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Tuesday, February 18, 2020

2 Month 50th B-day Celebration winds down

It was the Hanukkah of birthdays, a series of connected days and celebration, but all good things have to come to an end, and the end came with our 7th annual sojourn to Stowe, with the same cast of characters and hanger-oners.  It's a good mountain, about 6 hours away, always easier to get there on Friday (skipping school and work) than on the way back where Thruway 87 starts to get heavy around Albany and is a parking lot by the Woodstock exit.  It really goes to show how many people are upstate, making their way back home, that an interstate can move that slow.  Flip side is the opportunity that upstate has, and always will, provide our little company.

The ladies of the office, Breanna and Amanda, decorated my office space for my birthday, and last year helped clear my car during a storm.

Some people would be shy about posting such equal-opportunity car clearing, but that wouldn't be me.  Amanda started with me in the summers and holidays while she was Fashion Institute of Tech (I was going to write 'in Manhattan', but that just makes me seem show-offy, since everyone who I want to impress already knows where it's at), then came to work full-time after.  Her best friend Breanna came to work with us nearly 2 years ago.  Amanda is getting married to her long-time Beau this May and Breanna and her sit around planning at lunch (Bre's her best woman).  My one wedding gift was buying an office building 10 minutes up the road from Amanda so that shortens her commute to work by 30+ minutes each way.

As a pretty savvy small business employer who is a pretty good talent scout who takes chances on people as well as a veteran of making a lot of bets on people who don't work out, the risks of hiring a friend of possibly my most valued employee were clear, but outweighed by our never-quenched thirst for talent, especially professional/office talent.

Whenever I see a new idea in the Catskills, perfectly branded, optimistic with a fine game plan that may even on occasion identify a real opportunity niche, I just pity the fool, since I know the first and primary obstacle this person or couple will face is the inability to staff up to meet the demand of a growing business - it's a tremendous skill, the challenge never fades, and unless you were brought up speaking the language of the average Hudson Valley employee, all the cajoling, incentivizing, motivating benefits come to naught, held against you, used against you.  My ability to team build, against the odds, is one of the secrets of the success.  We just keep growing, and we keep finding people who meet our criteria, or can learn or be trained.

I like an underdog, so my best guys are guys I've found when life wasn't working out perfectly, gave them a shot, rewarded them without coodling or cuddling them, and tried to find real ways to make their lives better, mostly through  work they can be proud of, organized job sites and pay/benefit packages that can't be matched, pay packages derived not from the highest priced homes in the area, but homes that have easy to see value to people for 2 decades now.

Speaking of UnderDogs, here's Lulu.  She's so smart she knows when to get off the chair - UPS no treats, stay on chair, Fed Ex, treats, meet them at the door and follow into truck.  I think there's even a story where she forgot to get out of the truck and Fed Ex redelivered her 30 minutes later.

Back to the point of the story, hiring Amanda's friend Breanna - the real risk would be that Breanna wouldn't work out, and it would somehow impact Amanda's desire to work for us, or that the balance of power would change and the employer-employee relationship would be altered for the worst.

A big gamble, just the way I like them, comfortable with expecting and counting on unexpected outcomes.  Rolling the die, spinning the wheel, matching wits and scrambling out of pickles of my own and others making.  A writer's ability to evaluate a situation, meaning from a unique viewpoint, with blindspots for sure, but the unique vantage providing unique and untried paths to problem-solving.

Anyway, I guess this is tangent Tuesday, cause I keep going off on them. It all worked out - 2 of the smartest hardest working people I know - Amanda and Breanna - and since they are doing real jobs for a real busy business, with real financial and project management complexity, put in a position to test their intelligence and ability to learn in real time with real consequences.  And that's a big difference than most bright young people, where you have to put in a ton of time just to get the shot at having real responsibility.  Not at Catskill Farms.  You have to be awesome, or the day of your departure is already cast.  Problem is, most people don't know when they aren't awesome, but no worries, I do.

And obligatory house construction photos, since this isn't an 'eat my shorts I'm in Stowe and work with cool young women' blog.

One of our favorite farmhouse designs, 73.46 % finished, in Kerhonkson NY.

And another fav, in Narrowsburg NY.  Both houses under contract, spoken for, reserved, don't bother calling about them type of situation.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Winter Saturday in The Catskills - Work hard play hard.

Mid-Winter hike up Ashokan Highpoint outside of West Shokan yesterday, with long time hiking pal Brian, the long time editor of Chronogram and related media properties.

