Backstory: The Wright Stuff

A Wichita family builder beats succession-planning odds and channels the signature modern style in the Midwest for a new generation.

Nie Homes, Prairie Style modernism

Nies Homes has ventured into contemporary design via Prairie Style modernism. (Photos: Shane Organ).

January 11, 2017

In 52 years, Wichita, Kan., builder Nies Homes has transformed from a man-led business, into a woman-led business, into a tight family business building new-style houses on the prairie that have visitors saying, “I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” 

The matriarch of Nies (pronounced “Nees”) is Cherie Nies-Cowgill, 58, who took over day-to-day control from her father, family patriarch and founder Clifford Nies, about a decade and a half ago and has already beaten the family-business succession odds. According to Forbes magazine, only a third of family businesses make it to the second generation. Nies has its third generation now transitioning into control.

Nies-Cowgill recalls her father coming to her and saying that he was tired of making all the decisions. He also told her that if she didn’t want to take over the business, he would shut it down. “It just seemed a shame,” Nies-Cowgill says. “In this industry, it takes a lot to get the equity built up. I had two boys in high school and I told [my father] I would love to keep the business running until they got out of high school and decided if they wanted to go into the business.”

The busy mother of four went back to work part time, selecting the interior treatments for the company’s spec homes. She didn’t have to worry about management or construction at first; a nonfamily member was doing that at the time. But when the construction manager quit, Nies-Cowgill stepped up and totally took over the business. 

It was a little scary, she recalls. “But I had my dad’s counsel, and my father and I think alike. I was the main person running it, designing the homes and doing the up-front decision-making, and he was supporting me. It was awesome.” 

Nies-Cowgill also received other helpful advice from builders of similar size around the country by joining NAHB’s Builder 20 Club. “It was an amazing support for me,” she says.

Design, a passion for Nies-Cowgill, led her to make what some may consider a radical move in the relatively traditional Wichita market. With some urging and help from a colleague, Phil Kean—a member of her Builder 20 Club and the designer of the New American Home 2017—she rolled out a modern-style home on the prairie, inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s famed modernist style. It had some modifications, however. For example, the roof wasn’t flat because that didn’t conform to neighborhood architectural guidelines.

Everyone in the family was on board with the new concept, despite the possible risk in a traditional market. Even patriarch Clifford, then in his 80s, championed the design with its Prairie-style modernism. The house drew praise from visitors, and Nies-Cowgill has four or five customers interested in building a version of the home. The old style appeals to younger buyers, she says. Her son Curt built a modern farmhouse, and son Nick is looking to build a modern design home, too. “They don’t want a home that looks like their parents’,” Nies-Cowgill says. “They want their own statement, their own style.”

As the company transitions to the third generation, the family has prepared by attending family business forums at the local university where families work through bringing the next generation into the business. “The key is that each one of us has our talents, our own areas of competency,” Nies-Cowgill says. And fun is important, too. The family works hard together and plays hard together, too.

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