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Edifice Complex

Why is it that people who build companies become obsessed so often with building buildings, too? And why do they do it like this?
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Among entrepreneurs, it seems that the impulse to build transcends the corporation.

Otherwise, why would so many of those who build companies be passionate about buildings -- trophy homes, unique and occasionally bizarre corporate headquarters, vacation retreats, and a wide range of other structures? William Randolph Hearst built a castle, which he called San Simeon. Stewart Brand (creator of the Whole Earth Catalog) built a box, which he still calls "heaven." (Brand transformed an 8-by-8-by-40-foot shipping container into a clever, consummate -- for him, anyway -- workspace with $1,000 worth of carpeting, lighting, and built-in plywood shelves and counters.)

Whatever form their creations take, entrepreneurs build or renovate with imagination, whimsy, and little regard for precedent or convention. Often they don't use architects. Sometimes it shows.

"It's a way to let the creative impulse out," says Doug Carlston, cofounder of Broderbund Software, which he sold in 1998. In the mid 1990s he and his wife, Tomi Pierce, built a fantasy-filled getaway house in Colorado ski country complete with trick doors, secret stairways, and hidden catacombs.

"The typical entrepreneur, originally a very risk-oriented, creative human being, finds increasingly -- if he's successful -- that his options for creative expression become more and more limited over time," says Carlston. "Your company grows. To make it successful you have to delegate, and you end up delegating a lot of the most fun stuff. You end up typically losing control of the creative process, because as CEO or chairman you have to manage the whole entity. For many, I think, there's probably some frustration."

Home building, he stresses, "is a kind of ballet, getting creative forces to work in sync together." In that regard, it's rather like building a business. Time was, both a well-built home and a successful business lasted generations. But recently, with fewer and fewer family-business successions, with exit strategies integral to start-ups' business plans, and with mergers and acquisitions razing the corporate landscape, is it any wonder that CEOs who are looking for a legacy -- something tangible to outlive them -- are building more than companies?

It's impossible to capture the diversity of the structures that entrepreneurs have made (or made their own). But here are four.


The Rock House

In 1994, Dennis Morin, founder and CEO of factory-automation-software company Wonderware, was 48 years old. He had taken his company public the year before and had seen his net worth skyrocket. Perhaps it was time to own his first home. Morin looked at a few houses in southern California but found nothing he liked. Then one day he read about an unusual property for sale in Laguna Beach -- a small lot, right on the beach, that was essentially a rock formation. It had long been deemed unbuildable, but the original owner had secured a building permit for a structure cut into the rock, and Morin began to envision his own controversial design.

"I'd never really considered building," says Morin, "but I'd discovered I had kind of a knack for architecture and interior design when we built our corporate headquarters for Wonderware. We leased a bare shell and built it out from scratch. We used a lot of bright colors, purple carpets, lined the corridors with neon lights. Everything was playful, colorful, a little bit in-your-face -- reflecting our corporate image and style. I always felt that an attractive work environment was a great incentive to attract people and keep them. It was part of branding our corporate image."

When he bought his oceanside rock, Morin didn't think he was looking for an intellectually engaging escape from work. But perhaps subconsciously he was, because almost two years into the three-year construction of his Rock House, he left Wonderware and concentrated solely on the house. "[The business] was boring," he says. "What was fun was getting totally involved in the building of what's become a local landmark."

Cutting a 70-foot-wide slit in the rock formation produced some 500 truckloads of debris that had to be removed. Morin's 60-by-40-foot two-story home rose in that space, windows to the ocean and its interior all flowing curves, in the organic style of the Catalan architect Antonio Gaudi. Morin approved everything, including the custom metalwork, glasswork, and built-in furniture. He even broke up abalone shells to help make the terrazzo-like floors. When he'd paid the last contractor, the total cost, including land, came to $5 million.

Says Morin: "I'm sure the world is full of people who would love to build extremely unique and custom houses that fulfill a fantasy, but very few people get the opportunity to pull out all the stops and go for it. Suddenly, I can't go anywhere without being introduced as the guy who lives in the Rock House."

Still looking for his next entrepreneurial act, Morin says that the house provides him with an identity as interesting as his unique home. "I'd never thought of it that way," he says, "but it is like branding myself."


The Reclaimed Turbine Hall

Mark Stiffler, founder and CEO of Synygy Inc., recently transformed a 200-year-old stone barn in Pennsylvania into a state-of-the-art smart house. But now a much bigger building occupies his attention.

Next March, Stiffler will move his 400-employee enterprise-incentive-management-software company from Conshohocken, Pa., into the vast turbine room of a long-derelict Philadelphia Electric Co. power plant on the banks of the Delaware River, south of Philadelphia. Completed in 1918 and unused since 1981, the colossal Chester Power Station is in a run-down section of Chester, a city of 40,000 that has had little, if any, good economic news in the past half century. The arrival of Synygy is expected to produce the first influx of jobs since World War II.

