Homebuilder turns to carpentry in tough times

April 14, 1991|By Alyssa Gabbay | Alyssa Gabbay,Special to The Sun

Back in Biblical days, Noah turned to the craft of carpentry to keep his head above water during tough times.

These days, Ilex Construction & Development Inc., is following the same course.

In 1989, officials of the Baltimore-based company, which specializes in custom homebuilding, remodeling and restoration, looked to the future and saw a recession brewing. Diversification seemed to be the key to survival.

They started a woodworking division in 1989 by acquiring the shops of two local cabinetmakers, Raymond Book and Joshua Brumfield. Since then, the division has expanded to employ 12 people.

"Since new home building is down, this put us into a position to do more renovations and additions," said Delbert Adams, a partner in the 5-year-old, 60-employee company.

New home projects -- Ilex builds about 10 each year -- make up the remainder of the company's business.

In addition to performing work on homes built by Ilex, the woodworkers subcontract to other companies, building conference areas, libraries and bars. About 60 percent of their work is for companies other than Ilex -- for example, they build pulpits and pews for Maryland churches.

So far, Ilex's diversification strategy has worked. Although company officials won't reveal sales figures, they say Ilex hasn't suffered any drastic losses over the past couple of years.

"We've stayed pretty consistent," said Mr. Adams, who noted that the company has not laid off any employees within the past year. "Having the woodworking division gives us a lot of flexibility to take advantage of different markets."

Owning a woodworking division also gives Ilex more control over interior work -- an important aspect for a company that prides itself on its attention to detail and on-time performance.

"We're very goal-oriented; we like to finish our jobs on schedule," said Mr. Adams, who has a background in historical renovation and restoration techniques.

"Typically what happens is that the things out of our power, like installing cabinetry, interrupt our schedule. So if we can control those things, we can get done on time."

Although renovations and restorations form a substantial portion the company's business, Ilex officials seem to derive their greatest satisfaction from building luxury homes with unusual or innovative features. Many of these homes are on the Eastern Shore.

A Talbot County home finished last year, for example, features a computerized miniblind system that reacts to solar heat. When the temperature reaches a certain level, the shades, which are stored in a recessed panel at the top of the window, descend. The shades tilt according to the elevation of the sun, keeping sunlight off the living room's furniture and cherry floors.

The 7,000-square-foot house, which resembles a bird in flight, also has a system that can remove stale air and pump in fresh air within two minutes -- ideal for a wife who couldn't stand the smell of her husband's cigars.

"We're always going to builders' shows to look at all the things that might be coming out in 1993, because we know that that's what our clients want," said Gina Adams, marketing director for Ilex. "They're always looking for these wildly outrageous things."

Another Eastern Shore house built by Ilex -- winner of a "best home" award in January's Custom Builder magazine -- features paneled doors and cabinetry built on-site from Honduras mahogany.

Ilex's luxury homes range in price from $200,000 to $10 million, depending on the size of the home and the scope of the project.

Commercial restoration and renovation projects account for about 25 percent of Ilex's business.

Two years ago, it renovated a vacant office building at 1130 N. Charles St. that is now occupied by Monumental Life Insurance Co. Currently, the company is installing cabinetry and architectural trim in the clubhouse at Caves Valley Country Club as part of an overall renovation being performed by Whiting-Turner Contracting Co.

Ilex is also building 17 single-family homes for the Brightwood Retirement Community in Baltimore County.

Ilex was formed in 1986 when Mr. Adams, a former vice president of Better Building Inc., a Baltimore-based general contracting company that restores commercial structures, joined forces with Douglas Croker, a builder with 20 years' experience in local residential and commercial construction.

"We saw a niche that could be filled for a very service-oriented company that would do very high quality work," Mr. Adams said.

Mr. Adams said he takes a hands-on approach to running the company, hiring all the employees himself, and visiting job sites at least once a week.

"I like to get to a job site when no one else is there, to see how the job has been left and what's been done since I was last there," Mr. Adams said. "That job is my business card. It gets done right no matter what."

Ilex works closely with local architects to provide design/construction services to clients. But the company eventually would like to start its own architectural/engineering division -- a move that would bring practically all aspects of construction under one roof.

For now, though, Ilex is concentrating on fulfilling its main agenda: building quality homes. "What we try to do is make a home that people absolutely love," Mr. Adams said. "Whether it's a renovation or a new home, we want people to fall in love with it."

Alyssa Gabbay is a free-lance writer who often covers business issues for The Sun.

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