When he was an executive with First Home Builders of Florida in 2006, Ryan Benson experienced the housing boom firsthand.
They're lessons Benson and business partner Andy Bringardner bring to A. Vernon Allen Builder, a custom homebuilder celebrating 65 years in business. Company principal John Remington tapped both 30-something executives to be the newest generation of owners of the company.
“I had 220 employees and was overseeing permit issuance through the middle of construction,” Benson recalls.
At the time, First Home was the largest homebuilder in Lee County and in 2005, Hovnanian Enterprises agreed to pay $350 million for the company. First Home was out of business just a few years later when the recession hit Southwest Florida.
“I left a year before they wrapped up operations,” Benson says. Through a stroke of good fortune, Benson went to work for custom-home builder A. Vernon Allen Builder in Port Royal, the most exclusive residential neighborhood in Naples. Old Naples would turn out to be one of the most insulated areas during the downturn because wealthy people continued to build and remodel there.
Still, Benson says when he started working for A. Vernon Allen in 2007 with Bringardner it wasn't clear how bad the recession would turn out to be. “I don't think anyone could've forecast the level of downturn,” Benson says. “It wasn't until 2009 when anyone realized how bad it was going to be.”
Fortunately, A. Vernon Allen was one of the preferred builders in Port Royal since developer Glen Sample created the posh enclave in the 1950s. Port Royal's boundaries extend from 21st Avenue South to Gordon Pass, bounded on the west by the Gulf of Mexico and the east by Naples Bay. Of the 703 homes in Port Royal, A. Vernon Allen has worked on about one-third.
Still, the recession had an impact on even the toniest of enclaves. “During the middle of the downturn we took on projects outside the area,” Benson says.
Now, the company doesn't want to spread further than the boundaries of Old Naples. “As our market came back, we were able to refocus our efforts,” Benson says. “Most of our business is focused on Port Royal. It represents 80% of our business,” Bringardner adds.
Benson and Bringardner say they're hands-on managers and expanding geographically is risky. “We've seen companies be all things to all people and fail,” Benson says. “We decline a fair amount of business if it doesn't fit our wheelhouse.”
However, they are growing the company in other ways. For example, they recently started a concierge business that will monitor and maintain homes in Port Royal for annual fees that range from $4,250 to $27,500 depending on the services clients demand.
The executives decline to cite specific annual revenues, but say that the builder's sales totaled between $25 million and $35 million annually. “That's what we've done in the past few years,” Benson says.
The two executives guard their client list carefully. But a signed letter from television star Judge Judy, a longtime Naples resident, suggests a loyal following among well-heeled and star-studded clients.
The company takes on eight to 10 homebuilding projects a year and a new home generally costs $4 million or more. “That goes all the way up to the tens of millions,” Benson says.
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