Seems like an analogy worth remarking on, where you journey out on a lonely road to reach some far off goal only to find it all fogged in upon arrival.  Translation, among others, is to enjoy the journey, for the destination is only a piece of the goal.  I know, pretty hunking picture of me and the dogs.  This view is typically gigantic over the Catskills.

We literally have a to going on -

  • 2 homes in Saugerties for sale and under construction under $350k
  • 4 homes in Kerhonkson, 2 reserved, two for sale.
  • 2 homes reserved and under construction in Narrowsburg
  • 4 homes for sale and just beginning construction outside of Callicoon.
  • 4 new lots in Kerhonkson
  • 3 new lots in Narrowsburg
  • 8 new lots pending in Saugerties
  • At least 5 deals pending through Lazy Meadows, our real estate brokerage
  • And possibly 3 to 4 deal pendings with clients for above mentioned properties.
  • Moving the office
  • Selling the rental in Miami Beach.
  • 4 lot subdivision in Phoenixville Pa.
This is a barn house with a finished basement which is about 1/2 way done.  Reserved.

A new Ranch going up, for sale, in Kerhonkson.

Finished the night with a martini at the Kingsley in Kingston, and then some mexican at the Armadillo, in the Rondout.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Ranch Sells in Kingston - Catskills Real Estate

Our ability to produce and deliver homes is frankly unparalleled in the region.  The combination of office, project management, cash flow, skilled labor, thoughtful subcontractors, lending relationships, and municipal relationships create a delivery schedule that is averaging more than 1 a month for years.

We have some competition out there, but if you add it all together - all the various companies doing new work (half of them just copying our work and confusing the marketplace with similar marketing, language, etc...) - they aren't putting out half the homes we do in a given year.  And not 'a given year', but year after year, and now we are starting to talk about decade after decade.

Now, this isn't to brag, though I'm not against bragging if you got the goods.  It's just an achievement that 1, I'm extremely proud of, and 2, was not easy.  There is nothing harder than putting together a team in the Catskills, where every level of labor supply is shallow - be project management, book-keeper, lead carpenter or clean up guy.  And revert to the last blog post about the efforts I've made to retain help once I find it, with perks and benefits typically not offered in our industry and area.

I was listening to a podcast yesterday - I'm on a run of 'enthusiasm renewal' -reading lots of biographies on people (mostly businesspeople), pod casts on management and entrepreneurism - and the one guy was saying about employee retainage - 'people don't leave companies, they leave leaders'.  I agree with that.  The better I get at my job of communicating and setting out an organized vision that is adapted to the strengths of my employees, the longer they stick around.

So we delivery another finished home, on budget, ahead of schedule, and now another young family - I think a doctor, wife and 2 kids this time - are experiencing the joys of upstate, with its wide open spaces, makers, and things to do.

Ranch 30 - in the flesh.  Ulster County NY Real Estate at its finest.

Friday, January 24, 2020

401k, and the power of (profit) Sharing

Sold a house today, the last of 4 in a small 4 lot Stone Ridge - Kingston area project.  I picked up the land not so long ago.  The project had some complexities, some risk but we pulled it off.  I think a total of $2.3m of real estate total sold.  Out of nothing came something.  I'm not sure, but I think 3 of the 4 started out as a spec homes, ie, without a prearranged buyer.  Thanks Jeff Bank, though at this point I'm using a lot of my own equity.

Catskill Farms offers both a 401k matching plan and a yearly profit share plan, two benefits mostly unheard of in our industry in our area, and actually, in most business in our area.  We started ours 5 years ago on the advice of our accountant at the time and now I think we have $700k of investment and gains in our company-managed plan.  We match 100% of employees contributions up to 3% of their salary, and 50% from 3-5% of their salary.  Yearly profit shares average around $3k.  Add in holidays, bonuses, vacations, workers comp, etc... and you need to be a healthy well-run company indeed in order to implement and continue to fund these benefits.  And is there anything worse than taking back what you once offered?

These programs have enabled us to retain employees, without a doubt, and retaining employees helps you grow, or at least maintain or improve efficiency, which should offset some or all of the costs of the program.   While hard to quantify and calculate, I would agree that 1, these programs have enabled our employees to sustain and improve their family's stability, and 2, thus in turn have helped us keep these employees.  Just had a meeting the other day with a lead crew member, and his package topped out at $113,000, and included base pay, overtime, nearly 3 weeks vacation, 24/7 use of a truck I purchased for him, 401k matches, profit share, health care share.  It's a real job.  The non-salary benefits cost Catskill Farms $120k in 2019.

