Inside Track: Abbott relishes 'what's around the corner'
Custom home builder is pushed to always do something better than the project before.
No. 1: Have you found joy in your life?
No. 2: How has your life brought joy to others?
“I’ve really been reflecting on those questions,” said Abbott. “How can I be a better steward of the gifts I’ve been given? I’m trying to look at different avenues and be a good steward of what we have.”
As the co-founder and CEO of Falcon Custom Homes Inc., which he and business partner Dustin Carpenter launched eight years ago, Abbott is acutely aware of the quagmire into which builders were forced by the Great Recession, an economic reality Abbott says didn’t hit his business as hard as it did others.
Effective marketing strategies, a clear-minded business plan, a staunch work ethic, quality work and a cadre of reliable real estate agents and subcontractors have enabled Falcon Custom Homes to construct a yearly average of eight to 10 custom homes that average 5,000 square feet, with price points between $150 and $400 per square foot.
The company was recently recognized by the Kalamazoo Association of Realtors for its Parade of Homes entry, a Gull Lake mansion.
It is deeply satisfying and demanding work that’s become a hand-in-glove fit for Abbott.
“I feel you do have certain paths you’re predetermined to follow,” said Abbott. “However, along the way, you make decisions that will affect that path positively or negatively.”
“I’m a Leo,” he said of his astrological sign. “I have some very similar personality traits as a Leo: aggressive; I tend to be more flamboyant; I want a lot of praise. You look at that and say, ‘Are you predetermined?’ I don’t know, but there’s a certain cosmic influence.”
If there is such a thing as fate, then Abbott’s road to the building trade initially wasn’t paved.
He was kicking around a bachelor’s degree in pre-veterinary or pre-med and then, finally, psychology, but shied away from that prospect when a psychology professor declared only 5 percent of Abbott’s classmates would go on to graduate school. He didn’t care for those odds.
Then, while working at a restaurant in East Lansing as a waiter, a co-worker told him about his major in building management. That struck a chord with Abbott.
“I was always told if you love what you do, success and financial rewards will follow,” he said.
The idea of starting a project from scratch proved to be an appealing career draw.
“You take a raw piece of property, and in three months you’ve got somebody’s home,” said Abbott. “It’s the largest investment they’ll likely ever have, and it’s where they get married, raise children and house a family. It’s not just a shell with cheap furniture.”
Abbott eventually landed at Michigan State University, graduating in 1997 with a bachelor of science in construction management. He went to work for a large residential builder and “learned about both work and real-life experience,” he said.
“It taught us the mechanics of building, but I got to a point where I’d done everything for that builder that I could. I was kind of held back: I couldn’t bring in custom features I thought the client wanted.”
Abbott’s eventual business partner already had left the company by the time Abbott decided to launch out on his own and establish Falcon Custom Homes Inc. in January 2003. He wanted Dustin Carpenter to be an integral part of the company. Abbott chuckles momentarily when it’s pointed out his colleague’s last name coincides with their type of business, but he quickly segues to a more serious tone.
“He was the best construction manager they (the former employer) had,” Abbott said of Carpenter, who joined him as co-owner of Falcon Custom Homes. “I told him my business plan, which is very organized and very structured. We’re not just going to build one home a year. We have to have a bank of homes.”
Such a business model requires eschewing any idea of operating as a Lone Ranger, said Abbott, who works alongside trusted real estate agents and subcontractors to maintain his company’s reputation.
That includes being up front with his clients on what he can, and cannot, achieve at the agreed-upon price point.
“Some builders have told me they can build a 4,000-square-foot home for $100 a square foot,” said Abbott. “You do not get the nice cabinets or a custom hardwood floor for that. Too many builders have to build a box because it’s the most effective way to build a home. That limits creativity.”
As an example of what he’s talking about, Abbott pulls out his smartphone and shows photos of a 5,000-square-foot lakefront home whose exterior makes “palatial” an inadequate adjective. Abbott is clearly proud of the project.
“We were able to go outside the traditional philosophy,” he said.
“What separates us is marketing. You can’t wait for the phone to ring. You have to be aggressive and show what the market can do. If I don’t market to the masses, how can I expect to get work?”
It’s this clear-eyed thinking that kept Abbott’s carpenters swinging hammers during the thick of the Great Recession when other residential builders abandoned ship and took on industrial and commercial projects to keep their doors open.
“We’ve been profitable every year we’ve been in business,” said Abbott. “That’s because of our reputation: building a good house for a fair price with high expectations and quality. I have a great respect for real estate agents and they have a great respect for us.
“And when I say profitable, I’m not saying we didn’t have a dip, but we didn’t lose money.”
Abbott seeks out new projects within a four-hour radius of Grand Rapids, meaning north to Petoskey, south of the Michigan-Indiana border, east to Ann Arbor/Detroit, and west along the lakeshore.
The summer months are his least favorite time of the year because potential customers are more inclined to have vacation on their mind than to mull the possibilities of building a new home. Abbott is not a fan of down time.
“When clients are on vacation, it’s a little nerve wracking,” he said. “It’s hard to develop a conversation when they’re not focused on it.”
It’s clear Abbott relishes a challenge, and it’s evident what that word means to him.
“Every home we do is different,” he said. “We’re being pushed to do something better than the project before. I love the anticipation of what’s around the corner.
“My drive has been my influence,” continued Abbott. “My dad was in the military (U.S. Air Force). We went to school after school — 13 schools by the time I was a senior in high school. There’s no way you can establish good friendships, and that creates a personality that you have to be successful because that’s how you’re going to be viewed.”