Jessica and Corey Van Lith established Van Lith Developments & Excavation in the early 2000s. There’s a comedic disagreement between the couple about whether they started business in 2001 or 2002, but we will stick with early 2000s for the purposes of this story.
Corey’s dad, Gary Van Lith, had built custom homes for at least 20 years when he bought an excavation company about the time Corey finished college. Gary had no experience operating large equipment or running that type of business, so he asked Corey to come home upon his graduation from college and help with the newest family business.
“That wasn’t part of my plan,” Corey says, admitting to his own aspirations, aside from what his dad had in store for him. “I wanted to play baseball my whole life, and I attended college on scholarship for baseball, earning a degree in biology.”
When Gary proposed his business plan, Corey still had some opportunities to play baseball at the next level.
“Jessica and I were already engaged, but I wasn’t done with baseball. I still had some opportunities to play and had a few tryouts after graduation. I decided if that didn’t work out, I’d give the business a shot.”
Ultimately, Corey worked for Gary while the couple built their family’s first home and a spec home. It wasn’t long before Gary decided to sell the excavation company, so Jessica and Corey made the decision to buy it while also establishing themselves as custom homebuilders.
“It was the only way we could afford to pay for the equipment,” Corey says. “So we went in business for ourselves. And we had success at it early on, even when the market wasn’t hot.”
Jessica lends their early success to Corey’s work ethic.
“I remember a few of the first people we built for saying how every time they dropped by the house during the building phase, Corey was there working. He was there on the weekends. He was there long into the evenings. He was there for the client⏤always. He was young and hungry, and people saw that in him.”
Early on, Corey was told he wouldn’t sell the houses he built for the listing prices he set, but everything he built sold quickly at full price. The high-end approach he took to building didn’t happen a lot in the Wenatchee Valley at the time, but he found his niche and their success reflected the hunch he had about an industry that was still new to him.
Jessica worked in retail management when the couple went into the homebuilding business. She selected interiors for the specs and managed the company books, but she wasn’t involved with clients or the everyday decisions that went into the business right away, although they planned on Jessica leaving her full-time job eventually.
“In our industry, providing our own health insurance is a big deal, so I couldn’t leave my job in retail, and its health benefits, until we could afford to pay for our insurance through the business.”
Within less than a year, and after the birth of their second child, Jessica left her management job and officially joined Van Lith Developments & Excavation.
When Jessica came on board, she added an even more customized element to their business, helping clients choose everything from bathroom fixtures and lighting to flooring and cabinetry. No two homes were alike, and there was nothing “cookie cutter” about their product or approach to custom homebuilding. Both Corey and Jessica were always looking for something different in their business⏤more efficiency, more creativity, more of everything that helped make them different. And it worked⏤house after house, everything they built sold quickly.
Throughout the 1990s and into the early 2000s, Corey and Jessica built a successful business and a stellar reputation. Soon, they found themselves building for clients who liked their first homebuilding experience so much, they hired them again. They built award-winning homes and soon invested in larger developments, including building condos and planning for a large subdivision. They couldn’t have seen what was waiting around the corner, not just for them but for every homebuilder. The recession hit, and everything they’d worked so hard to build quickly fell apart.
“We took risks that even just a couple years earlier would’ve brought us enormous success, but we took the risks at the wrong time, and we lost big,” Corey says.
Corey’s dad had told him about the highs and lows of the business, but Corey remembered his parents always living comfortably, so he didn’t have firsthand experience with a lull in building and selling, let alone the complete stop that happened around 2007.
“We had to reevaluate and make adjustments while we waited it out. We knew we would be back, but we didn’t realize how long it would take for the market to turn around,” Corey says.
“The return of the market took longer than everyone thought it would,” Jessica says. “I remember realtors saying it’d be six months to a year, but three years later, the industry was still taking a hit.”
Certain they could ride out the recession, Corey and Jessica never gave up and continued running their business with the integrity and dedication that had helped make them successful from the beginning. Every subcontractor got paid, leaving none of them behind.
“We’re very proud of that,” Corey says.
“It may not have been the best business decision, but for us, we were young enough that we could do the right thing and still come back from it when the market returned,” Jessica says, adding to Corey’s sentiments about taking care of the people who did business with them.
When the market made its slow turn around, some of the subcontractors were no longer in business, but the ones who survived the recession were ready to get back to work with Van Lith Developments & Excavation. Just as people who lost money in the stock market held on and waited it out, so did the Van Liths. They believed in the process of building and selling homes and buying and developing property⏤that never wavered.
Throughout the nearly 20 years they’ve been in business, the Van Liths have never advertised or even utilized a website or social media to sell their product or their name⏤until now. They have relied on referrals and the dedicated systems they have in place when meeting with potential clients and building for clients who come on board. Trust and communication with each client is key for them, and creating a desirable and ideal building experience is how they’ve built and maintained their reputation.
For all that Jessica and Corey have learned throughout their years in business, including surviving the recession and coming back even stronger, nothing could’ve prepared them for losing the person who helped teach them much of what they know⏤about business and about life.
In March of 2016, Corey’s father suffered cardiac arrest and passed away a few days later. Until that time, Gary was still working in the building industry with Corey and Jessica, laughing with subcontractors, and getting the job done⏤whatever it took.
“I gained knowledge from him from the start. We were involved in every phase of building. We excavated, we plumbed, we wired⏤we did it all. And he taught me how,” Corey says. “He may not have built as many houses as we have built, but he was hands on, physically there doing the work each day. And I learned that work ethic from him.”
His dad worked six to seven days a week throughout his life, so Corey didn’t know any different. The everyday grind was all Corey knew. He eventually learned it’s not how everyone in this business does it, but Gary put in the sweat everyday and got up and did it again the next day.
“The work ethic dictates the success you achieve in this industry, and so does how we treat people. He treated people right, which isn’t always easy. There are a lot of times when it would be easier to step away from a client or situation because of tensions or the money it would take to fix something done wrong, even when it isn’t your fault. But he always said, ‘You gotta treat people right because your reputation around here is all you’ve got,’” Corey says.
“Gary taught me a lot of the same things Corey shared about his work ethic⏤the grind and the hours he put in. But you didn’t meet a guy who was more of a family man, and he understood the balance of being successful at business and in his personal life. You can do well in business, but you really have to do the other stuff even better. That’s what he passed along in our business and in our family. There wasn’t anyone better at that than Gary.”
The Van Liths take great pride in helping people build their dream home, but they also take just as much joy in building relationships. To date, five clients have returned to them when building their second home. They’ve established lifelong friendships and have even become Godparents to the children of one couple who were clients and became longtime and close friends of their family.
Whether it’s a custom home or a spec home, the Van Liths are there for their clients from beginning to end. And the end isn’t when you get the keys to your front door. Corey and Jessica's commitment to their clients and their product continues long after they hand you the keys to your dream home.
Copyright © 2018 Van Lith Homes.
All Rights Reserved.
3 George Media, Inc.