Building a legacy: Michael F. Simon Builders takes ownership in its work
The following is the second in a series of three profiles on local winners of the 2014 Wisconsin Family Business of the Year Awards. Click here to read our feature on Automation Components, Inc.
Phil Simon, president of Waunakee’s Michael F. Simon Builders, likes to say his company was green before green was cool.
You could also say it was green before anyone really knew what green meant.
In fact, as recently as two decades ago, merely advertising a “green” home threw more than a few residents of famously progressive Dane County into a whirlwind of confusion.
“We built our home in ’91, and we advertised it as Waunakee’s first green house, and we explained all the amenities in an ad, the things that made it look different than typical construction, that made it green and energy efficient,” said Simon. “And I’ll never forget, the three brothers in the business at the time, we would divide up days for open houses, and I picked the first Sunday, which happened to be a Packer Sunday afternoon, and I thought, it’s going to be slow, and it was.
“The Packer game started at 1. Well, nobody came until after the game. So I just figured it was all to do with the Packer game. And the people that came said, ‘Oh, yeah, we’ve been looking for this house for an hour driving around, but we didn’t really remember the address. But we remembered that it was a green house. But this isn’t a green house; this is gray.’ The siding was gray, and they totally didn’t understand. So it was really being green before green was cool.”
Posing with the Michael F. Simon Builders' Wisconsin Family Business of the Year Award are company president Phil Simon; his wife, Kathy; vice president Paul Simon; and Paul's wife, Randi.
Today, it would be hard to imagine anyone making such a comical mistake, but you might say that Michael F. Simon Builders has long been ahead of the curve — and still is to this day. Being 121 years old tends to give you that kind of perspective.
That history — which goes back to the company’s founding in 1893 and includes four generations of Simons — was honored recently when the company received a Wisconsin Family Business of the Year Award in the small company category.
The company started as a one-man operation, when family patriarch Michael Simon began building tobacco sheds, barns, farm buildings, and new homes, generally working for just a dollar a day. That fledgling business might be unrecognizable to the cutting-edge 21st century builders who construct more than 30 homes a year while also working on remodels and commercial structures. But founder Michael Simon’s guiding philosophy lives on — particularly the admonition to build each house like it’s one’s own.
That’s a credo that Phil Simon takes seriously, and that informs many of the company’s practices. To Simon’s way of thinking, if you’re putting your name on something you build, that structure in no small way really is yours — and it’s yours forever.
“In other words, if it was yours and money wasn’t an issue, how would you do it for yourself? And that’s a pretty good guide for how you’d want to do it for your client,” said Simon. “We’re not going to cut any corners. We’re putting our family name on it.”
Simon notes that taking the long view is the sort of philosophy that yields dividends over time — not just for the homeowners but for his company as well. At one point last year, he says, six of the seven projects they had going were for repeat customers.
“You always want new customers, but having people come back that you built for 30 years ago, 20 years ago, 10 years ago, and to have them put their trust and confidence in you a second or a third time and doing it again is special,” said Simon. “Or their child, their son or daughter coming to you because you built Mom and Dad’s home.”
A long-term commitment
While green building practices have hit the mainstream in recent years, to Simon they’ve always been integral to creating a quality product. He notes that his company recently constructed a 2,200-square-foot condo whose fuel bills will come in at less than $600 a year.
“Those things are remarkable,” said Simon. “That’s just fun. And that’s not anything crazy or wild, that’s just quality construction.”
The company has also been looking at ways to eliminate, as much as possible, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are found in paint, glues, formaldehydes, and other building materials.
“That’s healthier to live in,” said Simon. “So it’s really building the whole system. It’s building the best house that we can just as if we were building it for our own family.”
In fact, says Simon, that sense of ownership has at times forced the company to reconsider its relationships with some clients. He recalls a time when a man asked him to build some duplexes but didn’t want to pay for any “frills.”
“We started talking about using better windows and better insulation practices and things like that, and he said, ‘I don’t need any of that; I’m not paying the heat, the renters are,’” said Simon. “And I said, I don’t know if we’re the best builder for what you’re asking because it’s still going to have our name on it. That homeowner that we’re building for may only own the property for five years, 10 years, 15 years, but it’s really our home forever. … So we’re not going anywhere. If we build it, we’ll be there down the road, even if it’s with the second, third, or fourth homeowner.”
Phil Simon is the youngest son of Michael F. Simon, who was the only son of founder Michael Simon. Phil’s brothers Mike and Peter each had key positions in the company during its history. Today, Phil’s son Paul is vice president and could someday be handed the reins.
Phil takes pride in noting that the company has never been in court and never had a lien placed on any property it’s worked on. He also marvels at the company’s resilience through the Great Depression, numerous other downturns, and the recent Great Recession, which devastated builders across the country. The company survived the late 2000s housing crash by keeping a diverse client base. In 2006, he notes, the company was involved in about 80% new construction as opposed to 15% remodeling and 5% commercial building. By 2007, that had flipped to around 70% remodeling, 10% commercial, and 20% new homes. Now, he says, the emphasis is on new construction again, but it was the relationships the company had built with its clients that allowed it to weather those tough times.
“We’ve been adaptable through the years,” said Simon. “We’ve been blessed with great clients, and when we start working with those clients and we develop those relationships, we really want to be their first call for whatever they need.”
Indeed, says Simon, the company’s clients, its workers, and all the family members who have made it the success it is can lay partial claim to its Family Business of the Year Award.
“It’s not my lifetime achievement, it’s the family’s achievement,” said Simon. “And we’ve had great customers, we’ve had great carpenters, great people, and it’s really a team thing. If any one of the generations would have fallen out, we wouldn’t be here today.”
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