A Cup of Coffee with…Bob Bender, The Commodore Corporation

Cup1) Who, What and Where: (Your name and your formal title at Commodore Homes and where your company is based).

Bob Bender, Chief Operating Officer, The Commodore Corporation, with our main office in Goshen, Indiana. The Commodore Corporation includes our Commodore Homes divisions in Pennsylvania and Indiana, our Pennwest, Manorwood, and R-Anell companies.

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

I consider myself a ‘recovering engineer,’ since that is my formal education, but not something I claim to do anymore.

I spent 16 years with a then-Fortune 50 company in the consumer and tech markets (Kodak), and then helped build several software startups, until I joined Commodore in 2004.

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3) When and How: (When and how you began with in manufactured housing).

fcoffeeinterviewmhpronews250x220This part of my life began in the summer of 2004, starting on the production line at our Goshen plant, and working in multiple roles across our companies in Indiana, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina.

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

Spending time with family, or as much as three teenagers will allow. My wife and I are also fortunate to have great friends. Occasionally I try to play some golf and basketball, although hoops will be ending soon as the competition keeps getting younger, taller, and faster.

5) As a privately held business, let’s have you share some history for Commodore Homes. You’re firm has been around for over half a century. What do you attribute that longevity to, maintaining yourselves as an independent operation?

Commodore is big enough to bring value to our retailers and builders, but small enough to still know most of them personally. We still deeply believe relationships matter in our Commodore companies.

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Being family owned and managed, we also get to focus on how to help our partners succeed without some of the calendar expectations public and investor-owned companies have to face.

6) The factory-built housing industry has been changing for some years now. In our interview with Barry Shein, he indicated that your operation’s product mix is about 50% HUD Code manufactured housing, and 50% modular homes. There are some who believe there is a tension between “HUDs and MODs,” but clearly, Commodore sees value in each of those niches. Isn’t there wisdom in promoting the unique value of both of those types of factory-home building? Can you shed some light on that, please?

I also believe there is great upside, and we continue to invest in the future. Over the years, our retailers and builders have taught us most of their customers want to buy a home, then worry about the code it is built to.

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The company supports several groups trying to improve the business, on both the manufacturing and modular home sides.

7) MHProNews has highlighted the fact that statistically, manufactured homes are only about 1% of all existing and new housing sales in the U.S., and modulars are an even smaller share of the mix of all housing being sold. We believe those facts actually to the huge upside opportunities in the market. We believe there is good evidence that residential style manufactured and modular homes – which is the focus for Commodore – have a strong upside potential. What say you?

Customers have more information than ever, and more exposure to designs and lifestyles as well.

We believe there is a good market for people who can only afford so much, but also a good market for people who will pay for what they want.

Those people often buy from the ‘outside in’, and many manufacturers are raising their game in designing better looking exteriors.

We believe in the market enough that we will be launching a new division in Wisconsin in August, focusing on both HUD and modular homes.

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8) You’ve seen a historic giant – Kodak – fade into the pages of history. There are those who believe that manufactured and modular housing sales must grow as a percentage of all housing sales, or we risk being made irrelevant. What say you?

My opinion on Kodak’s demise from a 130,000 person company to bankruptcy has less to do with technology than it does product and channel understanding. That company helped invent digital photography – I was personally involved in the early 1990’s launching some of it. There was an underlying disconnect, however, between what Kodak wanted to sell (film), what the existing channel wanted to sell (film), and what consumers really wanted to buy (the ability to take and share pictures easily). Those customers found what they wanted in digital cameras, from a completely different channel (Best Buy, Circuit City) and completely different manufacturers (Sony, HP, Casio, etc.). My kids have never used a film camera in their life, so change can happen quickly.

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For our industry today, as long as the manufacturers, retailers and builders, and all the transportation/set/trim companies in between carefully listen to those customer’s needs, we have a great chance to grow.

If we only hear what we want to hear, we could find ourselves in trouble.

We all need to adapt to serve that customer to grow bigger collectively, and I firmly believe it can happen.

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9) James McGee and Chet Murphree of Deer Valley Homebuilders have said that education is the key to increasing sales for factory built homes. That education includes informing public officials of the modern realities, as the Boston Globe and Mary McBrady of the Massachusetts Manufactured Housing Association have noted. Any you say?

