enthusiastically. “He was so very conscientious and he did the job right on time. We had some changes we wanted. He did those. His integrity was so very evident from the beginning.”

     The Robinsons still live in the two-story brick home Hubert Whitlock finished in 1967. Through the years, Whitlock’s firm has added a screen porch and a garden house in back of the property.

     Whitlock never told the Robinsons about his bidding slipup. “I heard that later,” Robinson says.

     Whitlock is adamant that his “best mistake” has paid off richly. He and the firm have sent countless prospects to look at the Robinsons’ residence. Many agree with Robinson who calls it “a beautiful house, so well proportioned and well built.”

Hubert Whitlock remains chairman of Hubert Whitlock Builders, a company that employs 22 and operates from 6,500 square feet in the Crown Point Business Park. But these days he spends much of his time with his wife of 63 years, Irene Kirby Whitlock. The Whitlocks have four children, 16 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

     After growing up in the business, Whitlock’s children went off to school—and in some cases worked other jobs—before returning to the family firm.

     Helping run the Whitlock company now are Scott Whitlock, president and chief executive; Stephanie Whitlock Hazard, vice president of finance and administration; and Steven Whitlock, vice president of human resources and marketing.

     Only daughter Sheila Eichert is not involved with the firm. She is neighborhood outreach director for Charlotte’s Resurrection Lutheran Church.

     Non-family member Tyler Mahan is vice president of production. He started with the company as a carpenter in 1989 and his shared commitment to Whitlock family values quickly propelled him into management.


A Family Affair

     Family involvement gives the elder Whitlock “immense satisfaction,” he says. “This is an amazing management group,” he adds. “They work together and they’ve advanced our business.”

     Hubert Whitlock was born near Columbia, S.C., and grew up in the Carolinas and Virginia. After serving as a captain in the U.S. Air Force during World War II, he studied architecture in the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University.

He left an early job in Denver for a Houston developer who promised a place for him if he’d “wade in the mud.” Whitlock quickly rose from a labor foreman on $7,000 houses meant for returning GIs to a project superintendent.

     Then he hooked on with an architect who was designing and building Texas-sized mansions. He spent eight years there, long enough to become a registered architect in the Lone Star state. But when he didn’t make partner, he returned east to his father-in-law’s Virginia coal mining business.

     Mining turned bad and Whitlock sought design-build work in Charlotte. He soon found some, and on the side he earned his North Carolina license as a builder. When his employer got out of homebuilding, Whitlock hung out his own shingle, initially as Hubert Whitlock Design-Builder in 1957. He quickly gravitated to high-end residential construction.

     Developer George Goodyear got Whitlock involved in the Home Builders Association of Charlotte where he served 17 straight years as an officer or a board member.

     Admitting to being a perfectionist, Whitlock approached each custom home as a work of art, and vows that he never cut corners. His sons and daughter who run his company say they enjoy the fruits of the reputation he built for high-quality, uncompromising construction.

     Currently, Hubert Whitlock Builders is a licensed general contractor in North Carolina and South Carolina and has worked on projects from Uwharrie Point to Lake Norman to Fort Mill to Union County.

     For 20 years, annual growth held steady at 15 percent to 20 percent, according to Scott Whitlock, who joined his father’s firm in 1982. With growth, that’s dropped to 10 percent, but Scott Whitlock believes that rate will continue.

     Efficiency means much, Scott Whitlock says. “We’re always changing and learning. We’re extremely efficient if you look at revenue per employee. We have very effective people running the field. Tyler’s in charge of that.”


Perfectionist Edge

     Yet that perfectionist edge remains sharp. “In remodeling,” says Tyler Mahan, “we excel on projects that are detailed and difficult. In many cases, it’s a whole house renovation and there are several specific goals the client has. It might be a larger, updated living area. They might want a media room. Or they may like to have a playroom. But it’s extremely detailed, with products specified, and it may be out-of-town materials.”

     Custom home building is about 40 percent of the firm’s business, and it may work on three or so a year. Remodeling makes up the other 60 percent. Many projects are for existing customers and the company handles more than 70 of these annually.

