Local condominium developers extend their reach nationally with franchises

Several years after Epcon Communities began in Central Ohio, a market research consultant who had observed the company-and many other developers and builders across the U.S.-posed a question to founders Philip Fankhauser and Edward Bacome.

"He said, 'Are you considering going national?'" recalls Fankhauser. "Ed and I thought for about 30 seconds, and we both came to the same conclusion pretty rapidly that we had no such interest, that we had all the challenges and all the opportunity we could envision at the time here in Central Ohio. But (the consultant) went on to say, 'Have you ever considered franchising your concept to other builders in other locations?'"

That exchange stuck with Fankhauser and Bacome, who took some time cultivating the idea before launching what would later become their next venture, Epcon Communities Franchising, Inc., in 1995. Today, the Dublin-based company includes 71 franchise owners in 19 states, the majority of which are concentrated in the eastern United States. Of its 104 active communities, 26 are located in Ohio.

Epcon Communities had already found its niche in building two- and three-bedroom ranch condominiums for "mature, active-adult" homebuyers when Fankhauser and Bacome pursued their franchising spinoff. So they continued on that original path, but added new staff members to focus exclusively on the franchise end of the business.

With no similar franchise models to study or pattern from in the homebuilding industry at the time, Fankhauser and Bacome crafted the franchising business from the ground up. "We learned from our experiences," Fankhauser says.

Brand consistency and a commitment to delivering a quality home were key elements from the start.

"Any time you have a franchise, you want the customer's experience with your brand to be consistent everywhere," Fankhauser says. "And we have a lot more control over that when we're building our own communities. We have less control, by design, when it's a franchisee and, yet, we are concerned and we are sensitive to the franchisee understanding the importance of delivering the right kind of experience to the customer."

Prospective franchise owners undergo an extensive candidate review process, ensuring that they have "an adequate business background and financial ability to develop and build a housing community," Fankhauser says.

Prior experience in building or real estate isn't required, however. Many of Epcon's franchise owners come from diverse backgrounds, Fankhauser adds.

But a full-time commitment is a must. "We've learned over time that a franchisee who's not full-time engaged isn't going to deliver the kind of results for himself or for us or for the customer that are expected," Fankhauser says. "This is not a hobby, and this is not a part-time job. This is a very serious, very involved, demanding, full-time experience."

Epcon's staffers offer start-to-finish guidance and support to franchisees, providing everything from prototype architectural plans (which are adjusted by the franchisee's architect to meet local building codes and zoning requirements, for example) to construction schedules and budgets to training programs.

The company also supplements franchisees' local marketing efforts with national branded marketing and a retail web site that links to individual communities.

Many of the communities appeal to buyers seeking a single-story home on a smaller lot, with an HOA that handles all exterior maintenance, including mowing, raking and snow shoveling, according to the company.

Epcon offers attached condos, free-standing condos and single-family homes. The number of homes in a community can range from 10 to more than 150, and currently sell for between $150,000 and $630,000, Fankhauser says.

Though the homes often attract the 55 and older population-roughly 75 percent of residents fall into that growing demographic-others find they meet their needs, too, Bacome says.

"It could be a young professional person, or a couple, who has recently graduated and they want to buy their first home," but value freedom from yard work and flexibility for travel, Bacome says. "It's a broad range of people who once they see our homes are attracted to them, but the majority of our buyers are indeed older."

Builder and developer Steve Ackley of the Ackley Organization, Inc., in Columbus has been an Epcon franchisee since 2000. He's currently working on his third Epcon condominium community in the Dayton area, and says the homes fill a need for retirees as well as those nearing retirement.

"I truly believe there is a partnership feeling," Ackley says of teaming with Epcon. "They're willing to listen and give input, and, in fact, I think that's one of the benefits." Yet another benefit, he adds, is "the interaction that you get with the other franchisees, and the common ground that we have together."