A Cup of Coffee with… Don Westphal

Cup-manufacturedhomepronews1) Who, What and Where: (Your name, and your role/job title at what organization or firm)

I’m Don Westphal, managing member of Donald C. Westphal, Associates, LLC a Landscape Architecture and Site Planning firm located in Rochester, Michigan, serving clients nationwide.

2) Background (Educational/Professional before entering the factory-built housing arena):

I received a Bachelor of Science degree in Landscape architecture from Michigan State University and a Master of Landscape Architecture degree from the University of Illinois. Before opening my firm in 1968, I worked at planning firms in Louisville Kentucky and Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan.

3) When and How: (When and how you got into the Manufactured/Modular Housing Industry)

I was accepted into Graduate School late in the spring of 1963 and was unable to find suitable married housing. We purchased a 36X8′ Brentwood mobile home in Muskegon Michigan, welded a hitch on a farm semi and towed it to the Glover Street Trailer Park in Urbana, Illinois. Our little home was perfect for students, but the 17 site trailer park was less than ideal. Rent then was $25.00 per month, and we ended up not having to pay the site fee, in exchange for keeping the washer and dryer in the laundry building clean and placing the mail in each mail slot daily. While doing some research for a term paper on mobile homes, I found references to the Mobile Homes Manufacturers Association in Chicago and paid them a visit. I met Dick Beitler and Herb Behrend there and was hired as one of two consultants to their Land Development Division which was offering site planning services to developers as a way to improve the design of mobile home parks. The industry was trying to improve its image way back in the 60’s. I ended up writing my master’s thesis on Manufactured Housing and as they say, “the rest is history.” I continued as a consultant to MHMA designing communities for several years and taught sessions on planning at several MHMA Site Development Seminars in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Interestingly, Danny Ghorbani joined the staff at MHMA a year or two after I started consulting with MHMA.

4) What are your personal interests or hobbies? How do you like to spend non-work time?

I enjoy time with my wife, my children and grandchildren, especially during the summer months at our RV campsite in central Michigan. I am active in Church where I direct an English Handbell Choir and I have been very involved in the Rochester Lions Club for 40 years. I joined the musicians union when I was 14 and still pay drums with a Dixieland band. I enjoy woodworking in my shop, built a home from the ground up in the 80’s, and have completed a frame up restoration of a 1955 MG TF1500 which I drive in good weather.

5) What do you consider the largest challenges facing the industry in general today?

For years I have said that the Manufactured Housing Industry has succeeded in spite of itself. Fragmentation of the industry segments has resulted in a serious lack of consumer confidence. Many in the industry have neglected the needs of our customers who could ultimately be our best salespersons. Too many of us blame government or our regulators for the sorry state of the industry. I believe that if the industry spent more of its resources in conveying the value of our product to the public and taking care of our customers, we would have a base of support that would help us to overcome the regulatory and finance issues we face today. Think about it, potentially 20,000,000 sales people for our products and way of life.

I’m convinced that we are perceived as self serving business persons beating our drums for our own benefit. Beating our drums too loudly and for too long may be causing others to tune us out. If the public and our customers believed as many of us do, that we are the last best hope for reasonably priced, quality homes, they would demand that policies be adopted that make our homes more available. “If not us, than who?!”

6) What are the biggest challenges to community operators/developers? How do you see redevelopment needs and opportunities?

Many of the homes in our established communities are thirty or more years old and functionally obsolete. If the industry entered upon a campaign to facilitate the replacement of five to ten percent of these homes a year, factory production would grow significantly. Henry Ford once said that if he never produced another car, he could live comfortably supplying parts to keep the existing ones on the road. The same could be said of the manufactured housing industry if we intentionally replaced the aging homes and filled existing vacant home sites with new homes. This is a perfect time for this to happen. The desire and push for bigger and more upscale homes is being replaced of necessity by a realization that we need to live within our means and be more conservation oriented. Saving energy costs through replacement of older homes with more efficient new ones is not only good for the pocket book, but also socially responsible. Like it or not, responsible consumption will be a watchword of the future world.

7) How do you personally approach challenges that come up for you professionally? (In other words, how do you try to tackle problems and arrive at effective solutions?)

A lifetime of experiences as a planner has taught me to view the whole picture as issues arise. I do not believe in the Band-aid approach to problem solving. I believe that we overcome challenges through creativity, much like a planner who thoroughly analyzes the site and overcomes difficult site problems through creative and innovative, sometimes new approaches to the problem.

8) There is quite some still about the Virtual Louisville Housing Show© concept. You’ve done trade shows, what is your take on this type of virtual show approach that can be used to move wholesale and retail ahead rapidly?

I had attended or participated as an exhibitor in the Louisville Show since the sixties and have a lapel pin to prove it. I have also been a presenter and exhibitor at the MHI Congress in Las Vegas since the beginning. These events offered a great opportunity to meet friends and future clients as well as keep oneself current on industry issues and trends. Being up to date and aware is essential if we are to effectively plan for the future. I will miss that experience here in the mid-west with the demise of the Louisville show and I believe there is still a need for members of the industry to get together to network and promote our product. Yet, as I said in the previous answer, new times and conditions create new challenges and we all need to embrace technology and the opportunities it presents. I am anxious to participate in the Virtual Housing Show adventure and will also be participating in a virtual RV show later this year.

9) It seems that we as an industry need to learn to work together better. As one industry pro recently said, we don’t have a product problem we have a communications problem. You’ve been around longer than most; you’ve done new things as well as the tried and true. How can the various ‘camps’ or voices in the industry achieve that for the good of all concerned?

As a seasoned industry member, I am reluctant to say that I believe we may need a ‘changing of the guard’ and the addition of some more flexible and innovative young blood in the mix. Some of us have been beating the same drum so loud and for so long that we have become deaf to the sounds of change and too set in our ways to adapt to a new paradigm. Here is an example: We recently requested some specific product illustrations needed to convince a municipality that we’re not proposing a 350 site ‘trailer park.’ After some attempts at communication, the response from the plant sales manager was the old school ‘mob-dog’ response, essentially: “we can make anything you want, how soon do you want em?” Similarly, I regularly have conversations with owners of ailing communities who are unwilling to make even the most modest upgrades to their community image needed to preserve the value of their property and instill pride of ownership in their residents. And let’s not fail to mention the finance company that would rather take a home back and ultimately wholesale it at an enormous loss than work with a faithful resident who has made payments on time for ten years and is now experiencing hard times.

Each of us should start the day asking ourselves: “Is what I have done in the past working for me today??????????????? If the answer is “no”, then commit to change or step aside and pass the torch to a new generation.

10) Other remarks or comments, industry related.

I recently read in a trade publication that the RV industry is predicting a 30% increase in sales this year. Their success is directly related to their “go RVing” campaign. It’s a shame that our industry isn’t unified enough and willing to commit to a similar campaign for the good of all of us. Perhaps in lieu of a top down campaign, we could start a unified grass roots promotional campaign by creating an industry slogan we could all use in our advertising to promote the product and lifestyle. Got any ideas?

A bit older and some wiser, but still optimistic about our future…

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