Another neat thing about the program is the benefit to the small business owner. My maximums are higher, my profit share is bigger.  It's a super intelligent gov't run program that works, and I think it works well because it is based on 'work'.  It's not a handout, a disability, a welfare, it's not a VA loan with high costs - all programs with good intentions that muddle through the fraud and grey areas with unclear tally of good vs harm.  The 401k program, and the related Safe Harbor program for small businesses, that are really well-designed and work just as they were intended, motivating people to save for retirement by appealing to the self-interest of a business-owner, and using the tax code for the benefit of working people.

Down in Miami Beach again.  They are getting ready for the Super Bowl.

And since this is a business blog and not a 'eat my shorts I'm in South Beach' blog, a token house picture of a fantastic home in Narrowsburg that is making good progress seems in order.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Another One Sold in Stone Ridge NY - Bigger Barn

I bought 4 building lots at the end of an abandoned cul de sac a little over a year ago, and now here we are, just about finished building it out, and successfully selling all 4.  Finally, after years of effort, I've been able to stack the team with enough all stars to run two independent crews, one in Sullivan County and one in Ulster.  This has enabled each team to stay focused on the project at hand and not bounce around from job to job, emergency to emergency.  This has allowed for better quality control, and less stress, as the jobs are manned each day, and there is a sense of ownership on each specific job by a crew leader, and the responsibility therein.

Of all the things I've achieved over the years, the team I've assembled at this moment in time is top notch.  It's always been good, but this one really rocks in ways that were missing before, be it accounting, book-keeping, or site management.

This rejiggered organization of labor allowed us to power through 2 homes in Olivebridge and now 4 homes in Stone Ridge.  Stone Ridge isn't the easiest place to build, with a stringent building department and a part-time inspector, a mix that can create a slow administrative process.  But we figured out their sweet spot and made it happen, developing and building out $2.5m of new construction, all sold or under contract.

The stories of each home owner, and how they found us, and what they considered before us is telling and individual but contain many common threads and strains.

Barn 33's owner went through more trials than most.  They shopped and bid on a farmhouse on Dawson Lane in early 2018, then they went the whole way to a last and best bid process on the FourSquare in Olivebridge.  After not getting that house, we found them a new piece of land, and built them exactly what they wanted, in record time.  Now they own it, and are spending weekends there.

More picture can be found on our website at CatskillFarms.com - Barn 33.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

New Year, 50th B-Day, Miami Beach

First, I don't know where I was this past year, but who knew Michelle Williams separated from her husband of less than a year last April, and now is 6 months preggo with director of Hamilton.  Wow.  Her hot messiness on screen I guess carries over into her personal life at times.

And I'm hearing a lot of sacred 60's and 70's songs as soundtracks for commercials, but the most disturbing and painful is the Righteous Brothers epic Unchained Melody being used to sell Kentucky Fried Chicken's newest product.  Seriously, that's criminal, and wrong.

In Miami Beach, packing. Been here since Dec 27.  Brought down a big gang to pre-celebrate my 50th, which I turn in February, wedged between Lincoln's B-day and Valentines Day.   Rest left on 31, son stayed till 3rd, and I'm packing up now to get back to work for 2 days of bill paying and cash flow sweating.  Caught myself watching Entertainment Tonight and America's Got Talent the other night - now that's relaxing.

I like to read, but for some reason half the time I pick up books I know are going to be a slog - I don't know why I do it.  But recently I've been zeroed on autobiographies and memoirs.  Elon Musk, Nelson Mandela, and currently Richard Branson.  I lack industry peer groups, so I have to get my motivation, insight, caution, ideas, affirmation from somewhere, and these books are doing the trick.  "Staying the course" is an unspoken motif through all the books.  I'm reading Branson's "Losing my Virginity' now and it's a good one for me since it seems to be reigniting that caution is for losers streak I've always had, but that has been tampered by a plateau of success.  Spend through problems was/is his secret - don't pull back, push forward.  (I'm aware the pics below might not be oriented upright, but that's just the way it is and I can't figure out how to turn).

Christmas was good, always surrounded by family.

