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Britton Manasco specializes in customer-focused initiatives that build business credibility and strengthen sales growth. His articles have appeared in Harvard Business Review; The New York Times; Sales and Marketing Management; CIO Magazine; 1to1 Magazine; and many other media outlets.
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October 23, 2005

For Whom the Boom Tolls

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Posted by Britton

Fascinating article last week in the New York Times Magazine about the building industry and boom through the eyes of Horsham, Penn.-based Toll Brothers -- one of the giants in the business. Money quote: "We're really a marketing company that happens to build houses." right

They even seem to resemble Dell Computer in many ways. They don't actually build anything. Physical work is subcontracted to electrical, framing, roofing, painting, masonry and plumbing companies. They don't start construction until contracts are signed and deposits are in the bank. The company also follows the "mass customization" (they prefer to call it "semi custom") principles that have made Dell so successful and profitable. Indeed, they ran the numbers back in the mid-1980s and learned that they could be much more profitable and meet 98% of customer demands by radically limiting custom options. Construction errors, delays and costs were often generated by the option process. "The more options we sold," said CFO Joel Rassman, "the less we made."

On the customer intelligence front, it seems that the insight that matters most is related to the preferences of prospective buyers in various regions and socio-economic groups -- whether it's for "stately Colonials" or "Mediterranean-style ranches." (Tolls Brothers -- which competes with other large, national builders such as Pulte, Lennar, Centex Homes, D. R. Horton and KB Home -- skews to the high end of the market). Competitive intelligence is also critical to ensure that the company is incorporating the features that other developers are having success selling. Jed Gibson, a vice president who runs Toll's architecture division, explains, "Our business model is: what's selling out there, and how can we do it better?"

Founder Bob Toll spends much of his time poring over data related to various potential property purchases. At this point, there are roughly 74 million owner-occupied homes in America. But Toll and others believe we actually may be running out of desirable land for development as today's exurbs get built out and push us farther from city centers and workplaces. Extensive building regulations, meanwhile, add costs that smaller developers can't afford to assume. The ability of big builders to understand these regulations, bear these costs and fight the fights associated with new development further strengthen their hand.

Indeed, Toll Brothers is not convinced that the boom will ever end as far as it is concerned. While it expects the market to cool down and crush some overexuberant investors, it sees 15% growth as far as the eye can see. "Why can't real estate just have a boom like every other industry?" Toll asks rhetorically. "Why do we have to have a bubble and then a pop?"

Comments (4) + TrackBacks (0) | Category:


1. martha on October 24, 2005 09:05 PM writes...

This essay is a fine example of sloppy reasoning cloaked as observation.

First, what is your point?
Second, what facts are you really bringing forward (versus opinion pointing)?
Third, what formula/construct do you employ to provide perspective for your reader?

Please, save your lazy thinking for yourself.

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2. Anonymous Coward on October 26, 2005 12:54 PM writes...

I rather thought that it was observation cloaked as reasoning. Martha is being a bit sloppy, methinks, slamming Britton for the error she epitomizes.

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3. martha on October 28, 2005 09:24 PM writes...

Anonymous Coward

Thank you for your cuteness which I am sure you believe is wit. You may actually get the point if you reflect on your comment as to the point of the orginal response. Give it a try.

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4. mungojelly on December 11, 2005 01:05 PM writes...

Well I thought this entry was very interesting. It gave me a little bit of insight into what the big builders are thinking these days. <3

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