Homebuilder nails his niche
In tough industry, Brantley Homes' founder perseveres
Birmingham Business Journal by Frances Pace Putman, SpecialDate: Sunday, May 15, 2005, 11:00pm CDT
Bill Brantley and Rhonda, his wife of 13 years, wanted to build a successful business while avoiding the kind of construction volume that saps creativity and eliminates time for family. Building fewer houses enables Brantley Homes to work closely with individual clients to ensure their preferences are satisfied.
Brantley says he was "young and dumb" when, at 20 years old, he talked his grandmother into co-signing with him on a bank loan to finance his first home building venture. He sold that house, then a few more.
In 1983, he formed Brantley Homes Inc. and was on his way to becoming a recognized force in the business.
Although Brantley has all the attributes of a successful entrepreneur, the term catches his wife, Rhonda, a little off guard.
"When you think of entrepreneurs, you think of the people at the top, who build the most homes or sell the most homes," she says. "He's been at the top. Now, he's trying to maintain a lifestyle."
While business performance normally is measured in dollars and cents, it also can be gauged by satisfaction in the job, contentment and peace of mind. It's those non-monetary achievements that Brantley values most highly today, having successfully negotiated the ups and downs of the construction business.
The down years have been tough indeed. After building his company into a successful enterprise, Brantley experienced a devastating setback in the early 1980s. Interest rates rocketed above 20 percent and the homebuilding industry suffered across the board.
"I lost everything," says Brantley, who eventually filed for bankruptcy.
Some people got out of the business for good. Others, like Brantley, just started over.
Rebuilding the business
"I got back into brick-laying in 1980 and 1981," he recalls.
He worked for other builders for a couple of years before starting Brantley Homes Inc. He got in on the building boom in Shelby County, keeping Brantley Homes in operation, but also becoming a part of BMW (Brantley, Mason and Williams) Builders, which built many of the "starter" homes in Shelby County communities such as Braelin Village and Sugar Creek, as well as several townhouse developments.
By 1996, Brantley was involved in building 97 townhouses and about 25 other homes in and around Shelby County. Financially, it was a great year, but the demands of the business were taking their toll.
"We didn't want to be that big," says Brantley of the company he now operates with his wife, Rhonda. "We really began to scale back."
Rhonda Brantley, who worked in the lumber business before marrying her husband 13 years ago, recalls that the time was not particularly enjoyable. She says her husband was continually worried about staying on top of all the projects. Home builders in the area were finding themselves in litigation over issues like the use of Dryvit and other building materials.
"There were a lot of risks, and it just wasn't fun," Rhonda Brantley says. "We got bored with the high-volume mass production. It didn't keep us creative."
At the time, most of the homes Brantley built fell within the $110,000 to $125,000 range. Last year, Brantley Homes built about 35 homes, most in the $300,000 to $360,000 range, and had revenue of about $4.6 million. The company has five employees and relies heavily on subcontractors.
"We're much more customer-oriented than we were in the past," Brantley says. "We build people homes, not just houses."
Brantley believes he has reached a size and volume of business that is good for him, his family and Brantley Homes. He gets to know the clients he works with, and he has time for more community involvement. During the past few years, Brantley Homes has built two residences for charity: one for the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center and another for Kid One Transport.
Still getting hands dirty
Today, the company is involved in building a 4,000-square-foot Southern Living Showcase House, to be named the James B. and Sylvia S. Braswell President's House, patterned after the country's first presidential residence in Philadelphia.
"The first year, the house will be open to the public, and we expect an increase in traffic on the American Village campus," says David Pritchett, facilities and operations director for American Village.
"After that year, we will use the building to stage our programs and interpret what (George) Washington did during this period ... . The Brantleys are offering their services free of charge to us, the construction management and building of the project. That's huge for us. We wouldn't be able to do this project without that."
Despite his success, most days still find Brantley involved in the hands-on aspects of the building process. He still gets on the Bobcat, he says, and works to clear land or do whatever needs to be done.
"It's not a glamorous business," he says. Anyone considering a career in the homebuilding business should bear in mind from the beginning that it's hard work, he says.
