2012 looks promising for home-building firm

MIDDLEBURY — Business looks promising for a prominent Middlebury employer, Connor Homes, which specializes in crafting colonial reproduction kit homes at its Route 7 plant that was once the home of Standard Register.
Connor Homes owner Mike Connor said deposits for his company’s high-end homes are running about 50 percent ahead of 2011, leaving him “cautiously optimistic” the trend is ready to turn back upward after several years of recession in the housing market.
Connor said his company, founded in 1969, still has to turn those pending deals into final sales, but if Connor Homes does so at its typical pace, 2012 will mark a significant step forward.
“If it plays out at the rate that it did last year, we’ll be in pretty good shape,” he said, adding, “Historically, we convert a high percentage of those.”
Connor Homes’ products range in size from about 1,400 to 7,000 square feet and sell for between roughly $150 and $225 per square foot, he said. Most are marketed directly to consumers in the Northeast, although the company has also penetrated the market in the Mid-Atlantic states.
So far in 2012 Connor said deals have been struck for smaller homes, but most are for the middle and upper ends of Connor Homes’ inventory: A typical deal might be for a 3,000-square-foot home for $200 per square foot.
“It’s the higher-end houses that seem to be moving better,” he said.
Connor also feels hopeful about the larger picture, pointing to economic indicators that show upward trends in the general economy and in the housing sector, which has been particularly troubled since 2008.
“There are a lot of other positives about the economy that make us feel pretty optimistic,” he said. “We’re going to be able to say in 2012 … (the housing sector) hit bottom and started to come back.”
Connor has had to make tough decisions in the past few years, paring his work force from a high of 65 to its current 35. Nine jobs have been cut in the past year through a combination of natural attrition and layoffs, he said.
“In every industry in these kinds of times you have to learn to do more with less,” he said.
Connor hopes to rebuild his workforce and intends to add up to five jobs in 2012.
“All indications are that this will be a better year for us than we’ve seen in the last three,” he said.
But given the well-documented damage to the overall housing sector in recent years, he said it would take time for the nation and Connor Homes to fully return to pre-recession levels.
In the meantime, however, Connor said his business is well positioned to survive and even thrive.
“It may take 10 years to get back to where it was five years ago …  (but) we can operate with a smaller marketplace,” he said. 
Connor also addressed issues surrounding Connor Homes’ ultimately unsuccessful attempt last year to sell its 115,000-square-foot Route 7 headquarters to Middlebury’s Green Mountain Beverage (now called Vermont Hard Cider Co.) and purchase the former Vermont Tubbs plant in Brandon.
That deal fell apart in May because environmental testing of the Connor Homes plant discovered it was contaminated with the industrial solvent trichloroethylene, which Standard Register had apparently used as a degreaser for its printing equipment.
Connor said Connor Homes has developed a “corrective action plan” that has won the approval of state regulators, and as soon as his insurance firm signs off on it work to clean up the problem will begin.
“We’re just waiting for our insurance company to pull the trigger sometime this spring,” he said.
As far as any other plans for his company to move from its headquarters (which it has occupied for five years), Connor said there are none.
“At this point it’s likely that we’ll just stay right here,” he said. “It’s not a bad place to be.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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