Master Class: How a Custom Builder Succeeded in Retiring

When the Great Recession hit the housing industry, it blew up a lot of plans. One of them was custom builder Dale Abrahamse’s carefully conceived plan to retire. He had already groomed his successors, including second-in-command Ted Marss, and then came 2008. Instead of a graceful exit, he found himself having to double down to keep the business viable. Not only was he chasing projects again, he was also managing them hands-on. Both of these circumstances offer important lessons in building company management.

Based in Charlottesville, Va., Abrahamse & Company Builders, has been known for high-end custom residential and light commercial construction for more than 40 years. It’s one of the go-to high-end builders in the scenic university town, nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The company’s specialty is special houses, ones that are rigorous in architecture and in building science. Abrahamse has built projects under the most demanding performance standards, including Passive House, EarthCraft, and the American Lung Association’s Healthy House program, to name a few. But even the houses that don’t carry certifications or other labels typically employ advanced building technologies of some sort.

Dale Abrahamse

Always stretching to meet new goals and to learn new techniques and systems has kept the company at the top of its game and at top of mind for architects. But it demands Herculean effort on the part of every employee and every sub to work at such a high level so much of the time. There’s a ton of field work to get everything installed or built correctly, of course, and hours of back office time as well, sourcing and pricing materials.

One job that helped Abrahamse & Co. pull out of the economic slump was our cover feature in Volume 1, 2017. The Fletchers Mill project is in Rappahannock, Va., more than 1. hours away from Charlottesville along winding mountain roads. So even in a recession, the economics had to work. The project had to be large enough in scope and quality to support Abrahamse’s attention. And it was: more than 6,000 square feet of new construction in three buildings on 45 rural acres, and all the attendant infrastructure to make them function.

The company got the commission on the strength of another new house project it had built previously in Madison, Va., for clients of architect Richard Williams, FAIA, based in Washington, D.C. “The Madison residence was a similar project— also very detailed with very involved clients,” says Dale. “And we worked pretty far along on another project with Richard that didn’t move forward. So, I feel like we’ve done three projects together.”

But none as special as Fletchers Mill. “That was one of the most enjoyable experiences in my career,” he says. “Great projects take great clients,” he says. Well, yes and no. They take great builders, as well, to make everyone happy with the result. And that requires three essential traits on the builder’s part:

1. Be Willing to Collaborate

The Fletchers Mill project was a journey of discovery for architect, clients, and builder. That means decisions took time, thought, and research to make. There was a fair amount of “what if?” pursuit, exploring different kinds of products and systems, all while keeping the project timeline under control. Dale’s diligence in giving the owners the right information in a timely fashion so they could make solid decisions was paramount. Dale also brought knowledge to the table of different building technologies for Richard to consider, providing him with the data necessary to incorporate them into his plans. A case in point was the factory-built foundation system from Superior Walls of Central Virginia that saved both time and money on the project. “We enjoy the collaborative process,” says Dale.

2. Treat Co-Workers and Subcontractors Well

“We believe in building knowledge and cultivating values,” says Dale. “And sharing in the fruits of the business.” Ted, his successor, has been with the company for 22 years. And others have been there for a similar length of time. The secret to keeping good people? Says Ted, “We offer flex time, we pay for education, and we encourage independent thinking.”

Ted Marss

This sense of fair play extends to the trades the company relies upon to execute their high standards. The key here, say Dale and Ted, is to value their time as you would your own. “We try really hard to schedule properly and be ready for them,” Ted explains. “Jobs are organized so it’s a better place to work. We’re partners with them just as we are the clients.”

3. Honor Clients’ Money As Your Own

Nailing down costs is always critical. But if there’s value engineering to be done, builders can’t lose track of what value means on the project. In the Fletchers Mill project, Dale delivered various choices to the clients with clear information about what each path would cost and what benefit it offered.

That information sometimes resulted in the clients going with a highline decision and sometimes not. Yet, in the end, the clients felt shared ownership in all the important selections. “To keep that trust level up, you have to do careful cost accounting. And we deliver a high value for the money spent,” says Dale. “We supervise our projects well, spend the necessary time and energy on managing the paperwork part, and we take it very seriously. In the end, our clients know where every cent went.”

Fletchers Mill was built on a cost-plus basis with a guaranteed maximum. Abrahamse & Company brought the project in under the maximum. No bad surprises.

He’s finally retired now, although he still has a stake in the business and meets Ted for coffee most Fridays. Ted says those dates are less and less about work these days and more about what Dale is doing with his new-found free time. “I bought a table saw, a mitre tool, and spent the summer remodeling my brother’s house in Vermont,” says Dale. “It was fun—just like when I started in the business. Full circle.”

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