     “We do a lot of repeat business and a lot of referral business,” Scott Whitlock says. “Ninety-seven percent comes from referrals, and 75 percent of our jobs are repeat business.”

     Many referrals, Steven Whitlock adds, come from architects who want the firm to build the custom homes they design. “Architects and interior designers appreciate that we take their plans and specifications literally; we don’t look at them as just an idea. If what they want is not feasible, we’ll work with them to make it feasible. In the niche we’re in, we’re unique in doing that.”

     Steven Whitlock rejoined the company in 1996. He adds one more significant statistic: 98 percent of clients say they would recommend Whitlock to their friends.

     “Our clients have very refined tastes,” says Stephanie Whitlock Hazard. “They are not market-driven. They’re more driven by quality and their own aesthetic sensitivity and sensibility. Sometimes we need to have a craftsman project manager to make it happen.”

     Whitlock Hazard came back to the company in 1992 and maintains the conservative fiscal management her father instituted long ago.

     Follow up after a project is finished is another area that sets Hubert Whitlock Builders apart, Scott Whitlock says. “In many cases, we build the house and the clients say ‘hang on to the key.’ If they’re out of town and something happens, they call us. It’s that degree of trust that we establish.”

     Indeed, Robinson says Hubert Whitlock Builders still keeps a key to his house, 40 years after he and Sally moved in.


Current on Trends

     The company stays current on building trends in the greater Charlotte region. Among the strongest is growing emphasis on working in harmony with environmentally friendly or “green” precepts and the reuse of products.

     “A lot of our clients want to know we’re being conservative about what we throw away and how we dispose of waste,” says Mahan. “We think that’s something we can help the community with and set a standard.”

     Recently, a client had one of Mahan’s crews dismantle an old barn near Tom Short Road near the Mecklenburg-Union county line. Its pieces are in storage, and the client’s son probably will reclaim much of the 5,000 board feet of usable lumber as he builds a house in the mountains.

     Often, when material is salvageable but not needed, the Whitlock firm donates it to Habitat for Humanity of Charlotte. Last year, the company’s employees helped build a Habitat house in the Druid Hills neighborhood. They completed it in one week.

     Homebuilding tastes are changing as Charlotte draws people from around the country. “It’s a lot different from what we were doing 10 years ago in terms of materials we’re using and the degree of detail,” says Scott Whitlock. “We’re seeing more limestone now, not just on floors, but on exterior facades. We’re doing a lot more basements.”

     More and bigger garages are important these days and people are paying a great deal of attention to hardscaping and landscaping, he adds.

     “People want rooms outside,” Mahan says. “You create a room with landscaping. It might be a terrace with a fireplace. But it’s a room outside with a pool, with no roof. Maybe a dining area.”

     The firm’s houses dot Charlotte’s better neighborhoods such as Myers Park, Morrocroft and Village at Seven Eagles. Its clients value discretion, Scott Whitlock cautions, but he can say that his crews recently completed an Eastover home for Ken Thompson, chairman and chief executive of Wachovia Corporation.

     “Scott Whitlock has renovated one house and built a house for me, and both experiences were close to perfect,” says Thompson. “They have great people and take responsibility for doing things just right.”

     Another high profile project has been with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. The Whitlock Company dismantled the old Billy Graham home place, which had been relocated on the PTL property near Carowinds. It’s been in storage for a couple of years and now the firm is rebuilding it on the association’s campus on Billy Graham Parkway.

     An important referral came several years ago when the University of North Carolina at Charlotte sought a new chancellor’s residence. As a member of the board of trustees, Robinson pushed hard to pick Whitlock.

The spacious two-story home, known as the Bissell House, has become a campus focal point.

     “The downstairs is designed for entertaining friends of the university and it does that very well,” says Phil Dubois, UNCC chancellor. “We can handle 150 people pretty easily and more than double that if we use the screened porch and the outside patio. But we try to make it feel as though visitors are not visiting some hotel but are being welcomed into our home.”

     “It’s a great house,” Robinson says proudly. That’s music to the ears of the Whitlock team. “Our standards of quality set us apart,” Steven Whitlock says. “Our concept is to be a client’s builder for life.”

Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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