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A Cup of Coffee with...Ed Zeman, Zeman Homes

A Cup of Coffee with...Ed Zeman, Zeman Homes

coffee-50Who, What and Where: (Your name and your formal title at Zeman Homes and where your company is based).

Edward Zeman, Chairman, Zeman Homes, Chicago, IL.

2) Background: (Educational/Professional snapshot before entering the factory-built housing arena).

Graduated from Eastern Illinois University on a Saturday in June of 1988, went to work full time the following Monday in June of 1988 for my father here at Zeman Homes.  

EdZemanZemanHomesCommunities-postedMHProNews-com3) When and How: (When and how you began with in manufactured housing).

I began working maintenance at one of our communities in high school in 1983.  I collected rent, planted trees, trimmed trees, painted electric pedestals, swept streets, poured concrete, installed water and sewer lines, set homes, rodded sewers - you name it, I pretty much have done it in the MHC business.

4) What are your personal interests or hobbies? How do you like to spend non-work time?

I enjoy working on our family hobby farm with my children, reading, exercising and playing the bagpipes.

5) As a privately held family business, let's start with some history for Zeman Homes. You're firm has been around for decades.  Please provide a snapshot of your company's history in communities and home sales, and what you think explains your amazing longevity in this industry would be of interest to our readers.

My father (Bud Zeman) purchased our first community in 1983. Our philosophy was to buy one or two communities each year with the intent of holding them for the long term.

We have owned as many as 50 communities with approximately 13,000+ sites. We have always reviewed our goals and strategies and made adjustments when we felt they were needed.

Not every community we purchased made sense for our long term goals so we would routinely sell some communities to realign our portfolio.

We started our home sales company in1987 to insure our properties stayed full.  Zeman Homes has consistently been one of the Top Dealers in the State of Illinois for the last 20 years.

6) While Zeman is one of the larger organizations of its kind in the U.S., there are thousands of MH Pros who don't know much about your firm's size and scope. Please tell us about the company today; how many sites, communities, the numbers of homes you rent and sell - give us the scoop!

We own, operate and manage 40 communities with approximately 10,000 home sites, in 6 states. We have over time increased our sales/leasing on a yearly basis to our current levels of approximately 800 new and used homes per year.

7) Zeman communities have a reputation for being clean, well run and maintained. That creates curb appeal, but it doesn't happen without enforcing guidelines for living.  For those who 'don't get it' about the benefits of land lease - and why good and properly encircled guidelines are part of success - please explain that concept.

I think at the core of it, was our core belief that we did not want to own something if we were not proud of it, as well as our belief that you never get a second chance to make a good first impression.

If we wanted to not only maintain, but increase our occupancy we had to create company policies, standards and daily practices that showed our team what we expected.

Daily sweeps with checklists, community standard guidelines, site inspections, etc. are all useful tools in ensuring the curb appeal you desire. We also tied these practices to our Top Goals and staff bonuses, so the entire Team knew what we considered our top priorities.

8) To oversimplify, word has it that your family began early on buying smaller communities clustered fairly close, before moving onto to buy larger ones.  Frank and Dave at so-called Mobile Home U have done something similar.  Would you like to shed light on the benefits this approach has yielded to your firm?

Our desire to “stay close to home” and our dislike of business travel were key factors in our “clustering plan.”  There is something nice about looking at a property and being home in time for dinner.

But as in all things, strategies change and at this time we are aggressively expanding beyond our “backyard” and realigning our portfolio.

9) Even after the last great downturn of 2008, Zeman not only weathered the storm, but you've acquired additional assets.  Please give us a sense of those developments, and what you see as its significance and lessons learned for MH Pros.

The “great recession” was a scary time for everyone (if I remember correctly, "the world was going to end").  We have never felt like we were in competition with our friends in the industry; we all have different models that work for each of us.  When we look at a community and we like it, we buy it, what works for us might not work for our friends and vice versa.

8) Zeman is heavily involved in trade shows such as Louisville.  Please share some insights into your philosophy of trade shows.  Also, for those who haven't been to a trade show in years, explain why they are a benefit to communities, retailers and builder/developers.

Our company has been around for 30+ years and we have long term friendships with so many great people in this industry. We like to get out and see what is new and exciting, pick up some best practices from our fellow owners and catch up with old friends.

9) There has been a debate in the industry over the issue of community-owned rental MHs vs a policy of all owner occupied homes. Your operation has tried to steer a middle course between going wild with rentals and still doing new and pre-owned MH sales. Fair statement? Care to elaborate on why?

That is a fair statement.

I am sure anyone who has been around this industry for a more than 10 or 15 years never thought we would have a scenario that would almost require that we change from 100% owner occupied homes to start offering leases on our homes.

Early on in the leasing era we discussed, debated but eventually really embraced the idea of leasing. We felt we were opening our doors to a whole new set of customers.

By adding the lease program, it allowed us to have a product for everyone who visited one of our locations. We started conservatively with a max of 5% of our portfolio, but have since expanded it to 10%, which seems to be a comfortable place for us.

We have found leasing to be a very successful program that has helped us maintain and in many communities increase our occupancy. Again, each one of our colleagues that run communities has their own operational structure, capital structure, debt structure and philosophy.  We constantly look at our portfolio mix and what is happening in the market and adjust our model.

10) Many community operators who turned to rentals did so in part due to regulatory reasons caused by the SAFE Act, Dodd-Frank, etc. Finance regulations on MH lending is a hot topic in media and in DC. You've done 'captive lending,' and you've also done rentals. What's your takeaway from these various activities?  What do you think makes sense in today's environment and why?

