John Jennings of Peak Builders has built not one but two homes for Phil Stevenson. The first Phil and his wife Betsy bought in Indian Trails and had John, the original builder, renovate. When a fire claimed their beloved house, they turned to John and once again, he impressed them as a person and a craftsman. Now friends, they share top clients and life milestones: Phil hired John’s fiancé as his first employee and then attended their wedding, even offering the Stevenson home as a venue for their big day. Needless to say, the two maintain a close working relationship built on a strong foundation of trust and integrity.
Recently Phil sat down with John to talk about his long and storied career in Jackson Hole Realestate development:
Phil: Being a broker is all about adding value for your clients. When a client is considering purchasing a piece of land, they want to know who we would recommend to design and construct a house for them. Of if it’s a renovation, they come to us for recommendations. John is at the very top of our recommended contractor’s list. We have recommended John and Peak Builders to multiple clients and they have been very happy. My job, as a broker, is to add value, not just shuffle paper. Some brokers are reluctant to make recommendations because of liabilities. We feel like that is part of our job. We have worked together on three or four homes. Here’s a good story about one of those homes: We were representing a client looking for a property several years ago. We found a gorgeous piece of property but the house was tired. The client said, “I love the property, but I need to be assured that I can build my dream house when the time comes.” We consulted an architect and checked with the county and determined that could be done, and introduced the client to John and his team. They purchased the house. John and his team renovated the kitchen and bath.
John: We dressed it up inside: we redid the carpets, painting, the bathrooms. We made it liveable to their standards for a little while.
Phil: Then, last year, they had an architect move on with drawings for the house.
John: We tore down a little barn that was there and put the foundation in for a man cave with a gym, and renovated the guest house on the property. And then last year, we started the main house. It has been a great project, great clients. We would have never have met them if Phil had not brought us in on the original idea of facilitating this niche that a lot of people are missing in the real estate world: Bring an architect and contractor in while clients are looking to give them ideas and estimates. It helps them with their due diligence work.
Phil: This is part and parcel of what I do because for 30 years, I was a commercial developer. It’s in my DNA to involve an architect and contractor. It’s a good client service.
John: It works out well. It’s been great for us. We’ve met some great people through Phil, and I, in turn, introduce you to some of my clients.
Phil: John built a very nice house in HHR. He introduced us to the homeowner who was thinking about developing a rental program. We subsequently signed them up, and they remain a client. Just yesterday: we were working with a client who was looking to buy a house with particular requirements. One house was very, very close, but didn’t quite meet all of her requirements. So I called up John and said, “Could you or one of your guys meet me up at the house and help me through this?” This was on two hours’ notice. So John sent his right-hand man up there. I got an architect to come too. We figured out a way to make the house accommodate the client. In the meantime – John, you don’t know this – we showed the client a gorgeous piece of property with huge Teton views. She got really excited about that. Today, we put that piece of property under contract.
John: You did? That’s spectacular.
Phil: It’s a symbiotic relationship. John had one of his guys drop whatever he was doing and help me out with this house.
John: Which we do all the time. We do whatever we can to go over and help Phil. We have a great friendship and relationship in that respect.
Phil: In that instance, the structure didn’t end up being the one the client purchased, but John’s crew was very helpful. I’ve got a good memory so when that client asks for my recommendation of a contractor, it’ll be John. It’s helping each other to better help our clients. John, you’ve got an interesting background, if “interesting” is the right word. Tell about your surfer boy days.
John: I grew up on Maui and California. I was a surfer and started at a young age with carpentry, summer work and such. I wanted to live in a ski town and leave the world I was in at the time which was a little too much excess. I was 17 years old; it was 1985. I was going to hitchhike and was thinking about Squaw Valley but then I heard about Jackson Hole – this place nobody was skiing, so I hitchhiked out here. I lived in a teepee and did what I could for work. I built a lifestyle here, fell in love with it. I went back out to California for a little while and came back with the mother of my kids in 1989. My son was born in 1990. I always had ambition, so I started my business in 1992 doing remodels, decks, fences, laying wood floors – whatever I could. By the mid-90s, we were starting to build a portfolio of reasonable homes. By the end of the decade, we were well-established in Jackson Hole as a custom home building company.
Phil: In Jackson, unlike in Atlanta where I come from, there are not mass producers of homes. We don’t have any neighborhoods where people put up spec homes. Virtually all of the nice homes are built by pretty small shops like John’s where the owner will typically be finishing up a project while another one is starting and one or two more are in the estimating phase.
John: That’s exactly it. My job is to stay at large and be out at the sites. I finish off the projects – that’s an important part of the Peak Builder name.
Phil: John’s not above putting on a tool belt and swinging a hammer.
