Gus Rubio gave up hopes for a basketball career to pursue luxury home building
This article was published on January 26, 2014 in Greenville Online.
Written by: Angelia Davis
Gus Rubio’s release of one passion lent stability to the current one.
He was a college student when he let go of a dream to become a professional basketball player.
The decision brought on a sense of regret that made it hard for Rubio to give up his love of custom home building, even when the industry hit turbulence.
That perseverance, along with hard work and good employees, has helped the company Rubio and his wife Belinda started in 1984 achieve a level of success they never imagined.
Gabriel Builders, based in Greer, develops luxury custom homes in the Carolinas for clients ranging from corporate executives to sports stars, including Major League Baseball pitcher Tom Glavine, to celebrities.
The company, named in honor of the Rubios’ first son, Gabe, has won Pacesetter awards given by Custom Home Builder magazine and the National Association of Home Builders for quality and customer service.
From 2008-2012 consecutively, Gabriel Builders picked up the Home Builders Association of South Carolina’s top Pinnacle Award in the category of new home construction of $5 million or more. The award recognizes “the craftsmanship of the best home builders and remodelers in the Palmetto State,” the association said.
And on top of that, when the housing market was suffering from its worst economic downturn, Gabriel Builders was enjoying its best year, Gus said.
Reflecting on some of the company’s struggles, he said, “If you’d told me we’d be as successful as we’ve been I would have never believed that.”
“We’ve gone through some really tough times,” Belinda said. “I’m so amazed at how the Lord has kept everything afloat, kept us together and just has turned our business into something we never saw coming.”
Michael Dey, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Greenville, said Rubio “has really built an incredible successful business. As a small business person, he’s identified a business niche and built a business model around it. He’s become a successful builder, one of just a very small few who are producing at a price point that is pretty high.”
Building houses was one thing that 57-year-old Gus Rubio said he never dreamed he’d be doing.
He and his brother, Ramon, a college professor, came to the United States from Cuba with their parents, Ramon and Lourdes Fernandez-Rubio, when Gus was 5 years old.
Gus said his father was a lawyer in Cuba and had attended law school with Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
“My dad was a little of an entrepreneur in that he came to this country not knowing the language,” Rubio said. “He pumped gas for a living to start out with and he’s always believed in education. In his country, education is what makes you successful.”
Rubio’s father went back to school after arriving in the United States and became a college professor. He taught at the University of Georgia and Vanderbilt University before coming to Greenville to teach at Furman University for more than 30 years, he said.
Gus had always wanted to have his own business, but “I didn’t know what I wanted to do.”
When he was younger, he’d given thought to having his own sporting goods store. He thought about being a banker, patterning after his grandfather who was a bank president in Cuba.
“I always looked up to him so I thought maybe I’d go into banking because I liked that,” he said. “I liked the financial side of it.”
In the Rubio household, it was Gus’ mom, Lourdes, who had the construction skills. She had “one little hammer and a screw driver” and “did all the repairs,” Gus said. “She was very talented,” he recalled.
“I remember seeing a cabinet that she’d built with a hand saw,” he said.
“It was an amazing cabinet,” Belinda said. “It’s still standing.”
Belinda believes Gus inherited his creativity and craftsmanship from his mother, who was “artistic.”
“Gus is that way, I think, with the visual side of this business,” she said. “We walk through homes and he spots things that nobody else would ever spot. It’s amazing.
“He’s perfect for this business, with the complexity and the details of the houses that we do because he’s such a visionary with it. He loves the details,” she said.
Love and Basketball
Before he fell in love with home building, he was in love with the idea of becoming a professional basketball player. He also fell in love with Belinda, his wife now of 34 years.
The couple met while both were students at Berea High School. They began dating and “never dated anybody else,” Belinda said.
Gus was also serious about basketball.
“I’d be in a hot summer gym at noon, the hottest point of the day, playing basketball,” he said. “It’s crazy, but that was my life.”
“I never really worked much in the summers but when I did, I either ran a basketball camp or I was in there playing basketball,” he said.
Gus went to North Greenville College and Augusta College in Georgia on full basketball scholarships. He and Belinda attended North Greenville first, where they received associate degrees. Then they attended Augusta College for a month, Belinda said.
“We were both very homesick,” Gus said. “We were both pretty miserable.”
It was at that point that Gus, who was named to the Hall of Fame for basketball at Berea High and North Greenville, gave up his pursuit of a basketball career.
They came back to Greenville and went to Furman University to earn their bachelor’s degrees. The day after graduation, they got married.
Gus said that even today he has nightmares about giving up his dream of being a professional basketball player.
But when he’s been confronted with struggles in his home-building business, “it made it easy not to quit because I’d quit something else that I’d really, really loved and that was basketball,” he said. “I wasn’t going to give up again.”
A New Love
Rubio started buying rental properties and doing renovating jobs and carpentry work while in college.
“I fell in love with the creative side of it and the fact that when you build something, you can walk away from it and really admire what you’ve done and it stays there,” he said.
After college, he worked as a quality control manager for a Fortune 100 company, but continued to build houses after work, on weekends and in his spare time.
Gabriel was 2 years old when they started the company.
In the beginning, Rubio continued to work a full-time job and and build houses.
“It was just me — writing the checks , checking the jobs … I’m doing it all,” he said. “At that age, you’ve got a lot of energy, goals and passions about things.”
Shortly after their second child, Lauren, was born, Belinda quit her job to be home with the children.
Three months later, Gus also quit his job and concentrated on Gabriel Builders full time. The company began with $5,000 and proceeds from the sale of Belinda’s car.
