Still on the sunny side of 40, Matt Dill recalls the words of wisdom imparted by his communications professor at the University of Iowa, where he earned a degree in business: "Communicating means listening, not talking."
"I remember that when I'm with clients," says Dill, president of Burr Ridge-based Beechen & Dill Homes Inc. "What they need and want is what matters, not what I need and want." As a home builder, Dill has to listen to more groups of people than many of his Hawkeye business-school peers do. In addition to his buyers, he has to listen to attorneys, mayors, land planners, staff and subcontractors.
Founded in 1972 by Dill's father, Gerald, a civil engineer, and Paul Beechen, an accountant, the company has been a land developer and builder in Batavia, Burr Ridge, Clarendon Hills, Lockport, Naperville, Oak Forest, Orland Park and Romeoville. While many of its competitors succumbed to the recession, Beechen & Dill sold 40 houses in 2008. Its current semi-custom house developments are Misty Ridge in Romeoville, where prices start at $289,990, and Creekside Estates in Lockport, where houses begin at $384,990. Since 2003, the company has also been building custom houses on teardown lots.
Its typical buyer, says Dill, is the move-up family or empty nester. "Instead of 'up-size' or 'down-size,' we say 'right-size,' " says Dill. "Today's buyer wants a house that has no wasted space. Part of it is the economy. They want to get the most for their money. Part of it is energy-efficiency; they don't want to heat and cool rooms they won't use."
Compared to his father's buyers, Dill says, today's buyers know their building products. "They don't just tell us, 'I want good windows.' They tell us, 'I want low-e windows,'" he says.
To that end, Dill designated his director of construction, who is a National Association of Home Builders-certified green professional, the company's "green guru." "He keeps track of all the new, green products and practices for us," says Dill.
In 2008, the company became the first Illinois builder to be certified by MASCO Home Services' "Environments for Living" program, which rates builders' degrees of eco-friendly building practices. "It gives the buyer a third-party guarantee that our houses are built with tight construction, fresh-air ventilation, and with energy-efficient appliances, HVAC equipment and lighting," says Dill. In addition to reviewing the floor plan, inspecting the house while it is under construction and checking its ducts for air gaps, MASCO conducts a blower-door test to check for holes in the house's envelope, says Dill.
Today's houses are so much more energy-efficient than their predecessors, says Dill, that they turn some "old-house people into new-house people." That is, some buyers cherish the charm of older houses but dislike their drafty interiors and high energy bills. So it is Dill's job, he says, to inject the charm into new houses. Popular among his buyers are distressed flooring, oil-rubbed bronze hardware, carriage-style garage doors and glazed cabinetry. Yet, says Dill, buyers want their houses to be as high-tech as they are homey.
Although the company's two-story houses are its bread and butter, ranches are growing in popularity, both among empty nesters and young families. "But these are not your mother's or grandmother's ranches," says Dill. "They have open floor plans, vaulted ceilings and big master bedrooms. And ranch buyers like that they have huge basements that they can finish for more space."
Taking the company reins in 2003 was the logical next step for Dill, who learned to drive a Bobcat before he learned to drive a car. In addition to the skills he acquired by working construction during his high school and college summers, Dill says he is equipped with the right temperament for the job. "I'm very even-keeled," he says. "That enables me to deal with all the conflicts of this business and the frustrations when there are delays."
Dill's own house in Orland Park is his working laboratory, where he tries new products.
Having survived the 1980-83 recession, Dill's father said in a '85 Tribune article, "We survived the slump because we had staying power. Unlike some of our competitors, we encountered no cash-flow problems because we weren't overextended. . . . The shakeout is now taking place. Beechen & Dill will be one of the survivors."
Now, Dill says his generation is poised to survive the current recession. In addition to remaining solvent, Dill says his plan is to one-up his competition with green features and by keeping the "location, location, location" real estate axiom in mind when buying land. In addition to its three- and 11-month whole-house warranties, Beechen & Dill recently added a 10-year structural warranty to its houses.
"Dad was right when he said, 'Do sweat the details — until you are blue in the face, in fact,' " says Dill. "I can't control the economy or city council but I can make sure we are building better houses than our competitors. I'm very optimistic. I came into this business during a boom time. Now, it's reality-check time."
After this recession shakes out another round of home builders, Beechen & Dill, he says, plans to emerge as a survivor — again.