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Mansion builder: John Ulmer turns high-dollar dream homes into realty for the business elite in Little Rock.

Mansion Builder John Ulmer Turns High-Dollar Dream Homes Into Realty For The Business Elite In Little Rock

John L. Ulmer & Son Builders has a reputation for creating the kind of homes that Robin Leach goes gaga over while reporting on the lifestyles of the rich and famous. The Little Rock contracting firm is known for projects where winding staircases lined with carved mahogany banisters and foyers decked out in Italian marble are considered the norm.

The company has done homes where a customized counter top alone has accounted for $2 per SF of a project's entire budget. Of course, that expense loses some significance considering the overall cost of the home typically falls in the $75 to $150 per SF range.

"Some people think we charge too much money," John Ulmer remarks. "I'd rather lose people on the front end than low ball them and have them come back to me mad when the project goes over budget."

The top-end of these customized homes hovers around the million-dollar mark, and the residents who live there number among the business elite in Arkansas. The market served is a narrow niche, where word of mouth is the all important component to success and one bad referral can be devastating.

Don't expect John Ulmer to reel off an impressive who's who list of clientele. He's protective regarding the names of his patrons, most of whom place a high price on privacy and confidentiality. The same goes for sharing any details about unusual requests on projects, secret passage-ways and the like.

Fourth Generation

"It just comes with the jobs we do," Ulmer says of his guardianship role. "People consider their homes part of their private lives."

The fourth generation contractor is as secretive about the financial performance of his business as the identities of the people he and his craftsmen work for. "The lower seven digits" is about as close as Ulmer will come to revealing the company's annual gross.

The firm doesn't have a monopoly on building prestigious homes or handling high-dollar renovations and additions in upscale neighborhoods like River Ridge, Hickory Hills and Edgehill. In trying to land those big-buck contracts, the competition can get vocal.

"A lot of people like to take shots at us because they say they can do it cheaper, but they can't beat us for all of our services," Ulmer boasts. "The way we work can eat into the profit margin. Our net income is probably not as big as other contractors.

"If you want to make good money, it's probably not in the custom market. A lot of people don't understand that. They say `Gosh, he's doing a $1 million home,' but they're relating it to their profit margin. Ours is a lot tighter than theirs."

Eliciting Oohs and Ahs

In contrast to the company's posh projects, John L. Ulmer & Son Builders is quartered in a quonset hut on Cantrell Road east of Sam Peck Road. The office is staffed with a full-time secretary and accountant who keep track of the jobs and produce computerized print outs of monthly cost reports.

The detailed reports allow homeowners to track expenditures and make changes in cash allocation while the work is in progress. Construction materials are broken down on a line item level that makes notation of different sizes of nails and bricks used. Nothing is left to the imagination.

"We are considered perfectionists, and we like to have people involved in the details," Ulmer says. "A lot of people don't like having to deal with owners making changes in plans.

"Anything they want, they can have. Never tell them no. It's not uncommon to have 100 change orders on a big project. We don't know any different. It's just part of our business."

As long as the checks keep clearing at the bank, so what if the change orders are counted by the dozen? Ulmer is used to catering to the every whim of clients, folks with pockets deep enough to inspire dump truck loads of patience.

"I didn't say that," Ulmer counters diplomatically.

Drumming Up Business

While it's nice to build those stately manors, the pool of prospects is relatively small. People only need so many luxury homes, financial resources notwithstanding.

"That's a problem," Ulmer admits with a laugh. "We don't get a lot of repeat customers."

Maybe not as far as new homes go, but it's not uncommon for clientele to call him back in when they want a remodeling or a specialty job. Then there are those repeat customers like Don Kirkpatrick, CEO of Quality Foods, who is having the company build his family's dream home in west Little Rock's exclusive Hickory Creek subdivision.

The giant mansion under construction has become somewhat of a local landmark for Sunday drivers, eliciting oohs and ahs from gawkers who've come to see the big house.

Ulmer concedes that the company could make more money by doing more routine projects. What keeps him from working on less pricey homes and jobs that generate more sales volume?

"The enjoyment of building a one-of-a-kind, quality project and working one-on-one with customers and building their dream house," Ulmer responds. "If you build tract homes, you flip flop the colors of a room or change the roof in a plan, but I just don't like the challenge of that.

I don't have any desire to be listed among the top 100 builders in the country. I'd like to be known as someone who built a good, quality home at a competitive price that they may live in the rest of their lives."

Ulmer has maintained a conservative approach to growth and has intentionally declined lucrative contracts to keep the business at a level he feels won't compromise projects already in the mill.

"I've turned down a million-dollar project and another half-million-dollar project recently because of what we've got scheduled," Ulmer points out. "If you get overextended, that creates all kinds of problems."

His family has been building homes for nigh on 120 years now, and Ulmer intends to keep the streak going for as long as possible. Consistency is part of heritage left by his forefathers.

"If I can't take the hard lessons they've learned and build on it, I'm not doing my part in carrying on the tradition," Ulmer states.

PHOTO : STATELY MANOR: John Ulmer poses n front of the palatial home now under construction for Don Kirkpatrick, CEO of Quality Foods. This French provincial mansion in the exclusive Hickory Creek subdivision has become a showplace for Sunday drivers in west Litlle Rock.
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Article Details
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Author:Waldon, George
Publication:Arkansas Business
Article Type:company profile
Date:Jun 18, 1990
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