Joel Bigelow built more than homes
Builder/developer Joel Bigelow built more than 5,000 houses during his almost 40 years as the head of Bigelow Homes, but his peers say he is best known for building communities throughout southeastern Minnesota.
ROCHESTER — While builder/developer Joel Bigelow built more than 5,000 houses during his almost 40 years as the head of Bigelow Homes, but his peers say it was more than just building homes that made his impact on southeastern Minnesota.
Bigelow is best known for building communities.
“It's kind of amazing when you look at our relationship with Kasson, Byron and Pine Island. They are some of the towns that have grown the fastest in southern Minnesota. It corresponds to the commitment that a builder-developer made to that community,” said Bigelow Home President Mike Paradise. “That was probably one of the neatest things that Joel did when he committed to a community. He really committed to a community.”
The 68-year-old Bigelow, who founded Bigelow Homes in 1983, died recently following a crash on his motorcycle near Wasioja, Minn.
His company lives on under the guidance of his active family, led by Jeremy and Tony Bigelow.
However, what he personally added to the region can be seen in neighborhoods full of families in their first or second home in Rochester, Kasson, Wabasha, Pine Island, Byron, Zumbrota, Stewartville, Lake City, Claremont and Wanamingo.
Prior to the housing crash of 2008, about an estimated 20% of the homes that Bigelow built were in those smaller communities and 80% were in Rochester. That ratio flipped in the aftermath of the crash, according to Paradise.
Wherever he built, the main focus was on building a neighborhood of homes that could be affordable for first-time buyers or move-up buyers. The neighborhoods like Harvest View, Whispering Oaks, Manor Woods, Highlands of Zumbrota and many more provide a solid core of housing throughout southeastern Minnesota.
It all started with Bigelow’s vision.
“5,000 houses … that's an astounding number when you start thinking about it,” said ONB Bank President Brad Becker, who worked with Bigelow for more than 20 years.
ONB, which was previously called Olmsted National Bank, is an example of where Bigelow innovated and experimented with the home building process.
In 2003, he led a group of about 50 local investors to buy the Rochester-based bank from an Iowa-based organization.
The bank’s main focus is on single-family construction, residential mortgages and business banking, and it flourished during the building boom in Rochester and Byron. It has two local branches.
“It's certainly not common. It's a unique opportunity,” said Becker of Bigelow organziing the purchase of ONB.
Of course, it is not unheard of. In the region, others like the Regan family own Premier Bank and the McNeilus family own Sterling State Bank.
Bigelow’s entrepreneurial experimentation went beyond the bank.
In the run-up to the housing crisis, when Rochester set housing construction records nine years in a row, Bigelow tried a variety of ways to improve his company’s reach. While many describe his basic approach to business as “Old School,” he was also willing to experiment.
“The thing about Joel is that he always listened to a new idea,” said Paradise. “People would come in and say, ‘Hey, Joel, I think we should build walkable neighborhoods.’ Another example is people coming in and saying, ‘I think we should build homes with no basements on a slab.’Go back 10 years ago, and we would have all laughed at him. Now that is one of the most popular housing styles out there. Joel was willing to risk it. He was willing to do that.”
Bigelow set up a fabrication plant in Pine Island to make structural insulated panels for home construction. That was an experiment that didn’t pan out. He also was one of the only local builders to try using wood foundations over concrete, which did find some success. Paradise estimates about 25% percent of Bigelow Homes have wood foundations.
Pre-crash, Bigelow led a push to vertically integrate the home building company by owning the Olmsted County Lumber Mart, Home Improvement Professionals and the HIP equipment rental center in the Byron area.
During that time, Bigelow led a group to open the 32,000-square-foot Home Design Studio in 2007 as a sort of housing fixtures showroom for buyers building homes to choose cabinets, lighting, tile, electronics and more.
Bigelow closed, sold and consolidated those businesses in the wake of the housing crash. By taking steps like that, he was able to eventually weather the storm and maintain his relationships with area banks as well as continue to pay his subcontractors.
Taking care of his subcontractors was always important to Bigelow.
“Something that Joel told me over and over was ‘This has got to be a win-win-win’ meaning a win for the homeowner, a win for the subcontractor and a win for Bigelow Homes. If one of those three doesn't win, we lose,” remembered Paradise. “Now, did we pay the cheapest price in town? Probably not. But did we have the most loyalty? Yeah, we probably did.”
Bigelow is legendary for the holiday parties that he would throw for his subcontractors. The bashes featuring live music, food and drinks would draw massive crowds.
Paradise and Becker point to Bigelow’s way of taking care of his subcontractors as the prime example of his overall approach to business.
As a banker, you see lots of different business strategies. Joel’s approach wasn't ‘How can I make the most at somebody else's expense.” He was fair and honest. He wanted a lot of other people to succeed just as much as he did.”
Jeff Kiger tracks business action in Rochester and southeastern Minnesota every day in "Heard on the Street." Send tips to email@example.com or via Twitter to @whereskiger . You can call him at 507-285-7798.