Evolutionary Vision

It’s common to hear people in southwestern Florida say there’s just something about a Frey & Son home that lets you know it’s built with quality. Most clients and potential customers who walk through a Frey & Son home can’t quite put their fingers on exactly what makes the homes stand out from the crowd, but there are those who know exactly what it is.

“We incorporate details that distinguish our homes from other builders,” says George Shaffer, executive vice president, Frey & Son Homes in Bonita Springs, Fla. “For instance, the soffit detail. We use crown molding and freize board that no one else does. It’s also subtle things like paying attention to the living area in the back of the house.

“We concentrate on the arches on back of the house and do the detailing with the same level of care as on the front of the house. On the interiors our angular design distinguishes us. We have 45-degree rooms, on diagonals, and include interesting niches, ceiling treatments and columns,” Shaffer adds.

This attention to detail has developed since Frey & Son Homes was founded in 1970 by Bill Frey. The building company began with about 10 to 15 sets of plans and the customization evolved over the years. Today, by the time the builder gets a model out of the ground, it’s already on to the next one, says Ric Bonasera, general manager. “The critical component is to reproduce those homes but add on to them one at a time.We excel at the trial and error involved.”

Roughly 30 percent of Frey & Son Homes are designed from scratch, Bonasera explains. Sometimes clients bring drawings to build, but mostly they work with Frey’s architect who designs roughly 90 percent of Frey’s homes.

“We came across a talented designer years ago who did a model for us. It was so successful, we made a deal that in any of our subdivisions he was our exclusive designer,” Shaffer says. The architect is Henry Gonzalez, owner, The Design Standard, thedesignstandard.com. “He has been a large part of our success. Customers like him. He’s the best I’ve come across in 33 years.”

Shaffer oversees the technical aspects of any drawings to make sure that when the plans get to the field, they work. “The third member of the drawing team is our structural engineer. Everything we build has to be signed and sealed by him. He has been here as long as I have. He redlines the plan to the architect, and I review them several times. That’s one of the reasons we have good relationships with our subs. They know they’ll be getting good plans.

Counting Costs

Frey & Son Homes’ subcontractors know exactly what they’ll be building, and customers know exactly what they’ll be paying. Frey sells from models to get customers in the door, and then develops preliminary plans given at no charge. The plan could be a variation of a model, or created completely from scratch.

“We develop a plan and I price it. That’s where we start and work through finishes and so forth, and cover those numbers adequately, giving them addendums as needed,” Shaffer says. Frey & Son Homes operates with an open-book policy when it comes to costs.

“We guarantee our price except for any items they change, or items that are determined by the lot’s site considerations, etc.,” he explains. “We communicate closely with the customer, and have an open-door policy. They can call us at any time, and have access to the website for the current status and photos of their home. They can go on there and see that their desires were communicated to our office. And right in the contract we explain how any change orders will be priced, including the mark-up.”

Not only are costs important for change orders, but paying attention to costs during the design phase is critical, and not something every designer does, Bonasera notes. He recalls situations when designers weren’t always worrying about the numbers. “They would produce homes that included a lot of things a homeowner might not have expected or wanted to pay for. These are things that we have to work out. We make compromises to fit a design into a budget. Usually it works out well.”

A main part of Frey’s success is never telling a customer he can’t change his mind. The builder has had houses in the drywall stage and the owner wanted to add 2,000 sq. ft. to the design. Changes like this are allowed at Frey, but not at most of its competitors, Bonasera says.

“We know what our costs are, and know exactly what we can do. We have an estimating system we designed, and it’s always within 1 percent. So we know what we’re looking at all the time. We’re not here to do it for another builder’s price; we’re here to build a home at our price. We’re firm on that,” he adds.

Connecting with Clients

Frey & Son Homes fully understands that most U.S. homeowners build one, two or three homes in their lifetime. So what clients might find alarming about the home building process is simply day-to-day functioning for the builder, whose job it becomes to help clients know what to anticipate.

“When customers move in, we want them to be as excited about their home as when they first came through our doors,” Bonasera says.

“Success for us is giving homeowners what they want. Some homeowners don’t like the process because it involves lots of decisions. But in the 10 years I’ve been here, from quality or product standpoints, not one client has said ‘I don’t like my home.’ Not one. Part of the challenge of dealing with inexperienced home-owners is they don’t know how good or bad a builder is until their house is done. So, getting the homeowner to ask the right questions and to understand our quality is important.”

A good connection between builder and client is important for many reasons, especially because Frey sometimes works with clients for seven years. The high-end nature of Frey’s clients and their homes allows the clients to plan ahead and not be affected much by what the economy is doing, Shaffer says. Frey & Son’s customer base is more affected by emotional issues like 9-11 than by economic factors.

Other challenges Frey & Son has faced the past few years was keeping up with cost escalations as well as the information age. “I always thought that computers would make life much simpler. But they have done exactly the opposite. In the past when choosing selections for their homes, customers have had maybe three choices. But now they have 10,000 choices and it’s overwhelming for everyone. We’re coming across the new generation of buyers that is less discriminating in taste, but more demanding in choices and selections and expectations. And they want instant gratification,” Shaffer says.

Frey & Son Homes builds an average of 20 homes each year, and as a testament to its quality, roughly four to six of them each year are built as homes for other contractors. “Other builders tend to gravitate to us. They know that our systems work and haven’t had any major problems with us,” Shaffer says.

New Frontiers

With its success in the custom business secured, Frey & Son Homes expanded into the production market by purchasing a production division in Orlando late in 2006. The two businesses remain completely separate internally as well as publicly through branding efforts. The production division is named America’s First Home Builders, which builds roughly 1,200 homes per year.

In addition to the entry-level production homes, Frey & Son Homes also builds a move-up product through its Frey Homes division also launched in 2006. Shaffer explains that in some of its production-division subdivisions, certain lots were too gorgeous to build a small production house on, he says. “Revelations like this led us to launching the move-up division.”

“We didn’t want to run it through us because we signify a high-end product and don’t want confusion with the move-up hybrid,” Bonasera notes. “We’re building the move-up product on a production basis and bringing a sense of customization to the production-level home.”