After nearly four decades as a home builder and developer, Tom French has a stellar reputation that includes numerous accolades from the Home Builders Association of Greater Kansas City, but he became a builder by a circuitous path.
French, who has a degree in mechanical engineering, started his career as an engineer and project manager. His wife, Gayle, his partner in business as well as in life, originally was a teacher at Sunset Hill Middle School, now part of Pembroke Hill.
They learned about home building by buying, remodeling and selling two homes in Fairway before moving on to do it again in Mission Hills, all while Tom was pursuing an MBA at UMKC. Their success with remodeling and selling the homes where they lived led them to try their hand at building their next home in Pinehurst in Overland Park.
Another success encouraged them to build a spec home and when it sold in 1978, Tom quit his job as an engineer and launched Tom French Homes.
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“One of the first things I did after we incorporated was join the HBA,” Tom said. “I wanted to belong to a professional organization that encouraged quality and continuing education.”
He is an HBA past president, has served on the local board of directors and he also serves as a director of the National Association of Home Builders. Also, Tom was honored to be named to the Home Builders Hall of Fame. His homes have won numerous awards on the Spring and Fall Parades of Homes.
In the early days of Tom French Homes, the company concentrated on building high-end homes with an emphasis on customization, architectural detail and quality. But in the late 1980s, the company shifted its focus and became a pioneer in building maintenance-provided communities in Johnson County, a change of direction that has been fortuitous.
“Our first maintenance-provided community was Stoneybrook at 119th and Antioch,” Tom said. “We built 226 town homes there, which was a relatively new product to Overland Park. I told Gayle if we couldn’t sell them, we could rent them.”
But sales were successful and the Frenches haven’t looked back. Tom had done research before launching his first maintenance-provided community that showed the demographics of people aging and wanting smaller homes with less maintenance.
“But it isn’t only older people who want maintenance-provided homes,” Tom said. “We’ve sold to divorcees, both men and women; widows; young, single professionals; couples just starting out. And in all price ranges from the $200,000s to the over $1 million.”
Although the company mainly builds and develops maintenance-provided communities, it also still does custom-designed, high-end single-family homes for clients. French’s emphasis on quality has created many repeat customers, as well as multigenerational clients.
Tom enjoys the control allowed by developing his own communities where he is the exclusive builder. He wants to ensure quality throughout the process, from the design of the development and its amenities to the design of the homes and their structural integrity.
Gayle is at his side throughout the process, not only providing design expertise but also being the interior decorator. In fact, Tom said many of their clients chose Tom French Homes because of Gayle’s decorating expertise.
“She has a great eye for design and decor,” Tom said. “She works with the clients every step of the way and does more than just pick paint colors and finishes. She helps pick exterior stone; goes to suppliers to ensure that the granite has minimal flaws; walks clients through the process of selecting plumbing and light fixtures. She does it all.”
Gayle admits she has a gift for looking at a floor plan drawing and being able to visualize it in 3D, with floor and ceiling finishes, cabinets and trim.
“I can help clients visualize that, too,” she said. “I think it comes from my years as a teacher. That experience helped me learn how to listen to what people want and to be able to help them understand the building process.”
Gayle credits employee Johanna Nemec with helping her in the design process. And Tom said the company’s success is due to all the members of the team: Paul Gibson, vice president, who oversees the day to day operation; Mindy Linden, estimator; Heather White, bookkeeper; Jack Andrews, superintendent; and Dan Magnum, who works in the field.
“We couldn’t do this without them,” Tom said. “We also have great relationships with subcontractors and suppliers.”
The Frenches are grateful for their success and have expressed that gratitude by giving back to the community. They’ve helped build two Ronald McDonald Houses, the Blue Valley Access House and a Touched by Cancer House.
Through its long history, Tom French Homes has weathered many storms, from interest rates that at one time reached 21 percent to the economic downturn a few years ago when sales slumped.
The latest challenge is a mixed blessing. Most of their maintenance-provided communities have sold nearly all of the available homes. However, in the Cottages of Cross Point Creek, a boutique neighborhood of Craftsman-style villa homes near 87th Street and Renner Road in Lenexa, 15 home sites are available for those who want a custom-built home. This is the last weekend that the model home will be open from 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday.
Now Tom is in the design and approval process of developing new communities, as well as seeking more land for development. He has a couple of developments that should open in early 2015 near College Boulevard and Lone Elm Road, one that will offer 47 twin villas and the other with 21 wooded home sites for single-family villas. He also will soon be building high-end attached villas in Tuscany Reserve in Leawood.
Whatever the price range, the homes they build will have the same attention to design, detail and quality that has allowed Tom French Homes to succeed for more than 36 years.