Zahn Builds On Success

January 3, 2005
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WEST OLIVE — Growing up on Holland's expanding north side, he was intrigued by all of the construction occurring in the area and the craftsmanship involved.

So he enrolled in a co-op class in high school to learn carpentry.

Fourteen years later, Tony Zahn is still building.

"I enjoy the end result of a well-completed job and I enjoy the teamwork involved and the camaraderie," said Zahn, the 31-year-old owner of Zahn Builders Inc., a small company that builds big homes.

Zahn Builders, employing its own crew of in-house carpenters and a full-time staff of eight, specializes in designing and building high-end custom homes that in 2004 ranged in price from $500,000 to $1.3 million.

He has carved out not just a niche but also a strong reputation in the market for his homes.

The 4,788-square-foot home in which he now lives, overlooking Pigeon Creek in the new River Trace gated community he's developing near Lake Michigan in Ottawa County's Port Sheldon Township, won a Gold Medal last May for homes over $500,000 in the Home Builders Association of the Holland Area's annual Parade of Homes. It was the latest of numerous awards Zahn Builders has won over the years in the Parade of Homes.

Zahn himself received accolades last month from his colleagues in the Home Builders Association of the Holland Area when he was named 2004 Distinguished Builder of the Year.

HBA Executive Director Bob Barker termed Zahn a leader in the profession whose homes have a unique, distinctive design and "exemplify a diversity and quality of construction not found in many areas of Michigan."

"Among his peers, Tony is considered one of the best," Barker said.

Zahn got his start in the home-building business in 1990 when, at the age of 17, he joined a co-op carpentry program while attending WestOttawaHigh School and went to work for a homebuilder in the Holland area.

Growing up with an entrepreneurial spirit, he saw carpentry as a craft he could learn that would some day lead him to running his own company.

"As a kid I was always selling something and doing something," Zahn said. "That's what attracted me to carpentry. I knew I could always build a business with it."

He began building that business in 1996, when he formed Zahn Builders Inc. and jumped straight into the high-end custom home market.

The company operates primarily in Ottawa and Allegan counties, often building on waterfront property and building a half-dozen or so homes a year, as well as handling several large home remodeling projects that account for half of its annual revenues.

Zahn describes the process of working with clients as a long-term relationship that begins with getting to know them and what they want in their dream home, and then evolves over a six-month-to-one-year business partnership.

"A lot of what we do is build and maintain relationships from start to finish and beyond," he said.

To maintain an edge in his customer service, Zahn himself has become one of his most regular customers. He designs and builds a new custom home for himself every two years, an exercise that enables him to better understand from the client's perspective the sometimes emotional process of building a new home and helps to sharpen his skills in helping a client through the design and construction process that is part of the product they are buying.

"It keeps me on the cutting edge. It kind of puts me in the client's shoes and I learn what works and doesn't work," Zahn said. "I know how they feel and about their expectations."

In designing and building high-end homes, Zahn makes high use of natural and diverse building materials. A good home, he said, is one that feels comfortable to the homeowner and has a "timeless" look.

In recent years, Zahn has sought to branch out. He's now a partner in the River Trace development, a 160-acre gated community with 30 housing lots spread among the woods along or near Pigeon Creek.

Zahn also likes taking on unique projects, such as the horse farm that's nearing completion south of Holland that includes a 6,000-square-foot home for a family of four, a horse barn and an indoor riding arena.

Zahn said he wants to do more projects in the future that feature custom-built homes and build larger homes that are more complex. With plans of staying in the high-end market, his goal is to actually build fewer but larger homes each year that are more challenging.

"I'd like to stay in the niche that we're at and just keep doing it better and better. I'm a perfectionist. I always looking to do something better."     

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