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Unusual Approach Scores for Developers : Their Designs, Teasing Ads Spur Sales of Homes

September 13, 1987|TIA GINDICK | Tia Gindick is a Woodland Hills free-lance writer

The first thing Whitehawk Partnership's Jim Oates and Lonnie Schield did differently was spend $10,800 on an ad campaign. Even before they had anything to sell.

The second thing was the campaign. Based on expectation, on creating interest, there was no price mentioned. Nor location. Just one word, "Patience" and later, "At Last" and their logo.

The third thing was their product: houses in Sylmar. It was 1984, and at that time, the typical Sylmar tract was composed of 850-square-foot town houses at about $100,000. Oates and Schield were developing Whitehawk Ranch, a development of three- and four-bedroom homes priced at an average of $140,000 to $180,000.

Result: Of the 100 homes built in the first development, all were sold before completion. The same technique was used for the 82 homes built in Whitehawk Partnership's second Sylmar development.

This time, though, that one word on the ad was "Encore." Construction started this summer and the project, too, is sold out.

Concerned With Image

James Oates and Lonnie Schield: ages 44 and 45, respectively, coat and tie their standard office attire, their pictures on their promotional literature. Almost as concerned with image, it would seem, as construction.

Their admirers say the Whitehawk Partnership is typical of that new breed of developer: high-profile, consumer-oriented, idealistically outspoken on the possibility of producing a quality product at good value and still making a profit. Their detractors shrug.

Sitting in the living room-styled sales office (bowls of candy, fresh flowers, chintz-upholstered seating group) of their newest project, Whitehawk at North Ranch, (reached from the Westlake Boulevard off-ramp of the Ventura (101) Freeway), Oates and Schield aren't quite gloating. But the fact is, everything does seem to be going their way.

The Whitehawk Ranch in Sylmar won the National Spotlight Award from Builder magazine and was Grand Award winner at the Elan '85 Awards.

150 Homes Projected

At Whitehawk at North Ranch in Westlake Village, a $70-million development of luxury homes in the $400,000 to $500,000 category, eight of the projected 150 homes are completed and 70 sold, plus an additional 40 lots for custom homes.

Partners since 1982, Schield and Oates say their "bias has to be interesting and enjoyable, rather than expected."

That's why the sophisticated advertising, the homey trailers on the building site, the pizza and barbecued chicken delivered to the first camp-out (at subsequent camp-outs, Whitehawk had a champagne brunch catered and even took one group to a fine French restaurant for dinner), and, particularly, the emphasis on imaginative architecture and quality construction in their homes.

An important factor: Whitehawk homes, both in Sylmar and North Ranch, have impressive entries. The rest of a Whitehawk house features all the usual practicalities, while also being unusually striking.

"We want people to walk in and say 'ooh,' " said Schield. "Even after they've bought the house and stopped saying it, their friends, their family will continue. That's important to the buyer to have that kind of a house. And it's important to us."

'A Matter of Choice'

Must anything be sacrificed for that kind of effect? "A well-designed product costs no more," says Oates flatly. "It's just a matter of choice. We heard of developers who looked at our advertising and said, " 'Hey, I want to do that.'

"So, something similar was designed for them and they said, 'well, for that kind of money I want to add the price; gotta have that, and a map with the location.' We just make different choices. . . . With houses, we try not to just deliver the space. We try to make it interesting."

There was, however, a certain gamble to the choices made at Sylmar, they acknowledged. "And everyone thought we were crazy."

Theorizing that Sylmar was not just a first-home community, that many people enjoyed living there and would probably remain there for the rest of their lives, Oates and Schield offered a variation to the 850-square-foot, three-bedroom house so typical of developments in that area.

First, they chose one of the most expensive parts of Sylmar. Then, in a handsome, heavy-papered brochure, described four houses ranging from 1,150 to 2,300 square feet.

Tile roofs, tile or hardwood floors in the entry, large master suites with all the amenities, window seats--all standard. The 2,300-square-foot house with its bay windows, wet bar and bonus room over the garage was the final filip on the gamble.

Biggest Seller

"It was our biggest seller and our most profitable," said Oates. "We had people move to our houses from just a block away. And you know something else, we never advertised after that initial $11,000."

Oates, who has both a bachelor's degree and an MBA from Stanford University, has been in the construction business since age 11, when he was an apprentice brick layer. Schield has gone through the trades as a carpenter, surveyor and contractor and attended Cal State Long Beach. The pair met at the Larwin Group, where both worked for four years.

That company was "state of the art," says Oates, who acts as front man of the partnership, while Schield runs construction, "but it's a large firm and the people there tend to be very removed. With our own company, we wanted to know everything that was going on.

"We're as involved in the closing of an escrow as the design of a bathroom."

Their reasoning, they argue, is purely selfish. "It's what we enjoy," says Oates, sounding surprised at the question. "You hear of people in the field. They become adminstrators instead of practicing the art. That's no fun."

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