This is a tough question to answer; the passing of recent finance regulations has been disruptive to us as well as the industry as a whole.  We have adapted our business model and adjusted as regulations have changed.  It would be helpful if we could work together in modifying some of the recent financing regulations.

11) Your firm just went through a leadership change at the CEO level. Dee Pizer is clearly still in the mix on your board; and now you have Jeff Fannon as the person at the top of your day-to-day management team. Please give our readers a look back and a look ahead for Zeman Homes and its management.

Over the past 30 years we have had only three CEOs (my father, myself and Dee).  We all took great strides in growing our business during our tenures as CEOs.  Dee and I are very excited to have Jeff aboard and look forward to our future path. He is heading the push into the “sunbelt” states and other markets which he knows very well.   We look forward to further diversifying and growing our portfolio.

12) Dealing with challenges and spotting opportunities is what C-Suite level people do.  Processes that work, as you know, are a key to success. What sort of process do you find effective in identifying opportunities and challenges and how you navigate those as a company?

It first starts at the top - we make sure our senior level management aligns with our goals and core values.  The most common challenges and opportunity is with our staff.  We strive to hire the right people and develop our team.  Without a great team, you cannot achieve your goals.  We have built a great team that we are all proud of.

13) Manufactured housing faces an array of issues: local, state and federal. The need for quality affordable homes has not been greater for years.  You continue to buy MH communities and invest in MH homes to fill them. Let's start with the obvious: you must see a good upside, or you wouldn't be so engaged in manufactured home communities and retailing of homes. Please correct that last sentence or elaborate on it.

I wish I were smart enough to figure how to get the government to stay out of our business, we are the solution to non-government subsidized housing.  

If they really wanted to solve affordable housing crisis in this country they would be trying to help us instead of passing ridiculous laws like Dodd-Frank as well as other stupid ineffective and expensive regulations at the state and local levels (like requiring sprinklers in HUD Code homes).

14) What do you consider the largest challenges facing the industry in general today?  Where do you see MH's largest opportunities?

I see the government (federal, state and local) getting in the way and attempting to pass ineffective regulations as our biggest challenge.  Our largest opportunity is to continue to adapt (including quality of homes, marketing, etc..) and professionally grow our industry.

15) After decades of federal programs to fight poverty, regulate health care, housing, financing or industry, it seems that what we have in America today are the aftermath of programs that may have been well intentioned, but have not cured the problems they proposed to fix and have cost the nation trillions in the process. Millions of people today clearly don't understand the free market as previous generations in the U.S. once did. If one looks at national politics, one sees a major party proposing a move further left, as if the medicine given to date just hasn't been strong enough yet.

On the other side of the political aisle, the top two contenders for the Oval Office are talking about scaling back federal programs and intrusion in the market place. Without having to name (unless you want to) a party or a candidate, do you think we are approaching an important crossroads? Do youth think in general we need more regulations in the market or less? Then...explain Why?

We strongly believe less regulation would assist in allowing us to provide the affordable living our country so desperately needs.  If we could focus on rules and regulations that help rather than hinder our industry (including enforcement), we would be better off in the future.  Again, the government should take a less is more approach when it comes to regulating everyone’s daily life.

16) A Chicagoland conventional builder told me if he builds a house in Orland vs Tinley Park, the regulations on that construction are different - even though in theory the two houses might be right across the street or a few blocks away from each other. Part of the genius in the HUD Code for manufactured housing is that by simplifying the code requirements, and setting performance-based standards, lower costs and innovation were encouraged. If you could say something to federal as well as local officials about how regulations can help or harm affordable quality living, what would you say?

I think one of the main strengths of  the HUD code manufactured home business is that they preempt local rules and make the product much more affordable, I would say that is the most important thing that we need to protect as an industry!

17) Associations executives Sheila Dey and DJ Pendleton were asked to comment on a study by Chuck DeVorethat looked at Piketty Vs. Rognlie: Land Use Restrictions Inflate Housing Values, Drive Wealth Concentration. NIMBY and rent justification or other forms of rent control have arguably combined to choke off new construction in areas that may need it the most. Then, public officials might grant tax or other incentives to build apartments or other high density housing that still costs far more than what manufactured housing does. Please feel free to comment on how public policy is helping or harming not just manufactured housing and the development or expansion of communities, but also how rent control can impact investing in the creation of more housing.

Let me just say there are quite a few people in this country from all walks of life and socio-economic levels that just do not understand the most basic economic theory of supply and demand.  No matter how many facts you can show to prove that rent control does not work to provide more affordable housing you have idiots still claiming that it promotes “affordable housing.”  This is mind boggling to me.  

It is just simple common sense that price controls (on anything) stops or severely limits production/supply.

I like to ask my "price control supporting friends" that when it comes time to sell their house if they care about how much they can get for their house or if they care if the person buying their house can "afford it." The answers they give to this question usually illustrate their grasp on reality and/or economics.

18)  Zeman has been keenly involved in associations and lobbying over the years.  For those who are not in a trade associations, what do you see as the benefits of association membership?  

Years ago, I was on the membership committee to grow membership at an industry association, I came to the conclusion back then if I had to go and try to convince them to join and all the benefits for a relatively low cost and the person could not see this, they were hopeless. In our opinion, Industry association membership is very important to running a successful business.

19) Professional education is something other industries take seriously, so does Zeman, right?  Tell us the kinds of things you and your management team strives to do to stay current or ahead of emerging trends.

We take training and education of our team very seriously; our people regularly go through formal training on fair housing, OSHA safety and many,  other training sessions.

20) Closing thoughts on any MH topic, sir?

I love this industry and most everyone in it. Thanks for asking me to participate. ##