Commodore participates with many groups trying to educate both consumers and regulators. We participate in the MHCC committee, MHARR, MHI, and MHBA (Modular Home Builders Association).

Education takes a long time to change perceptions, so it is important to be part of the solution rather than stand on the side and hope someone else does it.

As an aside, I always enjoy learning from Chet when we see each other, and respect his opinion greatly.

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10) Commodore focuses on what we call residential style HUD Code and modular homes. You often bring stunning models to the Louisville Manufactured Housing Show. If more conventional builders, realtors and housing seekers knew that type of quality and appeal that is available in factory-crafted homes, do you think that would attract more pros and the public to MH and MODs?

I came to the business believing that factory-built homes can be built better, faster, and at a lower or equal price. I still firmly believe that remains true.

The question is how to expand the reach of the retail channel, while changing the way manufacturers build homes to meet ever-changing expectations.

I still get excited walking people through a plant, and watching them become converts to factory-built housing almost immediately.

11) Your experience at Kodak gave you great insight into what happens when a strong foreign competitor undercuts a US industry. In many ways, America for decades was a global leader in factory home building. Today, there is much more global competition in factory home building. Do you ever think about the potential for Japanese, Chinese, Philippine, European or other factory builders coming to the U.S.? When factory-built housing hits the US in greater numbers, do you think it will spur more action on the part of industry pros to grow their share of the domestic market?

I worry about many, many other things before this hits my concern-list.

The market today seems to enjoy more and more customization, which manufacturers deliver through skilled labor at their manufacturing plants, trying to build what their partners think their customer ordered.

If a new or international company entered the US market, they might jump to different technologies to build, and different methods to interface with customers. I still believe home-buying is a deeply personal process, and the retailers and builders that best help customers feel comfortable will success the most.

12) Commodore is heavily involved in trade shows such as Louisville, and you often bring pretty amazing product to those events. Please share some insights into your philosophy of trade shows. Also, for those who haven’t been to a trade show in years, explain why they are a benefit to communities, retailers and builder/developers. Share some visuals that showcase your product for those who don’t know it as well as they should.

Commodore believes shows provide an opportunity to demonstrate what we can do, but as importantly, an opportunity to share time with our partners and learn from them. With our perception that customization will only increase, customers will want touch and feel many of the things they can choose in their home, and we try to find ways to help them discover.

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13) Barry Shein is clearly proud of your work with Commodore. What has it been like working with him these past few years?

This is remarkably well-built company, with a great culture, work-ethic, and curiosity to get better.

That starts with Barry, and will continue with me in the future. It is a delight to go to work, and we are blessed with a management team that feels the same.

14) At retail, roughly what price points can Commodore serve for what sizes and styles of homes?

Each of our divisions serves a target market, since it is hard to be everything to everyone.

We build homes at the very basic, entry level HUD-code homes in the northeast, all the way to highly-custom multi-story modular homes in other markets.

We can only estimate what the final retail price points are since we don’t own our channel, but instead work with independents. We listen closely to them to understand what they need, and work with them to understand what they can market and serve.

15) As you and many readers know, SWOT is short for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. If you gave a thumbnail SWOT analysis for manufactured and modular housing, what would it be? Are the SWOT items the same for HUDs as they are for MODs? If they differ, in your view, how so?

Homebuyers are more the same than different, regardless of the code. They want a home that serves different needs than what they have today.

They can buy an existing home – which most do – or build a new home.

For the industry to reach more of those new home buyers, retailers and builders need to continue to evolve to serve that prospect, which we clearly see happening.

Serving is different than selling, and that includes the manufacturers and other trades. The homes we build at Commodore are as good and typically better-built than anything else that homebuyer can consider, and I think that more customers are becoming aware of that quality difference across the industry.

That is certainly a strength, but the opportunity remains to listen even closer to what they want. Perhaps the biggest threat would be our intelligent dismissal of how that customer wants to be satisfied.

16) Closing thoughts, sir?

I appreciate the energy you put into this industry, and everyone else that consistently highlights the ‘upside’ to this wonderful business. ##

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