Not your father’s building company

This next-gen leader is using her research and analysis to lead Kimberley Development into its most profitable years

Front exterior view of Modern Craftsman house

To meet current tastes, Kimberley Development is adding contemporary and transitional elevations to its usual selection of traditional Craftsman homes (Photo: Mirza Kudic).

March 20, 2020

The construction industry is notorious for its reactivity rather than proactivity, says Jenna Kimberley, vice president of Kimberley Development, in Ankeny, Iowa. “Some of it is out of our hands, like the weather, but some of it is just lack of process.” Developing systems and replicable processes has been Kimberley’s biggest challenge and her biggest success as she takes over leadership of the company her father began 42 years ago.

Jenna Kimberly portraitOriented

One process is selection. When Kimberley began working at the company in 2014, clients made selections during multiple appointments in the company showroom after the build was underway. The client coordinator recorded client selections with pencil and paper, then emailed each subcontractor and supplier individually on multiple selection sheets. “Clients would change their selections many times between meetings, subcontractors would have old information, and the original selection would get installed. The field would have to halt the build schedule while waiting on client selections. It caused expensive delays in construction, required reordering materials, and we had to eat the cost of those wrong orders,” Kimberley says.                        Jenna Kimberley, VP of Kimberley Development (Photo: Ben Lochard)

She consolidated selections onto one check-the-box Excel form that clients sign before orders are placed. The number of meetings was reduced from many to one. “The form has evolved further over the years and is even more customer-friendly and easier to follow now,” Kimberley says. “And the problem of subcontractors and suppliers not having the most current information has been solved by selections being uploaded to a builder software platform that they all have access to, instead of being sent over numerous emails that are hard to keep track of.”

Bringing Her Toolkit

Kimberley’s interest in the construction industry began, as it does for many in the business, because she grew up around it. Her father, Bill Kimberley, ran his custom-building company from a home office when Jenna was a little girl. Even then she was business-conscious, she says. “I swept the floors and gathered used nails at jobsites to save them for the framers to reuse. I thought I was helping the company save money.” In high school, she worked for her father’s real estate lawyer and wanted to become an attorney.

But after studying business and Spanish, Kimberley graduated from the University of Iowa with Honors in 2009 and moved to New York City to work for the nonprofit Urban Green Council, where she earned her LEED Green Associate certification and learned the basic principles of sustainability within the green building movement.

Modern kitchen with driftwood-like cabinetsTo minimize change orders, when it comes to selections, Kimberley Development has consolidated the process into one check-the-box Microsoft Excel form that clients sign before orders are placed. This kitchen marries traditional and contemporary styles, incorporating elements from both. The driftwood appearance of the Waypoint Living Spaces cabinet fronts brings texture to the neutral kitchen (Photo: Mirza Kudic).

At the urging of friends, she headed next to Washington, D.C., to interview at the U.S. Green Building Council, where she was offered a job. Yet, before she even started, fate intervened, and she was hired to work for a subcontractor in communications analysis for the intelligence industry. Although she liked the work and excelled at it, she wasn’t sure that’s where she wanted to build her career.

When her father called in 2014 to say he wanted to cut back his hours and look toward retirement, she thought she could “positively impact his company and set it up to continue in his absence.” She moved back to Iowa with the goal of taking the knowledge she’d gained from her work experience and applying it to helping her father organize and systematize what was then a $20 million custom and luxury spec home business with 15 employees. She’d become adept at analysis, she says, “utilizing data to analyze the market, housing statistics, trends, government regulations, zoning, and code changes.”

During her first two years, Kimberley rotated through various positions “learning how we do things and finding ways to do them better, more efficiently, and with more processes in place,” she says. In 2016, her father made her vice president and immediately left for six months to enjoy better weather in Florida. “It was a bit of trial by fire,” she says.

Change Management

Within three years, Kimberley had hired a completely new, eager, innovative, and process-oriented team. “We’re taking everything in my dad’s head and making it into processes and systems to ensure our product is top-quality. We want homeowners to feel as if my dad himself was walking into their home,” she says.

Kimberley adds that only a few people were laid off in the process. “Ultimately, long-time employees self-selected out as we changed the way the company had always done things,” she says. She began tracking key metrics such as build time, implemented Buildertrend software, and put in place measures for accountability and quarterly goals. “Change is always hard,” she says, “and sentiment around that varied within the company.”

Bath with shower and tub comboFor this custom home, Kimberley’s on-staff designers created an open shower concept. The color scheme creates a sense of calm serenity (Photo: Mirza Kudic).

To make the changes smoothly, they were implemented gradually over time. For example, it took three years for the Buildertrend rollout, and Kimberley got buy-in from employees by making it a “process of give and take” with staff providing input on process improvements. The pace of change kept employee morale high, she adds.

New divisions for production, government contracting, and commercial projects were also added. Kimberley now delegates the home building side to others on the 25-person staff (which includes two designers) while she focuses on land development. The company develops most of its own lots but also sells lots to other home builders throughout the greater Des Moines metro area. Lots are usually located in master planned communities of 120 acres or more. The company focuses on luxury homes and usually builds a high-end spec home in every development it works in. For marketing purposes, Kimberley says, they furnish the homes with high-end finishes for people to experience the home as they walk through. They have at least 15 developments in the Des Moines metro area, from farm communities to larger suburbs. “We diversify so we have something for everyone,” she says.

In 2017, Kimberley led the company to its most profitable year in business, with $31 million in revenue and more than 100 closings.

New-Home Trends

When Kimberley came on board, the company was known for very traditional Craftsman homes with elaborate woodwork and trim. “Those have stood the test of time and are classic,” she says. But, recently, modern farmhouse, transitional, and more contemporary styles are on the rise in the Midwest, and the company is responding in kind with a more modern product that’s 3,200 to 5,200 square feet and sells for $560,000 to $1.3 million, depending on finishes.

Running a business that does both production and custom work has its challenges, but Kimberley says the company has become lean and efficient on the production side. “We try to model some of that on the custom side with scheduling and the punch list and quality-control list,” she says, but acknowledges, “when it comes to timing and details, it’s much more difficult to run custom builds the same way. As a custom builder, you have to be able to adapt and change over time.”

Kimberley is a big proponent—as her father was—of recruiting, training, and hiring women. Half of Kimberley Development’s staff are women. The company hosts an annual skilled trades construction camp for girls between the ages of 10 and 16, and Kimberley herself is active in the local home builders’ association. She was recently elected second vice president of the HBA of Greater Des Moines, marking the first time in history that an HBA has an all-woman leadership team.

Kimberley says there’s hope for the construction industry when it comes to employing women, and points out that women in construction earn 92 cents on the dollar compared with their male counterparts. “That’s leading our country in closing the wage gap,” she says. “While we have a long way to go to see women equally represented in our industry, the road was paved by the foresight of leaders of previous generations. I aim to honor that and increase the trajectory of what’s possible for women in the skilled trades.” 

Stacey Freed covers design and the built world from her home in New York state.

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