"Be real careful," Brantley advises. "It takes a lot of time, and you need a good partner."
While Brantley, 59, says he is looking to slow down as he nears retirement age, it's hard to see that happening. The company has just been named a Southern Living custom builder and expects to build at least 35 homes this year in communities such as Wild Timber and Nottingham in Shelby County.
Brantley Homes also is developing a 300-acre subdivision on Lake Jordan and working on a major home-remodeling project.
Ex-Bruno property slated for 450 houses
Premium content from Birmingham Business Journal by Kaija Wilkinson, StaffDate: Sunday, August 6, 2006, 11:00pm CDT
The developers, all home builders who met through the Greater Birmingham Association of Home Builders, acquired the property a couple of years ago and are now starting on the first 10 homes, which will start at $310,000. Fifty homes are planned in the first phase.
Developers expect the entire project to take about seven years. According to county records, they paid $2.4 million for the nearly 300 acres at the intersection of Interstate 459 and Morgan Road. Formerly part of the Bruno family estate, the property practically fell into their laps, the developers say. They originally had their eye on a much smaller parcel a few miles away off Morgan Road when Stewart Sims noticed a man erecting a sign on the Bruno property.
"We had made several attempts with the seller to negotiate a price," recalls Sims of those fall 2004 dealings on the original land. "We were going back with our last counter offer when I was driving to this person's home and saw the sign going up. I got out and talked to the guy and ended up negotiating with the heiress of the family, Mrs. Bruno. We had a contract written up in 48 hours."
The property had gone on the market after Lee and Angelo Bruno, brothers of the grocery chain's founder, Joe Bruno, were killed in a plane crash in 1991.
Joining Sims on the development, to be called Morgans Run, are Don Huey and Alicia Huey of Magic City Title Inc., Rhonda and Bill Brantley of Brantley Homes, and longtime home builder Arthur Howard. Doing business as Morgan Run Development Co., the developers are financing the project through a combination of personal investment and a line of credit from Peoples Bank & Trust Co. Rhonda Brantley says she and her partners had no trouble securing financing. In fact, she says, they had several banks from which to choose.
The developers point to their property's "prime" location as one of its top selling points. On exit 6 off I-459, it is only a couple of miles away from the rumored spot of Colonial Properties Trust's next Target-anchored retail center at exit 1, which already has a shopping center anchored by Food World. McAdory High School also is nearby.
Colonial Properties confirmed it is planning a development there but would not verify the proposed development's anchors or other details.
Says Keller Williams agent Camille Wooten, who will be marketing Morgan Run: "(Colonial) may not be talking about it, but they called me to get rooftops, and there are other subdivisions on the drawing boards out there."
Even without a new Colonial Properties center, the development has plenty of other shopping nearby.
Sims says exit 6 has "a little bit of everything," including drugs stores, Winn-Dixie, an auto repair shop and restaurants. It's also about six miles from Hoover's Riverchase Galleria.
Bent Brook Golf Course is within two miles of the development, Sims says. It falls within the McAdory schools of the Jefferson County School District, which Rhonda Brantley says is a plus.
All the developers point to the relative lack of traffic congestion compared with U.S. 280 and Interstate 65.
They expect Morgan Run to attract a range of age groups.With the homes starting at $310,000, the developers are confident buyers will turn out, despite the fact that homes have been staying on the market longer and affordability is declining statewide. According to the Alabama Real Estate Research and Education Center at the University of Alabama, the Housing Affordability Index fell 10.67 percent from 165.0 in the first quarter of 2006 to 147.4 in the second quarter. That means that Alabama families who earn the state's median income of $51,400 can qualify to buy a $209,000 home.
Howard says market demand will dictate the upper price range for the homes, whose design must go through an architectural design committee. Six builders, none of whom are investors in the project, will construct the first 50 homes. The first 10 houses are being built now and are expected to be finished in about 120 days, Huey says. Forty of the 50 planned lots have been purchased by builders, which include ANG Properties Inc., Jimmy Parker Custom Homes, New Southern Homes, Birdwell Building Co., and Old South Builders.