057: How Epcon Communities Kept People Safe While Running an Essential Business
Nov 12, 2021
Nanette Pfister is the VP of Sales for Epcon Communities, a community planning company operating in 29 states across the country. They’re a hugely successful franchise business with over 150 corporate employees, and as a housing provider, they were an essential business over the course of the COVID-19 crisis.
Today, Nanette joins the podcast to talk about how they weathered the shutdowns, tips for how to sell homes virtually, and why they’re poised to hit all-time sales records and achievements for 2021.
Here are just a handful of the things that we'll discuss:
- How Epcon Communities rapidly became adept at virtual selling.
- How the business is dealing with the national labor shortage and continuing to find, recruit, and keep great talent for decades.
- What Epcon is doing to address supply chain and materials issues.
- What differentiates Epcon Communities from typical condominiums and HOAs.
- “There’s a very specific process that our team follows, and they stay with it because it’s the best end result for clients.” – Nanette Pfister
LeAnne Siddell: It’s The Retirement Trainer with Ed Siddell, a podcast about finding ways to help you become financially fit for your future, no matter what financial shape you’re in now. 2020 was a challenging year with COVID in particular, was very difficult for small businesses. EGSI Financial believes in giving back to the community that has supported us for nearly 20 years, and as part of that, we’re rolling out a campaign giving back to small businesses, which we will highlight two small businesses every month on our podcast, Ed Siddell, The Retirement Trainer, which you can find on iHeart, Spotify, Apple Play, anywhere you listen to your podcasts. The goal is to promote and learn lessons from these small businesses so other business owners can draw upon their experiences.
Today, we have Nanette Pfister joining us on our podcast. She’s the VP of Sales for Epcon Communities, which is headquartered right here in Columbus, Ohio. This is LeAnne Siddell, and here to help us with all our questions and to give us some guidance to stay in the best financial shape possible, The Retirement Trainer, Ed Siddell.
LeAnne Siddell: Hi, Nanette. Hi, Ed.
Ed Siddell: Nanette, welcome.
Nanette Pfister: Thank you so much. It’s great to be here. Thank you.
Ed Siddell: Yeah, thank you for joining us. I appreciate it. I know you guys are really, really busy right now.
Nanette Pfister: We’re very busy and we’re very grateful for that, yes.
Ed Siddell: Yes, absolutely. Well, that’s kind of why we wanted to have you on the podcast. We have a lot of mutual clients and with our target audience, if you will, our client base, a lot of them are downsizing. And that’s really kind of what Epcon Communities, I mean, that’s your focus.
Nanette Pfister: Or right size move, yes, exactly.
Ed Siddell: You are right. So, really, we wanted to kind of learn more about Epcon, what you guys do, and how you got through last year COVID, and which you’re doing a little bit differently so other businesses and people can learn, yeah, and how people can find you. So, just tell us about Epcon.
Nanette Pfister: Sure. Well, Epcon Communities was founded in Central Ohio in 1986 by Ed Bacome and Phil Fankhauser, who are here locally. And we currently are in 29 states across the country.
Ed Siddell: Oh, wow.
Nanette Pfister: So, we have a franchise arm that’s very unique in that building industry. And we began the franchise division. We formally formed the franchise in ‘95. We had a licensing division prior to that. And so, corporately, we have communities in Charlotte, Raleigh, Indiana, Columbus, Ohio, which is home base for us, but we have franchisees in multiple states, and even in Ohio.
Ed Siddell: Wow. That’s awesome. So, the bulk of what you have in the 29 states, they’re franchises, right?
Nanette Pfister: Yes, that’s correct.
Ed Siddell: And so, is it just one per state? Is that how it works? Or is it...
Nanette Pfister: No. It depends on the size of the market. So, we could be in a city, let’s say, Dallas-Fort Worth, where we may have multiple franchisees because it’s a market area that they’ll have the rights to. So, it depends on the size of the market.
Ed Siddell: Got it. And as far as Epcon, how big are you guys? How many employees do you have?
Nanette Pfister: As our corporation, I think we have over 150.
Ed Siddell: Oh, wow.
Nanette Pfister: Yes, we’ve really grown.
Ed Siddell: That’s fantastic.
Nanette Pfister: Yes.
