Homebuilder sleeps around to make the sale

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HousingIt’s not the usual sleeping environment for your basic, high-flying CEO: a mattress on the floor in a different, empty house every night.

Yet that’s the life John Wieland staked out in early March, when he set out on a Southern odyssey that was part sales promotion, part psychology lesson.

Wieland, 72, heads John Wieland Homes and Neighborhoods, a large Atlanta-based building company that, like most others in this country, has seen its sales plunge in the past couple of years.

So, the chief executive decided on a promotional event, but he wanted something out of the ordinary.

“We needed to get cash back to the banks; that’s no secret,” he said. “I have to do something personally to demonstrate how important it is to the economy to get the housing market moving and how important it is to my company to get houses sold.”

On March 6 he began his “Get Housing Moving” sale, visiting the 56 subdivisions under development by his company in four states. Tooling along in a lime-green Winnebago re-christened the “Wiebago,” he vowed to sleep on a twin mattress dropped on the floors of the firm’s finished but unfurnished and unsold homes every night until 101 houses were under contract.

Nearing the end of his trek in late April, he said he had learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t in home design. More important, he said, he had talked to scores of consumers. It will change his business, he said.

“I played a little game,” he said. “It’s called, Why Hasn’t This House Sold?” he explained. “Unfortunately, I am winning, if finding an answer is winning. You get an entirely different perspective when you’re sleeping in an empty, unsold home.”

He figured out one house’s problem, he recalls, by gazing out from a window one evening.

“The sun goes down, it’s quiet, and you’re looking at the lot next door, and you notice, oh, that’s where we clean out the concrete trucks,” he said, laughing.

He expects changes in his company’s products, which tend to appeal to what’s known in the industry as a “second move-up” buyer who historically has sought a roomy house. Wieland’s single-family homes average 3,400 square feet, he said.

“One of the things that’s coming up is called ‘smaller,'” he said. “And closer in” to metro areas.

There’s a changed attitude now, he said.

“American builders have been over-building and Americans have been over-buying,” Wieland said. “The buyer had said, ‘It seems like I should buy (as big a house as) I possibly can because that’s how I am going to make the most money.’

“That idea is now in the dustbin of history,” he said. “Now they’re going to say, ‘How much do I really need? Do I need all these rooms? Is this a great place to put all my assets?’ “

Hitting the road in Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Tennessee has put him face-to-face with employees in his company’s significantly downsized workforce, he said. Wieland expects to close on 400 homes this year, down from 700 in 2008. At the height of the boom, he said, it sold 1,800.

The trip also has introduced him to many consumers. “What struck me most was the level of uncertainty” they expressed about the housing market.

So, his campaign has focused on playing up reduced prices and low interest rates.

“Those rates aren’t going to stay around forever and this pricing isn’t going to stay around forever,” Wieland said. He managed to personally sway some buyers, though it isn’t his forte, he said.

“I would be a terrible salesperson; I would give it all away,” he said.

Wieland is not exactly used to an unembellished lifestyle. The Atlanta resident also has a Manhattan penthouse (now for sale); he and his wife, Sue, have been the largest single donors to Atlanta’s High Museum of Art’s expansion campaign, giving $12 million.

A few days ago, the company hit its 101st sale since his trek began, and Wieland was finally headed home. Despite the dozens of microwaved frozen dinners and the nights in unfamiliar, bare rooms, he said the experience had been worthwhile.

“I think it would be a great thing if the CEOs of homebuilding companies across the country picked a day in May, and we all went out to an empty, unsold home and spent the night as a statement that this is great time to buy,” Wieland said.

“I suggested it to the National Association of Home Builders, that they have a CEO Sleep-In.

“They rejected the idea.”

(c) 2009, Chicago Tribune. Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.