John: I do it all the time. Of course, the essence of our business is quality – everybody says that, but ours truly is. We try and represent quality the best we can.
How do The Clear Creek Group and Peak Builders complement one another both in the types of businesses you run and the types of clients you serve and ultimately the types of projects you work on together?
Phil: We are both relatively small.
Phil: We are both relationship-oriented. It is far more important to have a successful relationship than to make a nickel on a given day. We both take a long-view of things. We both get a lot of clients referred by existing, satisfied clients. The emphasis that John mentioned and is particularly proud of (rightly so) is on quality. We have quality homes in our portfolio that are well taken care of.
John: We are dealing with a certain type of client: clients with a high-standard who know what they want. Because it is relationship-based, we usually stay friends with all of our clients afterwards. I think that is really important in this day and age. Quality in performance whether it’s in our construction or The Clear Creek Group’s direction and execution of how they handle a home. Personally, I think TCCG is as high-end as you can get for a property management and property rental firm. I know this not just through Peak Builders but also my personal relationship with Phil and Betsy and my wife working for the firm. I was going around with her a lot to see how the homes were being handled. I saw how the operations went and I was very impressed.
Phil: Another differentiator for John – there is a threshold for contractors: you’ve got to be a good builder. John has a particular emphasis on quality, but there’s something else he does that not many contractors do. John has what my wife Betsy would say is a “good eye.” He will come up with creative solutions and suggestions on how a structure can be built with a better outcome for less money. Sometimes that’s aesthetic and sometimes that’s structural. John is very good at working in a team environment with the client and the architect. The objective is not to have the prettiest building or cheapest building, but to have the best building however the client might value best.
John: It’s true. I’ll lose money before I turn a house over not done to our standards.
Phil: And you studied architecture, right?
John: I did – in San Luis Obispo. We are a very in-house company. We do our own excavation, cabinetry, painting, all of our own carpenters. We have a well-facilitated company.
Phil: A lot of contractors sub that out.
John: We are one-of-a-kind company in Jackson Hole in terms of the things we truly do in-house. This is a fact: we have more collective tenure of any company in Jackson. Nobody can add up to our amount of years collectively. I have some of the people that have been with me since the early 90s and most have been with me since the late 90s.
Phil: His crew was so good in doing our house that my wife Betsy – who is also a partner in the firm and sort of a dear heart – would take it upon herself to get the guys pizza.
John: She was awesome. We love Betsy. She’s one of the best homeowners ever.
Phil: To the detriment of job efficiency.
John: I know! It upset me sometimes, but my crew sure loved it. I’d say, “You guys are on break again?!” And they’d respond, “Well, she started it!” Speaking of job efficiency, I’ve built pretty much everywhere in the valley. We are currently building three projects, all over $5 million homes, one over $10 million. We try and do it in a progression. We never start two jobs at once. We do have to do things with an overlap. We have the right crews on each one to facilitate the work. We have been turning down jobs this year. We will not over-stack our load. Only if we can staff it properly and have the proper management. One thing you learn in almost a quarter century of having your own business is how not to do business. You learn tricks along the way. Paperwork is a big one. Our presentations are well accepted by everybody. We strive to get better each time we set out.
Can you describe your ideal client?
Phil: We like clients who are intelligent, decisive. Clients who will listen. We both think we bring value to the table. That’s not to say a client will always do what we recommend, but we like a client who listens. We like a client who is responsive: Tell me yes, tell me no, tell me something.
John: Indecisiveness is one of the biggest killers. I love it when they are to the point, one way or another.
Phil: The very best clients are appreciative. That’s not a prerequisite. It’s gratifying when someone is appreciative.
John: That’s a big one, a big fuel – getting a pat on the back. A client letting you know you are doing a good job, for me and for anyone who cares about what they do, that means a lot. It carries the weight and allows you to be happy with the artistic and creative things you do. There’s nothing worse than a client being disappointed.
Phil: A client who trusts you. You have to earn their trust, but once you do, the client implicitly knows that what you are telling them is from the heart and as true as it can get.
Would you define your proximity to one another as a collective competitive advantage?
Phil: From my standpoint, absolutely. From the client’s perspective – the property buyer – they have a need that is impacted by the construction process either new construction or renovation or some combination. To be able to, as I did two days ago, pick up the phone and at two hours’ notice to have a heavy-hitter show up at the job site, that’s impressive to the client. It’s not just me, there are people I believe in and work with who I can bring to the table to their benefit.
John: Our offices are in town as well. We can drop whatever we are doing when Phil calls. One of us is always able to jump out and help Phil.
Phil: Partially born of friendship and partially born of professional common sense. You help somebody out and they help you out.
John: We are really happy. It’s a great relationship for us. It’s always been more than business with Phil.
Phil: In a small town like this, that’s really important because your company people are everywhere.