Ed Siddell: And it seems like every time I turn around, you guys have another community.
Nanette Pfister: You see another one.
Ed Siddell: You’re right here in Columbus and Dublin.
Nanette Pfister: Yes, we have 10 communities right now in Central Ohio, which is the most we’ve ever had.
Ed Siddell: Wow.
Nanette Pfister: In the area, yes.
Ed Siddell: So, COVID was obviously, tough for everyone, and how did it affect you guys?
Nanette Pfister: Well, first of all, it was a surprise, like it was for everybody, right? One day, we’re working, and the next day…
Ed Siddell: We’re not, yeah.
Nanette Pfister: We’re just not. They’re beginning to shut things down. I think one of the great things for us was the housing industry was considered in the state of Ohio, as essential, and so, we were allowed to continue to work, which meant we were allowed to keep our models open, we were allowed to keep our teams out in the field building homes. And so, that was really a great thing for us, but immediately, we had to adjust. And when I say immediately, it was a Friday afternoon, everything is shutting down. We learned that we can stay open, but all of a sudden, there’s all the concern about how do you safely bring people into the community and keep them safe and keep our team safe? And so, we put all the restrictions in, we had hand sanitizer, we were getting it by the gallons. Oh, my gosh, yes, I still have two huge bottles. Thank goodness, I shouldn’t say, but some of the local companies that are great vodka distilleries were making hand sanitizer at that time, and we frequented them and are grateful for that.
So, the team we put in cleaning procedures, everybody masked up, and we continued to work. And so, it hit, I always say, it was right around St. Patty’s Day that all of a sudden you started to hear, okay, we’re not traveling right now, and the kind of conferences we’re going to Zoom. And so, about the first five weeks, we felt that impact in our traffic through the door. Our web traffic went up. Our online traffic really increased, but the people coming to your door decreased. We got the team engaged right away on how do you sell virtually, and so, we did that, which is you think about buying a home virtually, but the team became very adept at that, sold a number of homes without clients ever seeing the home.
Ed Siddell: Sight unseen.
Nanette Pfister: Sight unseen.
Ed Siddell: Wow. That’s awesome.
Nanette Pfister: We do it all virtually. Fortunately, we had been in a training program with our sales teams where they had been training via Zoom for over a year. So, they understood Zoom. So, they didn’t have to adapt to that. Now, we were getting our clients comfortable with Zoom. And then, about May, when we started to reopen, some restaurants and gyms, everything changed for us again. And the traffic picked up, the sales just continued to pick up. And we are just month over month, year after year hitting new records, and to the point, this year, where we are 36 sales away. I told the team this morning from hitting an all-time record for a corporate company and 100 over what we had projected in sales, so.
Ed Siddell: Congratulations, that’s awesome.
LeAnne Siddell: That is so great.
Nanette Pfister: It’s been a great year.
LeAnne Siddell: I mean, we hear so many stories. Not enough employees, they need people in the workforce. That’s exciting to hear. That’s exciting to hear.
Ed Siddell: So, I mean, has that impacted you at all as far as trying to find, not just people, but the right people?
Nanette Pfister: It has. Now, we’ve been very fortunate in our selling team to find and keep and retain the right people, but I think where it’s really impacted us is in the trades. We just don’t have them. And as an industry, we’re working to try to really bring more people into the trades. There’s great opportunity there. There’s a huge business future there. It’s getting the people through trade schools and getting them.
LeAnne Siddell: We’re finding that’s something that the discussions are happening at the high school level, a lot more than they ever did in the past. And I hope because we have family members who have gone into the trades and now, there are so few of them. You can’t find a plumber, you can’t find an electrician.
Ed Siddell: Yeah, I mean, my nephew went to college and actually, is an electrician. It’s crazy, the per hour, I mean, people tell us all the time, if we had a chance to do it all over again, they go right into the trades.
Nanette Pfister: Well, and it’s funny, I saw a little thing the other day, and it showed a gentleman all dressed perfectly in the suit and tie carrying his briefcase, young man, and it says, he’s an attorney, $250,000 in college debt, $130,000 a year in income. And then it showed a gentleman in the vest, that protective vest, and it said electricians $160,000 in income, no college debt.
LeAnne Siddell: That’s exactly.
