Olivia Clarke Homes: The Origin Story Is A Story Of Resilience
A story from homebuilding's well of resiliency may always be there if you look for it, but today especially – against a global backdrop of fear, doubt, and uncertainty – we're glad for this one about Olivia Clarke Homes' founder Jennifer Clarke Johnson.
Resilience is about springing back, about weathering life on life's terms, and – having done so – learning to thrive.
A story from homebuilding's well of resiliency may always be there if you look for it, but today especially – against a global backdrop of fear, doubt, and uncertainty – we're glad for this one.
Jennifer Clarke Johnson's story of founding and building up a Dallas-area homebuilding company in the depths of early-2020 Covid panic is one of resiliency, hope, and expectations set free of hide-bound rules that homebuilding and its power, vision, and leadership reside with men alone.
To say the Olivia Clarke Homes story – sparked and given real-world, real-time business impact and customer embrace by Jennifer Clarke Johnson – defies all odds would be untrue, as is so often the case for wagers against the kind of character, resolve, and fearlessness woven tight into the double-helices of homebuilders' DNA. Homebuilders' founder stories so often inspire and they motivate and they speak frequently of nearly boundless human resiliency. Jennifer Johnson's story should not, then be so rare and exceptional, but it is. Still, looking at her pathway, the dues she paid, the wisdom she gained through the hours and years and ladder-rungs of experience, it would mislead to say that she's gotten where she is against all odds.
Improbable? Yes. Painstaking? Yes. A thrash all the way. Yes.
For someone for whom homebuilding got its grip on her during college in the early 1990s, and who spent the following 25 years immersed in learning, growing, and gaining mastery in the 26-or-so "skills" that are the bedrocks to homebuilding strategy and operations, starting a company when she did felt like a natural progression.
I've been in the homebuilding industry since I was 17 years old," Jennifer Clarke Johnson tells us. "When I was a senior in college I got a part-time job for a local family company and that turned into internships every summer during college and that turned into a job out you know, right out of college and so really started at the bottom, sweeping the floors, so to speak."
In many ways, the rest is history, although not so much for many women, a fact Jennifer Clarke Johnson is acutely aware of.
During one of her stints in the 2000s, after about a decade of learning the ropes in sales, construction, and land development for tightly-knit family companies Goodman Homes and Sotherby Homes, a land acquisition director's position opened up.
At that time, [current director of Land Acquisitions at Historymaker Homes] Paige Shipp was the only woman in land acquisitions in our market," Johnson recalls. "I became the second one, but only because I asked for the job. When my boss left, and the question came up about finding his successor, I said, 'Why can't I have the job? I've been doing it, and he groomed me to do this. I know everything about it. I can do this job.' They looked at each other as though that possibility never occurred to them. So I struck a deal and said give me six months, and let me prove to you I can do it. And then once I do prove it, you can start paying me for it."
And they did. And then, for a seven-year patch, as director of sales and land acquisitions at Shaddock Homes, Johnson struck another deal, this time with founder-owner Peter Shaddock.
The company was smaller in 2013, when I got there, only 100 homes a year," Johnson says. "That job was a big growing experience for me. Mr. Shaddock challenged me, saying, 'I want to grow the company larger.' So I said, 'The way I see the path forward is to evolve away from 65% custom or semi-custom homes on large lots. We have to do a whole new product, a new division, and go for smaller lots, production homes, little-or-no changes.' He said, 'Okay, go do it.' We developed all the product specifications and got it off the ground. When I left there, they were doing 500 homes a year, and probably 85% to 90% of their business now is that division that we started. That was fun and fulfilling to be able to do that and I learned so much there. It's a great organization, and Peter and I still have an excellent relationship."
As is often the case in America's homebuilding business culture, Shaddock Homes is a family-centric business, so any non-family-member up-and-comer is going to come to a point of hard decisions about leadership, and value-generation, and the full-satisfaction of an entrepreneurial drive.
So, here was the genesis impulse that resulted in Olivia Clarke Homes, which is currently selling homes out of five communities in Dallas' northern suburbs. What follows are a series of excerpted responses Jennifer Clarke Johnson gave in an in-depth conversation with The Builder's Daily.
