This article was featured in the April 1999 issue of Builder/Architect.
Written by: Jan Scalisi
Gabriel Builders, Inc. is built, in no small measure, on faith. A promising start,
a leap of faith, success, followed by hard times and rebuilding. All those things have made the husband-and-wife team behind the Greenville-based construction company stronger and wiser.
Gabriel Builders specializes in upper-end custom homes. Their clientele is selec- tive, knowledgeable, and they receive calls from as far away as California from people who want them to build their upstate homes.
Today, Gus and Belinda Rubio build six to 10 custom homes a year in Greenville neighborhoods like Chanticleer and The Cliffs at Glassy. Gabriel Builders is booked months in advance and has an excellent word-of-rnouth reputation. But today’s success is the present reward for a couple who faced hard times past with grace and faith, and who always made it a priority to stick together.
Their story starts early, when both attended Berea High School. Belinda was 14 and Gus was 17 when they met, and they’ve been together ever since. They attended North Greenville College together, where Gus was an Athletic Hall-of- Famer as a basketball player.
The couple married the day after graduating from Furman together, both with business degrees. Belinda took a job as a business analyst at Liberty Life Insur- ance Corp. and Gus began a career as a shift supervisor at Cryovac.
Gus was always busy on the side, though. “I had done summer construction in high school and college, mostly working as a laborer,” remembers Gus. “I didn’t really like it until I started doing carpentry work.” He started his building business in a small way, building decks and remodeling houses. As a young couple, they bought and renovated a few rental proper- ties, but Gus found that didn’t suit.
“I didn’t have the personality to be a landlord,” he says with a laugh. “I had people leave in the middle of the night, owing me money. So we sold [the properties].” In 1984, Gus started building houses, although “probably not making a dime,” he recalls. Belinda became a stay-at-home mom after the birth of their second child, Lauren, in 1985.
By 1987, Gus, too, was ready to leave the corporate world. With Belinda’s sup- port, Gus took the leap and started building houses full-time. They named their company Gabriel Builders after their first-born son Gabriel (Gabe). Gus was 30 years old. “I was young enough to go back to work if I had to. But I didn’t think of it in those terms. I just wanted to get out and do it on my own.
Gus Rubio’s experience has made him a good teacher. “You have to think long term,” he advises young builders. “People think they want to make as much money as fast as they can. But the real focus has be on quality construction and cus- tomer service. “If a homeowner is having a problem, you’ve got to have the integrity to stand behind your work and fix the problem.” Estimating is a tough but vital component of success. New builders can get tripped up by inaccurate estimating, inexperience and undercapitalization. Managing these factors, in addition to keeping the customer satisfied, will determine the success and logevity of your business, Rubio says.
“When I left work at the end of the day, I wanted to be able to see what I had done. That’s the beauty of construction— you can see results.” Gabriel Builders did well, with Gus in charge of construction and estimating and Belinda managing the office and accounting functions. By 1989, Gus was building 20 to 30 houses a year, had a furnished model home in Adam’s Run, an office building underway, and two salespeople working just for him.
But Desert Storm, corporate mergers, layoffs and recession hit them hard. With $1.5 million in inventory, $8,000 a month in interest payments, and a drop in housing activity, the business began to struggle. The Rubios depleted their personal savings, sold their home, moved in with his parents and Belinda went back to work at Liberty Life. Gradually, with Gus still building and ultimately selling their inventory, they were able to survive. Slowly but surely, Gabriel Builders paid its debts and made its way back.
“If not for our faith, we would have never gotten through it,” Belinda says. “I can now say I’m thankful we went through that experience, because it made us put God, family and friends first.” “It was the lowest point in my life,” adds Gus honestly, “but it made me realize what’s important. It humbled me and made me a better person. It made me a better Christian.”
And, it seems, a better builder and businessman. Today Gus has more work than he can handle. Belinda rejoined the company in 1995, and they’ve now hired a full-time office employee to allow her more time with their children, Gabe, Lauren and Nick. Gus no longer builds spec houses. He specializes in upper- end custom homes. His clientele is selective, knowledgeable and quality-minded, and he receives calls from as far away as California from people who want him to build their homes. Past homeowners have included the president of Michelin North America. Gus says he’s amazed at the variety of people who are settling in Upstate South Carolina and Western North Carolina. With them, they bring the newest trends in building.
Gabriel Builders currently has homes under construction in Chanticleer, Kilgore Plantation, Thornblade, Parkins Mill, Cliffs Valley and The Cliffs at Glassy, where Gus built the sales office and is building the chapel. He limits the number of homes he builds each year to allow for important hands-on project management.
Unlike many builders, Gus keeps his carpenter crew on payroll for maximum flexibility and control. He also employs a project manager, and two trim carpenters. Many top subcontractors have been with Gabriel Builders for more than
Gus does a little design work, and is particularly good at millwork, but he receives much of his work at the recommenda- tion of several well-regarded local architects.
In the end, Gus says his company and his employees continue to get referrals because they have established a reputation for high quality, timely service, and both personal and professional integrity. “We’re conscientious and we’re honest. he says simply. Gus limits the number of homes he builds each year to allow for important hands-on project manage- ment. They say the hardships that don’t kill you only make you stronger. . Nowhere is that truism truer than in the building business. Many fail, few prevail as Gabriel Builders has. “It’s a tough business,” Gus admits. “You have to really want to succeed.” And if, in the end, you do succeed, it means you learned your lessons well.