Meet Keith Arneson, an Epcon Franchise Builder in Ames, Iowa. After working for a hospital for many years, he started doing entry‑level housing and moved his way up to high‑end customs and eventually branched into land development. He has now transitioned to building the Epcon product in a unique market.
Megan Ronquillo: Hi, Keith. It’s great to see you this morning. I’m glad we have a few minutes here to chat. I just thought we could start out. Could you give a brief history of your career and your business?
Keith Arneson: My career is interesting because it comes from another detail‑oriented field, a completely different industry. I worked for a hospital. I was the administrative director of a laboratory and blood bank for many years.
My company is Pinnacle Properties. It started with doing entry‑level housing and moved up to high‑end customs, did quite a bit of GC work, built 500 apartments in our university community, and then [indecipherable 01:15] land development, and then this phase, the Epcon product.
Megan: I am super interested by that. How did you make the leap from working in hospitals to home building?
Keith: I’d always been interested in housing, and quite frankly had built some of my own houses and built some apartment buildings for my own personal portfolio over the years from the time I started out at the hospital, maybe it wasn’t quite as big a jump as you might think.
However, [laughs] I think the reason that…The question people ask me all the time is, “How’d you go from doing that to doing what you’re doing now?”
If people were honest to themselves, somewhere along the line of their careers, they would have a tendency to ask themselves, “I’d really like to do something different, and if I were going to do that, what would it look like?”
Megan: Interesting. How did you get involved with Epcon Franchising? What did that journey look like?
Keith: I started following their product online, perhaps four years ago, something like that. I was always enthralled by the idea of a side courtyard. As a matter of fact, when I started my company, which was in 2003, I built my version of what a side courtyard home would be. [laughs]
It certainly wasn’t the same as what Epcon’s doing. I think they have a wonderful set of plans and a very talented architect. That’s how I started looking at them. Then, I just had to wait for the right opportunity, the right piece of ground, and the right situation. That happened about two years ago.
Megan: Can you elaborate a little bit on what the process has been like thus far working with Epcon?
Keith: The thing that’s important is that, everybody probably has their own way of doing things. I wasn’t born into the home building business. I had my own ways of doing things which were significantly different than perhaps other builders.
I happen to think that was something that distinguished me in the marketplace. As far as this particular opportunity, where else can a small boutique builder, join the top 60 builders and have access to all the resources that this company has available.
Megan: Let’s talk about that a little bit, Keith, because I know that you’re new in your project but you’re off to a tremendous start. You’ve been implementing everything down to a tee. Can you talk a bit about what your experience has been like thus far, and what advice you would give to a new franchise builder coming in?
Keith: Number one, I’m not one to really hesitate. I feel like I’m fairly self‑motivated. I was anxious to get off the ground. I do things perhaps slightly different than the corporate side. At the same time, the amount of resources and referral and the processes are so significant that it’s hard not to fall in line and follow the recipe.
If you think about my past life, it was a detailed‑oriented job, which was very important. It followed many things I did there, also followed a recipe. For me, that was not a difficult thing to transition to.
Megan: What are some of the resources that you’ve utilized thus far?
Keith: For me, I didn’t really understand the full difference between things like sales and marketing. [laughs] There’s been a significant increase in my background and knowledge with what a company this size that’s been doing this business for a significant amount of time, thinks is an appropriate way to market their product.
It’s fascinating. I won’t lie to you. You get out of your comfort zone a little bit [laughs] in so many different areas that could be a little disconcerting when you’re first starting. The process is different.
It does take time to set this up. I would be remiss for not telling a new franchisee that there’s a significant amount of work at the front‑end. I also happen to pick an architectural style, which perhaps wasn’t as common to the parent company, and that multiplied that particular problem.
Megan: Let’s shift gears a little bit and talk about some of the challenges that you face as a home builder today. What would you say is your biggest challenge, and how are you working to overcome that?
Keith: There are a number of things. My company had somewhat of a reputation for being expensive, but worth it. That’s really where I want to be. I don’t think that an Epcon home is necessarily the least expensive product in the market. For me, that is a relatively easy transition.
However, there can be relatively expensive homes the way that people load them up. That’s a little bit of a challenge. At the same time, I’ve had pretty good success with it, and it is such a new concept in our community.
The style of home and the process of procuring what you want is so dramatically different from what the marketplace understands that it does take me longer to get people over certain aspects of how the process works and perhaps a sticker shock of having an unlimited number of boxes that I can check in an order form.
Megan: How are you working to educate the market specifically for 55‑plus buyers in your area? I’d really like to touch on this because I know that you’re in more of a college‑oriented town. I think you have a unique perspective here on how to reach that target market, where you are specifically in your area.
Keith: Sure. You should probably understand the target market. I am in a small…I am a boutique builder in a small market. I do think what’s interesting about it is, in most university communities, they’re relatively progressive and that extends this way all the way through the planning and zoning commission, city council, and other bodies that you need to meet with to initiate a project like this.
When you talk with those sorts of people, it’s very important for them to understand and you to understand when you’re in a market like this, that we want to be inclusive in every way.
The way that plays out in my community is it’s not age restricted and, of the dozen buyers I have so far, a third of them are in their 40s without children, some are married, some are not. They have affiliations with the university or they have affiliations with the research park there.
Then, I have a third that might be a more typical 55‑year‑old couple, empty nest. Then, I have a third that is closer to 70 years old, sometimes widowed, sometimes not. I have a good crosssection of the community. That’s exactly what I was hoping to attract.
Megan: Very interesting. One other question I would like to ask you is in terms of being a business professional, where do you go for advice or for new business opportunities?
Keith: I do a fair amount of research on my own, and I like to crunch numbers. Again, from my previous life as well as this life, I have been involved in those sorts of things.
As far as professional resources though, short of the Chamber of Commerce, and some of the groups that I am affiliated with in my local market, most of it’s coming from the Epcon resources and the affiliations that you have.
Another example is I won the award for having a new model that was really well decorated. I think good taste is a universal characteristic that people are looking for, but you can hire people to help you with those sorts of things. One of the resources that you have with your interior design was a significant help to me in regards to that process.
Megan: Gorgeous model, Keith. You actually won an award last night for your model.
Keith: Thank you.
Megan: Is there anything else that you would like to add at this point? Anything you would like to speak to about your experience as an Epcon Franchise Builder or just as a homebuilder in general?
Keith: If we’re wrapping up, one of the most important things that I would…The most important question anybody could ask me right now is would I do it again. Of course, I would do it again. Without a doubt, I think it’s the absolute right decision.
My reasons for that, there are several, but the most significant one to me is where can a builder get to play in the big leagues without something like this.
Maybe even more importantly than that is if you find someone with a great product and a great support system, and you find a company that is still out there doing this themselves as a parent company in addition to working with their franchise, their individual franchisees, where else can you find that combination as a business opportunity?