Epcon Builder Stories With John Cook of Cook Bros. Homes

 

Meet John, an Epcon Franchise Builder in Knoxville, Tennessee. He started Cook Bros. Homes with his brother in 2004 and has been building homes for the 55+ market niche, recently adding the Epcon product line to its offerings.

 

Megan Ronquillo:  My first question for you is, if you can just give me a brief history of your career and your business?

John Cook:  Brief history of my career and our business, my brother and I started our company in 2004. Actually, it was three years out of college. We started our company. We did remodeling, some rentals and flipped some homes, went and got contractor’s license in 2004 and started building.

We are in our 17th year now, and just passed the 17‑year mark and we fit really well together. My brother is more involved in the construction aspect of it, and I’m more involved in the business aspect of it.

He stays in his lane and I stay in mine. We really got hurt like every other builder I think in 2008‑2009. We had to go back in remodeling a lot. We were still a fledgling business at that point, but coming out of that, as we got into 2014‑2015, we really started getting back into building.

We really found our niche in the 55‑plus market. It seemed like an underserved market. We did really well there. We built some custom homes and also built some spec homes. Then, as we got into 2017‑2018 timeframe, we really started seeing a niche in doing more production 55‑plus building and moved away from the custom home business.

We went totally away from the custom home business in late 2018, and have been doing pure production since then. We’ve been doing our own product. We had developed our own product line and have been doing that and then recently joined Epcon Communities and started doing our own communities.

Megan:  Can you expand a little bit on how you got involved without Epcon? How you found us or what that journey was like for you?

John:  How we got involved with Epcon is not a straight line, but we are in a builder group with a bunch of builder peers. One of the builders actually is from the Columbus area. He builds true custom homes, but we’re talking about getting into doing communities.

He said, “Hey, have you ever heard of Epcon?” I said, “Yeah, I’ve heard of Epcon.” “Well, they’re like right at my backyard, you should talk to them if you want to do communities, and you are in the 55‑plus space, you should talk to them.”

I reached out to Epcon myself actually and said, “Hey, you know we are already in this space. We’d really like to do communities.” We started going back and forth.

We looked at the product line. We’re very specific in terms of what our needs are for clients and product line because we developed our own products. We knew what our clients wanted. We just started checking the boxes, talked to references, just really kicking the tires.

We came and visited the headquarters, and looked at several communities. It just made sense. It fit with what we were doing. We felt that everything fit well, and we decided to make that jump.

Megan:  This is interesting because you had already established your presence in your local market, and you were already doing production building in the specific space. How has Epcon I guess complemented your business?

What are some of the similarities and differences in your production building versus maybe what you are doing now with the Epcon product?

John:  There’s definitely between what we did prior and what we do now with Epcon, actually, it’s been a pretty symbiotic relationship. Prior to doing the communities, everything we were doing was on scattered lots.

We’d buy blocks of lots in master playing communities, offer our product, and build the homes on those lots. The development aspect of it has probably been the biggest learning curve for us with the Epcon Communities because we’d never done any development before.

Land development was totally foreign, buying totally raw land, doing the engineering, streets, utilities, all of that. Epcon has been very helpful with that, but it still was a learning curve in that respect.

As far as the homes were concerned, they’re pretty similar. The main level was the focal point of the home, a lot of detail, a lot of internal details we include with our homes that is just expected with the buyers in that 55‑plus market.

In terms of the homes, it has been very similar, but the development aspect of it has been the biggest learning curve for us. We’re two communities in, and working on the engineering for our third. I think it’s probably going to take until community 4 or 5 before we have it dialed in.

Megan:  Let’s talk a little bit about challenges that you experience as a home builder and they’ve probably changed over the years. Let’s think about right now, we’ll say just choose one. What’s your biggest challenge right now as a home builder, and how are you working to overcome that challenge?

John:  Our biggest challenge right now as a home builder is, if you wake up in the morning and something that was working yesterday is no longer working, most of that is around being able to get supplies. We are seeing supply constraints across the board and that is a massive challenge that we’ve never faced before.

