By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — National slump in the housing market?
Don’t expect to get that story from Connor Homes, a Middlebury-based manufacturer of colonial reproduction “kit” homes that has seen its sales triple during the past year.
“We are building something different here,” said Michael Connor, founder and CEO of Connor Homes. “Our little company in Middlebury, Vermont, I think is making a statement about how people ought to think about building their houses across the country.”
Connor said that pre-building homes in a controlled setting offers a process that is often more efficient and cost-effective than building from scratch on the site, and that his process can end up costing a client 20-percent less than the same home built conventionally.
In early 2007, Connor Homes was pre-constructing two or three houses per month in a rented, 14,000-square-foot headquarters on Exchange Street, houses that were then assembled on building sites throughout the country.
A year later, the company is now firmly settled in the former home of Standard Register on Route 7 South, a 115,000-square-foot building in which Connor Homes expects to crank out seven homes during this month alone.
The company’s workforce numbered 23 in 2007. It has mushroomed to 64 workers today, with more hires anticipated during the coming months.
“We have a waitlist of talented people,” Connor Homes Chief Operating Officer Holly Kelton said of the many carpenters, architects and other building specialists that have submitted resumes.
Customers have been learning about Connor Homes through the company’s Web site and its catalogue, which showcases the 120 different styles of homes it offers at prices company officials say are often 20 percent less than it would cost to build the same product on-site from scratch. Connor Homes also does custom design work for those who may not see something in the catalogue that strikes their fancy.
Connor Homes is currently moving around 200 catalogues per month, each at $20.
“It’s a significant investment, and a gauge whether someone is serious enough to plunk down $20 — at least we know they like what they saw on our Web site or in our advertising,” Connor said.
“The volume of sales interest and sales calls has more than tripled from a year ago,” Kelton said. “A year ago, Mike (Connor) and I were sharing the duties of salespeople in the company, in addition to everything else. Now we have three full-time salespeople, each of whom is handling around 20 new inquiries a week. Of those inquiries, around 50 percent are becoming serious as to either building now or in the long-term.”
The company can ship its homes — ranging from 1,200 square feet to more than 5,000 square feet — anywhere in the world, though demand has primarily been in the Northeastern United States and Canada.
Demand has been so high in the mid-Atlantic states that Connor Homes on April 1 opened a satellite office in Leesburg, Va.
“We think that’s because those areas are very historic, where people are interested in historic architecture,” Connor said of East Coast sales.
Workers last week were busily assembling lumber for a new home, while finishing some elaborate cabinetry for another project. Connor is pleased with how the Standard Register space has been able to easily accommodate home building year-round. He had anticipated having to rent out some excess space within the huge building, but Connor Homes really doesn’t have any space to spare.
With a workforce that could grow beyond 100 next year — and thereby replace virtually all the jobs eliminated when Standard Register left the plant a year ago — Connor Homes could be in the position of needing to build some additional on-site storage space in the not-too-distant future. Fortunately, the building sits on 20 acres.
“The move to this building has afforded us a level of visibility that really speaks to the validity of the company,” Kelton said. “Having this facility makes our presence a little more viable, a little more visible in the market.”
Right now, the sky seems to be the limit for Connor Homes — in spite of a current national trend in the housing industry.
“We are very encouraged,” Connor said.