Nanette Pfister: And I sit on the foundation board for our Central Ohio BIA or Building Industry Association. And so, we do scholarship funding every year and we love to see the applicants come in who are wanting to go into the trades. If they’re coming in and they are serious about going into a trade school, they earn a scholarship from us. I mean, we’d grant them scholarships.
Ed Siddell: You know what? That’s fantastic.
LeAnne Siddell: That’s a really… It’s smart.
Ed Siddell: And smart, too, at the same time because you’re kind of filling that empty void.
Nanette Pfister: Yes. We’re looking for them. Do they want to stay in Central Ohio because that’s where the funding is coming from? And do they want to go to the trades? And if they want to go to the trades and they want to stay in Central Ohio, we have resources for them.
LeAnne Siddell: That’s exciting that you guys are doing that because like I said, everybody helping everybody else to stay with the flow of staying busy in business because that’s where we’re finding…
Ed Siddell: Giving back to the community at the same time.
LeAnne Siddell: Yeah. We are finding that friends of ours that we’re supposed to have a house done in July, they’re now looking in February.
Nanette Pfister: I was just going to say they’re probably not going to be in for Christmas, are they?
Ed Siddell: No, no.
LeAnne Siddell: No. So, that’s why my question was basically going to be on how you’re managing, dealing with that because yes, the business is coming in the door, but everybody’s got an endgame, and they all want that time frame held to it, and that’s not going to happen right now, so.
Nanette Pfister: Yeah. And I think communication is the biggest key. And I always say, we’re going to get you in your home. We can’t guarantee when, we can’t guarantee that we will, but we think we’ve worked really hard to project out and we have a great team in our purchasing department and our construction team and that to find maybe more trades than we would normally have. And yet still, there are things that come at us every day that we’re having to kind of change on the fly, with a national window supplier, who all of a sudden says, I can’t get windows to you. And there, you sit and you can’t close the house with that. There’s only so far you can take the house until you can put windows in it.
Here, locally, the AAP doesn’t have transformers. And so, if you don’t have transformers in an area to hook electric to, then you can’t take electric to home, you can’t get an occupancy permit, you can’t move people in. So, there are little things that are big things, I guess, but they’re out of our control. So, it’s a lot of communication back and forth. We have great trade partners, we really do have great vendors, and then it’s communicating that back out to our clients to make sure that we keep them in the loop. And every Monday, they get an update from the sales team to say, this is where your home is and this is what we’re expecting.
LeAnne Siddell: Wow, that’s great.
Ed Siddell: Oh, it’s fantastic. Setting those expectations.
Nanette Pfister: Setting the expectations.
Ed Siddell: Yep, that’s key.
LeAnne Siddell: I mean, everything is connected. When you’re buying a new home, it’s usually connected to the selling of a home, and the transfer of cash is pretty important that you’re not…
Nanette Pfister: It is.
LeAnne Siddell: So, imagine you have, I don’t know, a plan in place, I guess, where people move into an apartment living is what they’re doing because those houses are selling fast.
Nanette Pfister: Yeah, a number of them are choosing to go into an apartment where before, a double move wasn’t something that they really wanted to go to. But they find now, get their homes sold, the market’s great, sell it while the market is where it is.
Ed Siddell: Sure.
Nanette Pfister: And move into temporary housing, and then others have the ability to just wait and make that shift at that time. And so, we have a bit of both, we have some greatly preferred lenders that we know the team works with and that really help our clients. And I think one of the things that has really resulted, or COVID has really been a catalyst for, is a movement of people to say, I was living three, four, five, six states away. I was on the other side of the country from my children and my grandchildren. And I don’t want to be that far away anymore because air travel might not be as easy.
Ed Siddell: No more procrastination. Oh, we’re going to do it. No, let’s just do it now.
Nanette Pfister: Yes. It really gave him permission to just pull the trigger and do that. And I think that’s a part of why we are as busy as we are.
Ed Siddell: So, before COVID and supply chain issues and all that, I mean, typically, how long was a build, and then compared to today?
Nanette Pfister: Contract to closing was five to six months.
Ed Siddell: Wow, that was pretty quick.
Nanette Pfister: That was pretty quick. Now it can be– I mean, there are some will get it six months, but many of them are eight, nine, ten months.
Ed Siddell: That’s still not too bad with everything going on.
