Few homebuilders are as remarkably candid as James Jonsson. Over his 40 years in residential, commercial, and development construction, the Utah native has seen it all. Now vice president of construction for Ivory Homes, his state’s most well-known builder, Jonsson is navigating a changing and uncertain era—and there’s no time to conceal hard truths or be disingenuous.
As we begin our scheduled phone call in October 2022, Jonsson hears a knock on his office door and politely excuses himself. A colleague stands in his doorway with an armful of plans. Jonsson must give immediate input on a change order. He returns to our call and launches into an extemporaneous monologue on the current state of the market.
“You caught me on a typical day in this new world we live in,” he says. “Things have changed. Buyers have a sense of that. We are looking at increasing rescission rates. Interest rates are ticking up, and buyers will walk away from deposits because they are scared. They could afford things three months ago, but they can’t afford things today. Or in other cases, things we would have said no to three or six months ago, we are now revisiting because the market has changed.”
When I ask Jonsson what the change order was, he sighs and concedes that it’s an example of the rapidly changing world. A customer hated the tile in their wine room, although they had selected the pattern themself. Jonsson can either tear it out and redo it, or he can hold his ground and risk the buyer walking away. He came up with a third solution and offered to credit the buyer to keep the tile she selected. Jonsson may have lost the battle, but he’s still in the war.
In 2022, Ivory Homes closed about 1,150 of its high-end townhomes and luxury custom homes. This year, that number will drop to around 850. How will Jonsson help the company deal with the 300-unit gap? “The entire industry has been running at a frenzied pace to keep up with demand, but that’s over,” he says. “We have to sharpen our tools, get back to the basics, and do everything we can to minimize exposure and reduce risks.”
For Ivory—which operates as a one-stop shop with its own architecture, interior design, sales, marketing, warranty, and customer service teams—that means slowing down, increasing collaboration, double-checking everything, and capturing more information in documents. The wine room debacle, for example, could potentially have been avoided with a better description of the work and more open communication.
While a dramatic slowdown would cause some newer leaders to panic, Jonsson has remained calm. After all, he can remember the 2.3 million industry jobs that were lost during the last recession and the 12 percent interest rates of the 1980s. In some ways, he sees the current landscape as an opportunity.
“Lower work volumes will bring an increase in quality since top performers and vendors will be the ones who stay employed, and our supers and field staff will be more cautious and thorough,” he says. For example, he’s insisting that every Ivory Homes superintendent walk every home every day with a tape measure in hand to know exactly where each and every project stands.
Jonsson was just 16 when he got started in construction. That’s when his father, a project manager for a large commercial construction company in Hawaii, dashed his dreams of a surf-filled summer by putting him to work on a high-rise project. He joined Ivory as an estimator in 2004. After holding numerous jobs over nearly 20 years in the organization, Jonsson now manages a team of 54 field supers.
Coming from the field and starting in the lowest position gives him instant credibility, and Jonsson still expects to get his hands dirty and earn his keep. “I want to lead by example,” he says. “I don’t want anyone working harder than me. People have to run to keep up, but we do great things together.”
Ivory is known for beautiful homes and many options. It provides more than 200 designs and 30 model homes. At 5,476 square-feet, the countryside traditional is one of its largest. The four bedroom, four-and-a-half bath version features an upstairs covered balcony, a theater, an exercise room, and a covered porch. In addition to the standard homes and townhomes, the high price of land has compelled Ivory to experiment with accessory dwelling units, narrow-fit homes, and other creative solutions. Jonsson and his colleagues are also getting deeper into energy efficiency, pure build quality, and native landscaping.
Ivory Homes has topped its state’s market for 34 years in a row. As Jonsson thinks about what’s likely to happen across the industry in 2023, he’s focused on one thing: how to reduce the cycle days of construction and build quickly without sacrificing the quality of a delivered product. After all, every house is a home, and Ivory has a reputation to maintain.
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