The Origin Story
I had reached the ceiling of what I was going to be able to do at Shaddock, simply because it is a family-owned business," says Johnson. "And I'm very respectful of that – I'm not family. So I was looking for another opportunity because I'm just one of those people who always want to do more and learn and grow. I wasn't looking to start a homebuilding company never dreamed of that, but an opportunity came up to partner with a land development company that had a built-in supply of lots. They were already in the market, selling lots to all the other builders out there. So, I stumbled on the idea. It took a while to decide whether I wanted to do it and figure out how we would capitalize the company. So we just started dreaming and realized we could do it. I know 2020 would not seem like a great year to start a venture. It wasn't easy. But you know, we've all heard the phrase, 'opportunity only strikes once.' That was a pivotal moment in my life where I knew we do this now or we're never going to have this chance again. Because this doesn't come around every day. So really, God gave me peace about the decision and we moved forward. I quit my job without any of the capital raised and went out to raise the capital and get that done. And so thankfully we were able to do what was not easy to do and 2020."
Why Olivia Clarke Homes?
I have two children in college and my son's middle name is Clarke, which is also my maiden name. And my daughter's middle name is Olivia. And we could not decide on a name. I didn't want my name in the name of the company. So someone on our marketing team just said what are your kids' middle names? And I said, Clarke and Olivia, and they're like, Well, what about Olivia Clarke Holmes?
In 2020, when I was trying to set up accounts, with a window supplier or a brick manufacturer, the last thing they needed was another piece of business. They couldn't even fulfill the orders that they had, but because of our reputation in the marketplace, they took our business and said, 'Jennifer, we believe in what you're doing, and we want to help and see you succeed.'
So it started with great relationships like that. They rallied behind us because they thought it was unique to be a woman-owned and woman-led company. And apparently, I guess they liked me as a person in lifestyle. I've done business all these years and they were just very supportive of what we were doing. So there are so many people that I'll just always be grateful for because they didn't need my business. Kind of like you're so full at the table if you have one more bite you're gonna get sick. That's probably how they felt. But they were kind enough to do that.
I will say the market – both from the consumer, which is the most important, and our contemporaries – has reacted well to the brand and to the name. From the consumer standpoint, they're very intrigued. They're like, Who is Olivia? And is this a woman? This must be a woman-owned company. But then they walk in our homes and they say, 'oh, I can totally tell a woman designed this home. And my team will say, 'tell me why.' The response: 'Well, it's functional. I can live in this townhome because everything is exactly where I would have put it had I designed it myself. There's a place for everything. There's abundant storage. It all makes sense. You walk in and it just makes sense.'"
Paying It Forward
I've received so much support from our builder, developer, and lending community here in Dallas. We are a very tight-knit community. A lot of men I've worked with for years and years have looked at their daughters going to college and they're saying 'What do you want to do, sweetie?' Well, Hey, Dad, I want to do what you do.' And Dad gets pretty uncomfortable in his chair and goes, 'Well, gosh, I don't know if you would get an opportunity to be successful like I am. Because they don't see anybody successful.' We've raised our daughters to believe they can do whatever; work hard and achieve anything. But then they look around in our own field and say, 'I don't see it. There aren't any women doing what I do, sweetie. This is going to be an uphill battle for you.' In the past couple of years they've come along and said, 'Jennifer, we think this is great because my daughter wants to be involved in this business. But I don't see a clear path for her. So we see you as blazing that trail.' They have been so very supportive for that reason alone. That's a big motivation for me – for the next generation to just have a fair shot."
Resiliency At Work
I love any opportunity I can to inspire or to mentor or just be a word of encouragement to other women who may be apt to say, 'nope, it's not for me.' I just always wanted the opportunity to succeed. If I'm the best person for the job, I just want to be considered for the job or have an opportunity. Like my first land position where I wasn't even considered because I wasn't a man. It's getting better these days, to have it matter less what gender we're looking at. We really just want the best person for the job.
And if I'm not it, that's fine. I'll go work harder. But I just want to have the same opportunity for success. And so I think I've realized how important representation is I had not really realized that before or given it the credence because I hadn't experienced it personally. But I think for other women to see a woman in a leadership position, succeeding in this role has very much helped.
When people ask, 'how did you do it? How can we do what you did?' It's not rocket science. It's just waking up and working hard every day. You know, and not being afraid to ask for that position in a respectful way.
I do anything I can do to encourage others. I love to give back in that way."
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