A man of conviction, and success

Harry `Chip' Lundy's unshakable assurance has served him well during a long career as a homebuilder in the county.

August 14, 2005|BY A SUN STAFF WRITER

The huge greenhouse is gone, as are the metal spikes that held upright hundreds of white spruce, Douglas fir and Virginia pine. Also gone is the sprawling, rustic shop bustling with plants, seedlings and dried and silk flowers, where holiday shoppers shook off the cold with complimentary hot cider and coffee.

They have all been demolished and removed in recent weeks, leaving only a swath of jagged land just off Owen Brown Road in Columbia, where Metzler's Garden Center stood for decades, and which soon will be transformed into a high-end minisubdivision.

The developer, the Williamsburg Group, expects to begin construction on the first three of 11 homes in October, with the remaining built over the next 18 months.

First, though, water and sewer lines must be laid, the property graded and a road constructed.

The homes will begin in the $800,000s, but selling them apparently will be no problem.

"We probably received 60 to 70 calls before we ever did anything," says Tim Morris, vice president of the Williamsburg Group. "It's a great location and a strong market. The biggest challenge is always delivering the home that meets everyone's expectations. Something they're proud of and we're proud of."

Eleven homes might not seem like much, especially when compared with the hundreds scheduled for the planned communities of Emerson, Turf Valley and Maple Lawn, Maryland. But Harry "Chip" Lundy was certain that small was better when he branched out on his own.

Lundy has almost always followed his convictions.

When a friend took Lundy aside early in his career and advised him to drop the "Chip" - short for "chip off the old block" - because it sounded unprofessional, Lundy's response was immediate and to the point.

"My dad named me Chip, and that's what's going to stay," he told his friend.

That unshakable assurance was demonstrated again in 1975. Lundy was 34 and had a good job as division manager for Mathew Phillips Inc., which had transferred him three years earlier from the corporate offices in Pittsburgh to Columbia. But he walked away from the steady paycheck to satisfy a craving to begin his own company.

"I thought it was a pretty good time to take a chance - to go out and mortgage your house and try to convince some banks to [lend] you money and give it a shot," he said.

He got the financing and formed Columbia Builders.

In retrospect, Lundy says, it was a brash move. It would have been too brash, perhaps, had executives of the Rouse Co. not needed someone to help with their fledgling but enormous project - the new town of Columbia.

"We were able to do that because ... [they] were very helpful in providing lots for us and making it easy to get started," Lundy says. "There weren't a lot of builders in Columbia at that time."

Columbia Builders prospered, offering modest homes, some at 2,400 square feet, which in those days was considered large. It also branched out into the townhouse market.

Lundy had other ideas.

"I wanted to build some single-family, high-end houses," he says.

Although the housing market had fluctuated, it was strong in 1983, so Lundy sold his interest in the firm to his partners and formed the Williamsburg Group.

The timing proved regrettable - and fortuitous.

The market softened again, and then it nearly collapsed.

"By the end of the 1980s," Lundy says " ... we weren't selling a lot of houses, and there were a lot of foreclosures" in the industry.

The recession, though, prompted a phone call to Lundy. Executives of then-Loyola Federal Bank in Baltimore asked in 1991 if he would be willing to build a few small houses - about 1,500 square feet each - on 40 lots that the bank had repossessed.

Lundy was not interested. After all, that was the antithesis of why he had created the Williamsburg Group.

But Loyola executives persisted, and business was hardly flourishing. Lundy finally capitulated.

That meant starting another company. The Gulf War had begun, and Lundy named his new company Patriot Homes - taken from the Patriot missiles that the United States was using against Iraqi Scud missiles.

Lundy quickly realized two things: Patriot had to be much larger to compete in the small, relatively low-cost market, and he needed someone with experience in running a large firm.

He hired a friend from NV Homes to run the day-to-day.

"We decided ... to compete with the national builders, we'd have to gear up the company and not build just 40 to 50 homes a year. We really need to try to build 400 to 500 homes a year," Lundy says.

The company ended up averaging between 350 and 400 units a year.

Success inevitably brings suitors, and it was no different for Patriot Homes.

"I looked at it simply as an investment, like IBM stock." Lundy says. "I said this is an opportunity for us to get out of the business of guaranteeing huge amounts of money ... but it also was an opportunity to expand Patriot."

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