Bill Sinnett is founder and president of Fortress Builders in Columbia, S.C.

Building a Strong Foundation for Your Company

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Grace under pressure and a strong commitment to customer service helped a home builder scale up in a down market. 

January 27, 2016

I decided to launch Fortress Builders at what some might say was the worst possible time. This was in 2010, when banks were still recovering from the recession and less than willing to lend to unknown builders. But instead of waiting for a better market, I saw this moment as an opportunity to grow a business in a bad economy (Image: VintageSnipsAndClips/Pixabay).

My goal was to treat every customer as if they were a first-time home buyer.  It still is: That's the personal touch that I felt was lacking in the industry overall, and the secret to our success. With my realtor-tuned insight in the South Carolina market and a line of credit from a private investor, we launched two model homes in two different neighborhoods. Before the roofs were even built, the first homes were a hit. Soon after I had contracts for 18 new ones. At that moment, I saw this as textbook success. In retrospect, I realize that this was a big problem.

A Make or Break Moment

We needed a lot of lumber to build the houses and didn’t want to spend all of our cash up front. Our choices were to find funding to support these projects or start a new business by turning down sales. Having started my career serving as an Army airborne infantryman, paratrooper, jumpmaster and recruiter, I've developed problem-solving skills and can work well under pressure. I called together a "war room" of my trusted team to discuss the problem .

The first thing to do in a cash-strapped crisis point is not to panic. In that war room, I realized that I had a powerful tool at hand: I could use my credit card for large purchases, such as buying lumber for those 18 homes. By pursuing funds from a non-traditional source, we kept our cash flowing and our company growing. We built the initial homes successfully and sold 50 of them in the first year. Since that inaugural sales season, we keep setting records. 

Keeping Priorities Top of Mind

Another factor in our success is customer service. Ever since launching, the whole company has been tasked with growing the business without sacrificing quality. Today, I still act as if we just launched. I still meet with every buyer. I think of myself as the chef who comes out to ask if you enjoyed your dinner. No matter how big we grow, I don’t want to lose that outlook. It sets us apart, and as the business scales up, continuing to focus on what sets us apart is a key to continued success.

We’ve grown from $6 million in first-year sales to just under $25 million in sales currently. This year is on track to set another record. Within the first six months of 2015 we sold more houses than we did in all of 2014, and we're continuing to grow. But without clear thinking and customer service as our top priority in when building our foundation in 2010, we would have been out of business before the concrete dried.

Bill Sinnett is president and founder of Fortress Builders in Columbia, S.C.

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