Nanette Pfister: It’s not too bad. It isn’t.
LeAnne Siddell: How many additional communities you have under construction in the Columbus area right now?
Nanette Pfister: We have 10, and that’s the most we’ve ever had here in Columbus. And this year alone, I think we’ve added one. So, it came into the year with nine, and we’ve almost sold through several of them. So, right now, we’re sitting at 10, but…
LeAnne Siddell: We tried to look at them for my mom, it was like right out here.
Nanette Pfister: Yes.
Ed Siddell: I mean, it sold out right up here off of Avery.
Nanette Pfister: Oh, yes.
Ed Siddell: Well, I mean in months.
Nanette Pfister: In no time. But we’re not far from there, so she still needs…
Ed Siddell: Well, with all the supply chain issues and everything, I mean, is that the cost of materials? I mean, how has that affected everything?
Nanette Pfister: Cost of materials has been one of the things that’s been out of– I want to say out of control, but out of our control, and out of their controls, really out of everyone’s. So, we have been fortunate that we work with some great trades and suppliers. And then though we’ve had to take increases as the costs are going up and tried to anticipate as best as possible, try to secure pricing for what we could secure it for, and then just know that it’s still pretty fluid. And so, we have looked at more frequent increases than we maybe would have in the past to try to– it’s not even staying ahead of it, you’re just trying to stay up with it.
LeAnne Siddell: Yeah, it’s not like you’re trying to take advantage of anything. It’s just trying to make sure that you guys aren’t under water when this house eventually gets…
Nanette Pfister: That’s right.
Ed Siddell: Like you said, I mean, it’s ever-changing. At one point, lumber was over 10 times the cost.
Nanette Pfister: Yes.
Ed Siddell: I mean, it’s dropped a little bit, not much, but it has dropped a little bit.
Nanette Pfister: Right.
Ed Siddell: You’re talking about windows. You’re the third person I’ve heard in the last week talking about window issues. And now, I hear steel is kind of on a shortage, which was in a couple of months ago. And it’s ongoing.
Nanette Pfister: Yes. And COVID was one thing. And then they had resin, which you don’t realize how many things have resin as a part of them when they had that big freeze that went through Texas. What was it in the spring? It shut, it froze the resin plants. I mean, they were just done. And so, there you have. So you have COVID, then you have other things that come into place.
LeAnne Siddell: Well, that’s kind of what’s great about talking to you as our clients obviously will be focused on Epcon Communities and the downsizing, but it’s also bringing in a full circle your team, the team that you work with right now, how long have you had those people?
Ed Siddell: Yeah.
Nanette Pfister: We have a great team. Well, I’ve been on the team for almost 22 years.
Ed Siddell: Oh, wow.
Nanette Pfister: And so, a lot of our team members, our regional president has been with us, I think, over 25, pushing 30. We have sales consultants that have been with us three or four years, which is great. We have great longevity. I have team members in my sales department that have been 9, 10, 11 years in the department. And I think that’s another thing, our superintendents, we’ve had a pretty steady retainer of those. I mean, we’ve had good…
LeAnne Siddell: That’s what makes your brand strong.
Nanette Pfister: It is. It is. So, throughout the organization, it’s the same faces day after day, year after year.
Ed Siddell: Continuity, and one, that goes to give you guys credit the culture. I mean, obviously, people don’t stay 20, 22, 25-plus years if you don’t have a great team culture.
LeAnne Siddell: Even one year.
Nanette Pfister: Yeah, that’s true. Jump right when they can go anywhere, right? Yes, you’re right, or go nowhere, but you’re right. We haven’t seen that. What do they call The Great Resignation, we have not seen that as a company. And I think…
Ed Siddell: That’s fantastic.
Nanette Pfister: So, we’ve been fortunate that way. That culture, as you know, it’s extremely important. It really is everything.
Ed Siddell: It is, yeah.
Nanette Pfister: It really is everything. It all starts there.
LeAnne Siddell: Kind of one of the things that he focuses on that we talk a lot about here is processes. And I think those are kind of the tie-ins that we’re trying to get a little bit more of small business to understand the businesses that are succeeding and growing and changing, it’s not an item that doesn’t change over time, but those processes are so important at taking something from start to finish and making sure nothing gets dropped along the way. So, I think you guys are probably pretty…
Ed Siddell: Dialed in.