I don’t remember, except for a few hurricanes and things like that in the past 17‑18 years, I just don’t remember a time when we had trouble getting the things that we are having trouble getting now.

It seems like we wake up and one day it’s garage doors. The next day, it’s…Today, it was cabinetry. Tomorrow, it could be shingles. The next day, it could be trusses. They’re jumbling our construction timelines, which is affecting our ability to close homes and definitely more communication with our clients and not the kind of communication we like to have.

We do weekly client calls and we like those to be positive when we are talking about the progress of their home, how things are going, expected target close date, those sorts of things.

More often than not, we are finding ourselves letting folks know, “Hey, the time that we thought it was going to take to build your home is going to be longer or we’re going to have to deliver it with this thing not installed because we can’t get our hands on it.” That’s the biggest challenge. It’s demoralizing because we don’t have any control over it.

Megan:  I guess in circumstances where you are facing challenges, where do you go for advice from others in the industry, or for any opportunities for your business. What are your outlets? Where do you go to for information to face those challenges?

John:  To face the challenges that we face regularly, primarily we go to other builders that we’ve developed relationships with. We’ve got relationships with builders literally from California to Connecticut, all the way across the country.

If we are facing it, somebody in that group has faced it and at least has some recommendations, like how we got to Epcon. I said, “Look, we want to do communities, we have no idea how to do it.” A gentleman says, “Hey, have you checked out Epcon?”

We’d never thought about, “OK, who would we talk to do this,” but we’d asked somebody in the group and they recommended, and here we are. Same thing every day is when something pops up, we are having issues getting up this particular window from a particular supplier, “Hey, who is everybody else using?”

Maybe there’s a vendor for that windows manufacturer in our area that can supply those windows when we need them. I think peers is a big thing. We’ve also surrounded ourselves with some really good key advisors. That’s super important and very overlooked, maybe not just in the building business, but in small business in general, folks tend to want to spend as little money as possible on advisors.

I’m talking about financial advisors, accountants, attorneys, all those sorts of things. You get what you pay for. We have spent smart money on some of those things and surrounded ourselves with people that I don’t even count them necessarily, as they are no longer business associates or working for us. They’re working with us, and every cent that we’ve paid them, they have earned and they give us a lot of advice that we could never have paid for.

Megan:  For a new Epcon franchise builder coming into the system, what advice would you give them, being a somewhat new builder yourself, the journey that you’ve had over this past year‑and‑a‑half, what advice would you give to a new franchise builder?

John:  The advice I would give to a new franchise builder would probably center around two things, one, development, if you have never done it, it is something you’ve got to really take your time with. It’s nothing like building a home. It’s completely different and you got to try to figure the in’s and out’s of it out before you just jump in.

That’s probably the biggest single thing. It takes time to figure that out because if you don’t get the right piece of property, if you don’t lay it out correctly, all those things will come back to bite you.

It doesn’t make a difference how nice the product is, even in the best market, it will slow down your ability to sell homes. The key thing is really understand that this is something…Surround yourself with some folks that have done it before, and get advice from them.

Epcon does provide definitely good backup, but we are in a challenging topography. We are in East Tennessee. East Tennessee is not very friendly for development. We’ve got a lot of rock. We’ve got a lot of sinkholes, and we have a lot of topography changes.

For us, it has been using the resources that Epcon has provided, but also going to folks that have done it around us and learning from them, and also leaning on some really good engineers.

Megan:  Is there anything else that you would like to talk about with regards to your experience with Epcon or as a home builder building production for 55‑plus buyers?

John:  I guess the only thing I would add is our experience with Epcon has been, if we have a question, we can ask it and we always get a pretty straight answer. We’ve asked questions where we were referred to other builders that are in the network that have the experience of being with Epcon and they’ve all been very friendly.

They’ve been very helpful and that’s been huge. To be able to lean on them and their experience and them being able to tell us, “Hey, look, yes, I have done this and it’s worked,” or, “Hey, definitely don’t do it this way.” That’s always helpful as well. That’s a key piece to the whole Epcon network.