I've had a bay front condo in Miami since 2012.  But with a shitty Board of Directors, a never ending building construction project, sea rise that floods the streets on sunny days and better use for my money, I'm selling at the end of February.  Will be sad, but risk management requires hard decisions.  I can always airbnb is without the macro risk of Southern Florida.

Harvard Business Review advice for new year.

Maureen Hoch
From Maureen Hoch, Editor, HBR.org  |  January 3, 2020 
In my last email to you, I asked for input on what’s on your mind, workwise, as we begin 2020. Flexibility was a big theme in the responses I received. First, you want to know how to plan your career beyond retirement. It sounds like many of you want to keep working, just not in a full-time, all-consuming kind of job. I also heard about wanting advice on managing younger workers who prefer a portfolio of part-time roles over a traditional, full-time job. An interesting twist on the same topic! We will be thinking about more ways to cover this challenge from both angles.
As we kick off the new year, I also find myself wrestling with two competing impulses. Like many of you, I’m thinking about how I want to grow and change. To start, I want to deepen my skills this year around motivating my employees and giving them the kind of purpose that makes coming to work about more than just the next rung on the ladder.
I’m also thinking about how we spot new ideas and grow. That can take so many different shapes, depending on whether you’re anentrepreneur, or whether you’re figuring out how your company competes in our age of artificial intelligence, or whether you simply have to demonstrate your own strategic-thinking skills. I’m also trying to be conscious that we’re not simply practicing “innovation theater,” which won’t move the needle.
But as I’m setting these goals, I also find myself feeling skeptical about the pressure we feel to rededicate and reinvent ourselves each January when it comes to our careers. After all, too much passion about work can also lead to burnout.
So let’s resolve to keep learning and growing, but remind ourselves that not everything has to be about rigorous self-improvement. Sometimes we just need a dose of self-awareness, a willingness to express gratitude to others, and moment to pause and remember what we already do well.
Thanks for reading and Happy New Year,

Friday, December 20, 2019

Annual Sojourn - Catskills to NYC

Each year, about two weeks prior to Christmas (exact weekend depends on how the calendar falls - we try not to do it too close to the 25th, but not too far that Christmas isn't yet in full swing), my son Lucas and I head into the Big Apple.  We cut out of school and work a few hours early, and arrive at the NYC hotel around 4 or 5, depending on traffic.  This year was more like 5, because I thought taking the Lincoln Tunnel into the city on a Friday afternoon was a good idea and it wasn't.  Who has ever seen so many tour buses, broadway buses, transit buses and similar jostling to get into the city via a little tunnel. There literally must be 10 lanes of traffic merging into 2.

For several years, we stayed at the Le Parker Meridian on 59th+/-, tried the JW Marriott, but eventually - after FOA Schwartz closed, after the menace and inconvenience of the Trump Tower security and related street closures, etc... - we moved it downtown to the Union Square W, this year enjoying a room at the very top, on the 21st floor, looking downtown, over the debt clock, over the Park, towards the Freedom Tower.  Pretty fantastic room, even by our high flying standards.  Lucas learned long ago how to ask for 'a room on the upper floors'.

From this launching pad, we have easy access to movie theaters, gramercy park area restaurants, the holiday market at Union Square for gifts, subways stations, and of course, the W itself, a pretty great scene of a hotel.  I've stayed at the hotel a fair amount, and they put us on the top floor facing south.  It wasn't a wall of windows type of thing, but it was a pretty great view.

The room was centered, top floor, in the tapered part of the building.  The kids stared and were bewildered by the USA debt clock racing onward that we could see from our window.

We've been doing this literally since he was born, the first trip 2 months after he was born in October 2008.  I think there are pictures of him on the subway and at Balthazars and Pravda that first year, all bundled up.  We've done a lot of great things in those years, including the Botanical Gardens train show, and of course Macy's Santaland.  Lucas brought a friend this year, which was actually pretty fun, though I definitely overlooked or underappreciated how loud (2) 11 year olds can be in a moderate sized hotel room.  Let's just say I spent a fair amount of time in the lobby in what the W calls their Living Room - a great casual space of people coming and going.

Regardless of where I travel to, I typically underplan.  I'm not a morning to night itinerary person, more loosey goosey head a certain way and see what turns up type of person.  While that sometimes backfires, many times it allows for experience by lottery, and as long as you don't mind a bit uncertainty, it can work out fine.  More than that, it works out really well when traveling with a young child who is hard to plan around.

NYC is a fun place to get out and about and let the city happen to you.  Subways, street scenes, taxis, restaurants, holiday markets - always something to catch you eye.