Stiffler views the move to the unusual structure in the blighted neighborhood as a bold way of branding his 11-year-old company. "This shows our concern for the community," says the 40-year-old CEO, explaining that "something employees look for in a company is that it doesn't exist just to make money or satisfy clients but also has a connection to the community. The uniqueness of the space is meant to portray Synygy as a very innovative, forward-thinking company. The space is very grand, yet it's not ostentatious. It's sort of that balance of big thinking with a very grounded practicality."

Synygy will occupy nearly half of the building's 380,000 square feet. The Chester Power Station was the most lavish of a series of beaux-arts power plants built along the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers between 1903 and 1925. The concrete, brick, and limestone power plant possesses beautiful arches, classical moldings, and, in the cavernous turbine room that Synygy will soon call home, huge limestone rosettes in the vaulted, 100-foot-high, skylighted ceiling. "Because the building itself is so grand, what's inside doesn't really have to be grand," says Stiffler, who envisions a rather simple but very modern design, an inspiring contrast of new and old. Synygy will also take over one of the plant's two nine-story coal towers and transform the bottom floors into an employee fitness center and the upper floors into private apartments for Stiffler or corporate guests.

"Being on the water is also important," says Stiffler. "We're going to use wireless technology on the property so people will be able to go outside and work -- sit in teams at tables with umbrellas along the river in a very peaceful, productive setting."


The Motel-Cum-Summer-Place

CEO Deborah Rivera was already rehabbing a Manhattan town house, a longtime dream, when she bought a dilapidated 1950s cinder-block motel on the north fork of Long Island -- a purchase she'd never dreamed of at all.

The 41-year-old founder of the Succession Group, a management-consulting and executive-search firm for financial-services companies, bought the motel in lieu of a summer home. "A lot of New Yorkers who don't have a summer place in the Hamptons book the same hotel or motel room every weekend in the summer," she says. She and her husband now do the same at the stylishly renovated, 15-unit Greenporter Hotel and Spa, in Greenport, N.Y. Rivera hired noted architect Wendy Evans Joseph, who provided a modern, loftlike feel to the rooms, the wine bar, and the bistro. In went a heated swimming pool with a lap lane. A conference center, an underground spa, and 13 more rooms will be ready in September.

"It's like having my cake and eating it too," says Rivera. "I have my wonderful place and can have friends out in the summer by my beautiful pool and have dinner in my beautiful restaurant, and instead of the overhead of maintaining a summer home I have an income-generating property.

"Maybe it's different for women than men," she muses. "I want to see my security. I want to touch my security." And the old concrete motel, it turns out, may testify to her financial acumen and business skills even more than her company does. "If I send people to my Succession Group Web site," says Rivera, "and they don't understand derivatives and tax structures, it goes in one ear and out the other. If I send them to the Greenporter Web site, they can see and understand exactly what I've built."


The Grand Hotel (Rescued)

A funny thing happened to Kevin Craffey on the way to building a family compound of vacation homes. He became distracted by heading a drive to amend a state constitution and spearheading a quixotic, $20-million restoration of the historic, 200-room Mountain View Grand hotel, the former pride and joy of tiny Whitefield, N.H.

The 38-year-old Craffey has a habit of stepping off intended paths. He left school in the ninth grade, lied about his age, and joined the carpenters union, where he thrived. In his early twenties, after studying nights and getting his high school diploma, he founded his own subcontracting company, K&J Interiors, which has grown to 400 employees. He added a second company, Craffey & Co., to build theme projects such as skateboard parks. Four years ago he felt it was time to sink some of his fortune into a family retreat where he could build a house for himself and his wife, Joanne, and have plenty of room to later build houses for each of his three young children. A real estate listing in the Sunday Boston Globe caught his eye:

Handyman's Special: Wrap yourself in colonial revival architecture while enjoying spectacular mountain vistas. Situated on 360 acres of pristine wilderness, this grande-dame New Hampshire inn features 200+ bedrooms, conference facilities, 9-hole golf course and more. Needs TLC. Priced to sell at $1.3 million.

The compressed version of a very long and uplifting story is that Craffey paid cash for the property and the hotel, which had stood empty for years. He had every intention of demolishing the hotel but changed his mind when townspeople convinced him of its local stature and the impact that restoring it might have on the community. Tougher than the actual restoration work, which Craffey personally directed after moving his family to Whitefield, was making the numbers work. Craffey had to be sure that he could restore and reopen the state's oldest hotel and run it as a viable business. He pushed for a change in New Hampshire's constitution to garner tax relief, wrangled grants for water and sewer upgrades, and at the 11th hour secured $1.7 million in tax credits essential to swinging his bank mortgage.

In March the hotel lights shone after dark for the first time since the Mountain View closed, in 1986. The warm, reassuring glow from scores of windows was visible from the hilltops for miles around and presaged another glow. "When we open, I can't wait to see the joy on the faces of people who love this place," says Craffey. "Lots and lots of people worked here. Couples met here and were engaged here. When the hotel closed, the town lost its soul. This is not my building as far as the town is concerned. It's theirs."


John Grossmann, a frequent contributor to Inc, is based in New Jersey, where his home is constantly being renovated. But minimally.


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Edifice Complex
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Last updated: Jul 1, 2002




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