LeAnne Siddell: Yeah.
Nanette Pfister: Yes, we’re very process-oriented, and I know when I joined the company, that was 22 years ago, that was one of the things I kept hearing the owner say, processes, processes. And I can tell you, our sales team, they’re in training twice a week with a trainer that we’ve used now for two years. And that’s how they learned Zoom so efficiently. And so, they have a very specific process that they follow once a week. The sales coaches, the leaders are in the training also. So, there’s a very specific process that our team follows, and they know, stay with it because it’s the best end result for clients.
LeAnne Siddell: Exactly.
Nanette Pfister: Our construction team, they have processes that they follow. And we just find, and I think it is one of the reasons that we stay very focused on what we do on what our market is. We know our market is that right-sizing fire that person is looking for a low maintenance. We don’t stray from that because we know we’re really good at that and we can stay very focused, but if we tried, we dilute that, we lose our effectiveness.
Ed Siddell: So, what is your target audience?
Nanette Pfister: So, our target audience really is someone who’s looking for low maintenance. I’m not going to say, no maintenance, but just a low maintenance that they either are at a place in their life where they want to travel, they’ve done the yard work for years, and they are not interested in doing anymore. Or maybe they’re not able to do the yard work, or they’re busy, they’re busy professionals who say, I want to spend my free time doing yard work. I want to spend my free time with friends. I want to do the things I want to do on my weekends. And so, they’re a great client for us as well. We only have one community here in Columbus that’s actually age-restricted. I think that’s kind of the misnomer with a lot of people that we are fully age-restricted, and we’re not.
Ed Siddell: See, yeah, actually, that’s what we thought, too.
LeAnne Siddell: That’s what I’ve always tied Epcon to a 55 and older age bracket, and that’s great information.
Ed Siddell: Yeah, as soon as you said professional, I mean, it really kind of opens up the whole gamut because, yeah, there’s a lot of…
LeAnne Siddell: Yeah, I’m going to tell you that that younger professional doesn’t– I mean, to each his own on what they’re looking for, but your communities are set up very well for that, for those professional people as well. So, no, I think it’s exciting for me to watch how Epcon has grown. Again, I’ve been part of this community since I was eight, so we have watched Epcon come around, and originally, when it came out, it was like, that’s the optimal setting. Can you go over how your communities are structured because I know that it’s changed a little bit over the last 20 years?
Nanette Pfister: Sure. So, most of them are considered fee simple ownership, which is a little bit different than condominiums, so it’s fee simple. But you still have the services of lawn care, snow removal, those types of things. But you really own your home versus a condo you’re owning, you own more the contents that are within it. And most of them have a clubhouse and a swimming pool. Many of them have pickleball courts because that’s been a fun thing to watch on the rise. So, we’re big on looking for gathering areas, green spaces. We create gardens within then, making walkability easy. If you’re in Dublin, there’s miles and miles and miles of bike paths, so we want to work to connect to those. So, the idea really is that you can go work out at the community center. You can have parties there. You can enjoy the pool when the weather works, when the weather’s good. You can enjoy pickleball and all of that, and you can lock and leave your home when you want to.
LeAnne Siddell: And they have a specific superintendent that’s assigned to each one of the communities, or is it Epcon in general?
Nanette Pfister: They do. So, we have a superintendent who is assigned to build those homes in those communities. And then once we’re done, and I think this is one of the things that sometimes gets confusing to people, once we build a community out, we step out and we’ve established a property management company. The homeowners take over the association, so it’s fully resident-run because we’re no longer involved, it’s their home, it’s their community. And they can change their HOA company if they choose to, they can elect whoever they want for their board.
LeAnne Siddell: So, there’s a lot of controls.
Nanette Pfister: They have full control over it.
Ed Siddell: I mean, so you guys really are a developer, you’re developing, not just– I mean, it’s, I hate to say it, a lifestyle community, but that’s the only thing that’s really coming to mind for a very specific niche.
Nanette Pfister: Yes, it’s very much a quality of life decision, a lifestyle decision. Yes.
Ed Siddell: Well, so what sets you apart from other companies that do what you do?