I guess my biggest mistake of the weekend was on Saturday, when I hanging with Lucas and his two friends (1 we took along from home, the other just happened to be in the city that weekend and so he tagged along), it was a Saturday and I knew we would be using the subway so I got an unlimited weekly pass, but didn't know - though in retrospect it's pretty logical - that you can't just swipe 4 times in a row for a party of 4 - there is a timed delay on it, which makes sense since without it all sorts of malfeasance and abuse would occur - I've thought of 6 ingenious ways in the time it took to write this sentence.  That type of monday-morning quarterbacking didn't help me then, and back to metrocard dispenser I went for a more mundane 'by trip' card.  I ended up giving my unlimited weekly pass to a food delivery guy, so that was sort of unintendily Christmassy.

Here's a good photo of letting the city happen around you - I don't know what kind of person attracted their attention, but clearly from the look on the faces of the 2 kids sitting, it was a mixture of fear, weird, and fascination.  Also, when 1 normal person got up, there were able to squeeze their two little butts on the bench.

From Union Square, we headed north to the Guggenheim, where we were seeing a short musical rendition of Peter and the Wolf, but we took a wrong turn on Museum Mile Road and ended up on the steps of the Met, so we decided to get a hotdog, and turns out there was someone proposing to someone on the big concrete steps not too far away.

From there we tried to see Santa at Macy's, ended up at Rockefeller Center (very crowded), the line for Santa was too long (even with our reservations), so we ended up hanging at a watch store which featured a bunch of NBA sneakers and had a playstation area.   It was raining, and we had been rushing around so the kids sat in the store and played NBA 2k for awhile, while I regrouped.  Random, I know.

Simon's mom in Tannis, -community art savant, as well are farm manager of Willow Wisp farms that she runs with her husband Greg,- and she and her troupe were in NYC for a small theater showing of her Farms Arts group's short play about immigration.   She's a little out there (which I like - I've tried to support her various efforts financially for years) and so was the play.  (yes, they are on stilts - Tannis explained it as, since they do a lot of street theater, this helps people see the art, plus adds a real element of off-the-wallness to each production)

Simon and Lucas definitely intrigued.

A few stops at Dunkin Donuts never hurt anyone, was our mantra.

And my boy, growing up.

Of course, the fuel for all this fun was ongoing, with 2 homes half down in Narrowsburg, 4 starting in Callicoon, 4 going on in Kerhonkson NY, 2 finishing up in Stone Ridge NY, 4 new pieces of land being bought in Kerhonkson, 19 lots being pursued in Saugerties, 3 in Narrowsburg.   Renovating new offices in Wurtsboro NY, and working through a 4 lot subdivision in Phoenixville PA.  I'm probably forgetting a few things for sure.

Pics below of the 3 homes going up in Kerhonkson currently.  Really great real estate available in Kerhonkson and Accord, some of the best value around the Catskills.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Narrowsburg Real Estate and Christmas Festivities

First snow of the year came last week, the Sunday night after Thanksgiving.  The big range of projected snowfall kept us in suspense, and we ended up with a good amount, with a little icey rain first to make it a real mess.  It was end of day Tuesday before everyone was plowed out and logistically operational.

I really like my home in Milford PA, and the morning sun is highlighted each day.  This is a shot of Tuesday morning, circa 6:30am.  I renovated a pretty non-descript mid-90's ranch into something pretty neat and inspiring.

Lulu checking out the snow before stepping off the porch.

The light 15 minutes later.

 The hillside in front of the house that I cleared this past fall made for some serious sledding.  We've been talking about it, and on Sunday, with Lucas' friend Jovanni, we geared and gave it a shot.

Tree lighting ceremony in downtown Milford ye ole community house.  My boy in the center, the origins of his height advantage unknown.

The maniac trainers at Burn the Ships crossfit in Milford woke up at 7am on Sunday in order to do 420 burpees, which was the amount of food they collected from their members for a local food pantry.  It took them an hour of constant motion.  These people aren't right in the head.  I dare you to try and do 10 burpees, and see how you feel after 420.  Nearly dead, in need of defibrillator.

Lulu loves the radiant heat at the office. She tries to get every single inch possible of her body to touch the floor.

And since this is a business blog, I should post something about a house I guess.  here's a cool barn house in Narrowsburg NY going up, about 1/2 way done, looking awesome its first snow fall.