“It was a little scary, but I was so happy to be at home with the children that I didn’t focus on what could happen in the business at that point,” Belinda said. “I just wanted to take care of my family.”
“Scary” was also the word Gus used to describe that period when “all of a sudden you realize you’ve got no income and I’ve given up job security for maybe a dream.”
But, he said, that’s a risk of being an entrepreneur.
“Do you want security or do you want to go for that dream? I’d want to go for that dream,” he said.
Reaching the Lowest Point
Maybe the biggest test in Rubio’s determination not to give up on another passion came in the 1980s.
The economy had slowed then, he said, and the company was building homes in a community that Liberty Life had just developed in the Five Forks area.
They had six spec houses that hadn’t yet sold and were building two $400,000 to $500,000 houses that a developer was paying them for, Gus said.
The developer went bankrupt, leaving Gus unable to pay the bills.
“I ended up selling my personal house and took all of our savings that we had for retirement and moved into my mom and dad’s basement,” Gus said. “For three years, I didn’t take a salary. Belinda went back to work and supported our family for three years.”
He said the situation was “one of those setbacks that just make you stronger. It solidified my faith.”
The couple had been advised to file for bankruptcy but chose not to. Instead, they cashed in everything they had to pay off everyone they owed.
The plumber was among those they couldn’t pay at that time, so Gus offered him his Jeep.
“We did stuff like that and paid everybody back so we didn’t have to file bankruptcy or anything,” he said. “That was painful.”
Rubio said never taking a risk would mean the very worst that could happen would.
“You always think of the positive things — you could be successful and have a good income and enjoy seeing what you’re constructing, but again, I would have never dreamed it’s doing what we’ve done,” he said.
Belinda said what made moving in with his parents hard for her is that they’d both gone to Furman and gotten business degrees.
“It’s like we’d worked hard and then you just lose everything. Although we didn’t lose our health and nobody died or got sick, which would be the worst thing, but you just start thinking what have we done wrong and how did this happen to us because I thought we had more sense,” she said.
“You think you get an education and that it protects you maybe from those things happening and it doesn’t at all.”
Selling everything they had to pay their vendors and subcontractors, Belinda said, was the right, ethical and moral thing to do.
“But it was hard for me to watch that happen, knowing how hard he’d worked and how honest he had been,” she said. “It was probably the best lesson that we could have taught our kids — that integrity always pays off. We didn’t know it would pay off at the level it has paid off.”
Their youngest son, Nick, who studied construction science and management at Clemson, is the assistant project manager/estimator at Gabriel Builders.
Nick said the biggest lesson he has learned from his dad is that “hard work, honesty and customer service will get you farther than anything.”
“That’s what I get from watching him, his business and the hardships he’s come through,” he said.
Gabe, who got his degree in finance from Clemson and is the company’s project manager, said the lesson for him is to “always be honest and treat people the way you want to be treated.”
Gabriel Builders has 10 employees, including the Rubio’s two sons. Their daughter, Lauren, lives in Asheville and works in medical supplies.
The Cliffs Communities makes up about half of the Rubios’ business.
They recently finished a home in The Cliffs at Mountain Park for Ben Whipple, a commercial architect, who moved there from California with his wife, Bennie.
Gabriel Builders was one of the contractors referred to the Whipples by their real estate agent, once they found their lot.
“Both Bennie and I like them very much. They were very personable,” Whipple said. And, he said, when they came back to Greenville and looked at all the homes Gabriel Builders had built, “there was no question that these were the people we were going to use.”
The Whipples’ home wasn‘t complete when they came to the Upstate, so “the Rubios put us up for a week,” Ben said. “We’ve become very good friends.” And the house, he said, “as far as I’m concerned is spectacular.”
Rewards in Relationships
Rubio, a Master Builder and a member of Club 20, a program of the National Association of Home Builders, said he’s most proud today of his wife and “the phenomenal job” she’s done with their children.
Both he and Belinda pride themselves on having “great employees,” including their sons.
Belinda’s favorite part of the job is working in sales and marketing with Gus and engaging the people they meet, from all over the world, who end up becoming the Rubios’ friends.
“It’s not that we just build their house and walk away,” she said. “That’s why our tagline is lifelong relationships.”
As part of their warranty program, one year after a house is completed, Gabriel Builders goes back there to make a list of things that need to be fixed. They do the same thing two years later, Belinda said.
“It’s another way to say we’re here for the long run and we’re going to make things right,” she said.
Rubio said “we’re very proactive in looking at things instead of waiting for somebody to call.”
Being your own boss, he said, doesn’t necessarily mean being in control of your own destiny.
“I’d like to tell you there’s a lot of flexibility, and there is. Most people work a normal 40-hour week,” Gus said. “I can’t tell you the last time I worked a 40-hour week.”
The couple said they’ve reached a point in the business now where they can do more to help others.
They donated the water system for an orphanage in Haiti, being constructed by builder friend Len Genge, in honor of his daughter Britney, who died in an earthquake there while on a college mission trip in 2010. They’ve also been able to do things for YoungLife, a ministry for adolescents.
“Before, we couldn’t do (those things) because we struggled to meet payroll every week,” Belinda said.
Also in the last few years, the couple has been able to have provide a 401(k) and a profit-sharing plan for their employees.
Last year, Rubio said, he was able to go to Cuba, where he was born, on a mission trip.
People in Cuba are not able to go out and start their own business like they can here, he said.
“They’re now starting to have some opportunities after 50 years of oppression,” he said. “It’s phenomenal that in this country you can pretty much do what you want, whatever your passion is you can just about take it and make a career out of it.”
To view the article, click here.