LeAnne Siddell: Because I really only know a few guys. I’m not saying that but I…
Ed Siddell: I was going to say I was trying to think of one as you were talking, but I can’t even think of one here locally.
Nanette Pfister: One time, someone that worked in the building department or a zoning board had said, I just want Epcon, it’s like the Kleenex. It’s just the brand. And everybody’s desperate. And so, we were grateful for that. I think several of the things that set us apart, one, it is all we do. It is our focus, and that’s where our expertise lies. So, we really are experts in that. We invest a significant amount of money year over year over year in development and research. And so, we don’t put a product to market until based off what we think the market will want. We actually go and work with study groups, research groups, who go out and study and interview our target market, and they ask them what they want.
And then we take that to architects, and then they design it. So, we’re building what they’re asking for versus building something and then saying, “Well, we hope you like this.” It doesn’t matter what we think. It matters what the people who are going to purchase them and living in them want. So, I think that’s one of the things. Our quality is second to none, it really is. And I think that’s one of the things that surprises people when they come through our door, when they’ve not been in before, they’ll drive by, they’ve heard of us, but they’ve never stopped in. And when they stop in and see the homes, they’re just overwhelmed by the quality of construction and finishes. The finishes are beautiful. It’s a zero threshold entry, and I love that because not everybody who needs zero threshold is what we would call in in that retirement or senior age group. There are many people who need that barrier-free entrance into their homes.
LeAnne Siddell: And knowing that that’s an automatic, that’s something that you guys have as your standard.
Nanette Pfister: That’s right. That’s what you’re going to find when you come to us. And then, the other thing when you come in our homes is, we created quite a while ago what we call site courtyards. And so, they’re very private because you have a courtyard that really, most of your home surrounds. So, this outside is always being brought within your home, but it’s also private. You don’t see it from the street and you don’t see it from the back. It gives a lot of privacy to the homeowners. And so, I think that’s another, it’s certainly a unique piece, very unique to us.
LeAnne Siddell: Extremely unique. And that’s kind of why I’ve liked this conversation, not just on a business perspective on your processes and how your teams are constructed, but also, it gives our clients who are plugging in, looking at downsizing a whole different level of depth as to what Epcon is all about because…
Ed Siddell: Well, and we’ve heard firsthand, honestly, from clients who are with Epcon, what a great product.
LeAnne Siddell: Many of them have made the change in the last two years.
Ed Siddell: And some were happy that they did it before everything because…
Nanette Pfister: They have great equity.
Ed Siddell: Yeah.
Nanette Pfister: They have great equity, yes.
Ed Siddell: It’s crazy, and what it is.
Nanette Pfister: Yeah. And often what we hear is that we just made it too late. We should have done this when we first thought about doing it. Not that it’s too late, but they’ve just missed a couple of years of fun.
Ed Siddell: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Alright. So, how do people get in touch with you guys to learn more? I mean, how do they find you?
Nanette Pfister: Well, they can find us on the web at EpconCommunities.com, and they can slash Columbus because if they wanted to just see Columbus. We’re always in the dispatch. We love the dispatch and direct mail so they can look for our ads there as well, but probably, the best is just to go to the website, find our communities, and step out. We’re open, always open, almost 7 days a week in almost most communities. And so, it’s just great.
Ed Siddell: That’s awesome.
Nanette Pfister: They don’t need an appointment. They can come…
Ed Siddell: Just stop in.
Nanette Pfister: That’s right. We’re there.
Ed Siddell: That’s perfect.
LeAnne Siddell: Well, I really appreciate the time today.
Ed Siddell: Yeah, thanks Nanette, really.
Nanette Pfister: Thank you.
LeAnne Siddell: Actually, if you know of or have a small business that you would like us to learn a little bit more about, please reach out to us at EGSIFinancial.com because building a plan to avoid the anxiety of what comes next is what we’re all about here at EGSI. The plans that we put together for our small business owners, as well as for our clients, help them to avoid that anxiety. We’re looking to support and grow small businesses that made it through 2020. So, if you have one, or a success story you’d like us to learn more about, please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Give us a call at 614-526-4118. And thanks very much for your time, Nanette. I really appreciate it.
Ed Siddell: Yeah, thank you very much. I know how busy you are.
Nanette Pfister: You’re welcome. Thank you both. Thank you.