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Published: Sunday, 11/21/2004

High-energy maverick puts mark on Bedford

BY GARY T. PAKULSKI
BLADE REAL ESTATE WRITER
Bill Decker, Jr., got his start with his father's company but broke with him less than amicably about a decade ago. Bill Decker, Jr., got his start with his father's company but broke with him less than amicably about a decade ago.
MORRISON / BLADE PHOTO Enlarge

Bedford developer Bill Decker, Jr., doesn't sugar-coat his early performance. He was, he concedes, an unpopular kid who squeaked through classes while shunning sports and other after-school activities.

But he had something going for him: his father's successful custom-home construction business. At 12, "Billy," as he is still called by some people in the town where he was reared and where he has made his mark, began helping at home sites by taking on clean-up chores. He rose through the ranks, eventually becoming construction superintendent.

Over the past decade, after a less than amicable break with his dad, the 44-year-old has become one of Bedford Township's largest builder-developers.

To the delight of many and the chagrin of anti-development activists, he has helped transform his hometown into an upscale bedroom community that is Toledo's largest suburb with 31,000 residents.

His firm, Decker Building Co., rakes in $12 million annually, has erected about 700 houses, and has given birth to a growing list of subdivisions that includes Bragden Creek, Captiva, Waterford, Summerfield Woods, and Prairie Woods.

"We're a well-oiled machine," he pronounced during a recent nterview.

A visitor to his Temperance office, with its atmosphere of barely controlled chaos, might conclude otherwise.

Shortly after noon on a recent weekday he sat around a conference table munching lunch with a group of business associates from China. The menu was Taco Bell take-out.

"When you're not busy, I need to talk to you," said an assistant, entering the conference room. "Do it with Jon," replied Mr. Decker, who is clad casually in a plaid shirt and work pants. "I'm jammed." Despite the woman's insistence that the matter required his personal attention, Mr. Decker didn't relent.

Later, dispatching instructions to another subordinate, he said: "You know how your mind jumps out of a box, let it jump."

At one point, he conducted simultaneous conversations, talking about his schedule with a cell-phone caller while providing narration for a visitor of photos showing work being done by one of his construction crews in hurricane-ravaged Pensacola, Fla.

"He goes a million miles an hour but he understands fundamentally everything that is going on around him and gets things done," observed Jeff Wehrle, president of Toledo-based Forrester Wehrle Homes, a longtime competitor with which Mr. Decker now collaborates.

In an industry riddled with unhappy customers, Mr. Decker said his firm has had few complaints. At the Better Business Bureau of Northwest Ohio and Southeast Michigan, records show Decker Building Co. has been the subject of no customer complaints over the last three years.

He hasn't escaped controversy, however.

Members of an anti-development group called No More Subs.com turned out last month at a township meeting to oppose Mr. Decker's plans to transform a 60-acre farm parcel into 120 to 150 homes.

Opponents say the development is not in keeping with the township's master plan, which seeks to balance the interests of developers and those who are fighting wholesale conversion of remaining agricultural land.

Although there has been no decision on the matter, Mr. Decker doesn't apologize for his activities, arguing that development has been good for Bedford.

He conceded, however, that development has driven land prices in the township up from $2,200 an acre a decade ago to $25,000 an acre today.

Tom Covrett, a neighbor and chairman of the township planning commission, called Mr. Decker "conscientious as a developer and as a person."

Mr. Covrett added: "He always goes above and beyond what's called for in the rules and regulations and crosses all of his T's and dots all of his I's."

Mr. Decker is forging ahead with plans for further development. Set to begin next year in the township: an eventual 157-home subdivision on the former Fire Creek golf course (done with Forrester Wehrle); an 87-house subdivision aimed at retirees and other couples with grown children that will be called Grey Estates; and Adler Estates, a 150-house subdivision on Adler Road.

In all, his firm owns or has options on 300 acres in Bedford.

For years, Mr. Decker's core customer has been a two-income married couple in their 30s, building a house averaging $250,000.

Recently, however, he has branched out into markets focused on retirees and childless couples and first-time home-buyers. Prairie Woods, another venture with Forrester Wehrle, is aimed at the latter market, with houses at $150,000 to $190,000.

Mr. Decker employs 300 subcontractors, but his permanent staff remains small. It's he and a partner, Jon Jones, two other full-timers, and a part-time accountant and a secretary.

Despite a heavy work load, Mr. Decker said he is relatively stress-free. "This is a high for me," he said. "I don't drink and I don't smoke. It's a high to see someone's house built and to employ 300 people on a daily basis."

His estrangement from his father is an open secret in local building circles.

He left Decker Homes, operated by Bill Sr., in 1994 to go off on his own. "He hasn't spoken to me since," Bill Jr. said. "It's probably my least proudest moment."

His father, in a separate interview, said he is pleased by his son's success but that he is troubled by the younger man's decision to operate under a similar name. People frequently confuse Decker Homes and Decker Building Co., the elder man said. "There isn't a week that goes by that I don't get his mail or his phone calls."

"We haven't talked," the father said. "It's caused me pain."

Bill Jr. is married for the second time and is the father of three children, ranging in age from 1 year to 18.

For relaxation in the summer he enjoys water sports at his weekend house on Sand Lake in Michigan's Irish Hills. In the winter, he switches from a Jet Ski to a snowmobile.

He owns a modest 2,500-square-foot home in the township as well as a recently purchased house in Pensacola, which he will use as a part-time residence after repairing hurricane damage.

He is a former president of the Home Builders Association of Greater Toledo and a 1978 graduate of Bedford High School.

Among the developer's other ventures is a firm that acts as a wholesaler of granite countertops and other building products imported from China.

Holdings Depot Inc., which has offices next to Mr. Decker's on Summerfield Road at Smith Road and a warehouse in Perrysburg, began last January at a home builders convention in Las Vegas. There, the developer approached a booth manned by owners of a Chinese factory that produces stone countertops.

Talks there led to a visit to China. "I covered nine provinces and 27,000 miles in two weeks," Mr. Decker recalled. "We went through 36 different factories and are doing business with 26 of them today."

A Web site and other marketing efforts have attracted 500 customers nationwide. Since Holdings Depot was formed, he has imported countertops and other building products with a wholesale value of $1.8 million.

Mr. Decker recognizes that Chinese imports are a sensitive subject in metro Toledo with its heavy unionization and historical links to manufacturing. But he said: "Take your shirt off, it's going to say 'China.' Your tape recorder, your eyeglasses, everything's made in China. They're the factory of the world."

His goal, he said, "is taking advantage of opportunities to improve the product line we build without increasing costs."

That has been his firm's guiding philosophy since it was formed.

"We didn't have a business plan when we started," he added. "We don't have one today."

Contact Gary Pakulski at: gpakulski@theblade.com or 419-724-6082.



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