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On The Level: No Penny Arcadia with Jeff Ecleberry

LONGVIEW – Driving through this posh neighborhood – and posh is the only word for it – is like driving through the making of a Lexus commercial.

Past the guardhouse, which is as big as 1950s tract house and a lot nicer, the gently curving streets undulate over “speed tables” (not speed bumps) made of pavers (not pavement).

Gentlemen drive golf carts more expensive-looking than my car. A small crowd gathers, sipping iced tea, at a women’s doubles match down at the courts. There are no minivans, only Mercedes coupes and Range Rovers. The houses have copper gutters and permanent roofing, mortar cascading out of the joints of weathered bricks, or stone siding, or cedar, or real stucco, or all of the above; and at least one has a glass cupola atop a spiraling tower.

Arcadia Homes partner Jeff Ecleberry was at the gate (otherwise a scroungy journalist couldn’t have gotten in), and he led the way in his Audi sport wagon. We passed palatial homes his company has built, then arrived at a central “village” of “smaller” homes – as in smaller than the Taj Mahal – also built by Arcadia. We sat in a stone and cedar gazebo in the middle of a large common green.

The trim, patrician-looking Ohio native, who graduated with an architecture degree from Ohio State, says he is 60.

We should all be so old. And as passionate about we do.


Somebody forgot to finish that mortar between those bricks. Ha. Masons call that a “sloppy mortar joint.” We call it a “weeping mortar joint.”


These are the “smaller” houses here? They’re not that small, around 3,500 to 4,500 square feet. This is a village of empty-nesters. Initially, they were supposed to be smaller, and a couple of them are. But the buyers were downsizing from 7,000 to 8,000 square feet, and they found that they still needed room for that 18-foot dining table. What’s neat about this village is that the golf course is all around it. Usually the smaller homes in a development like this are around the perimeter, but this is primo property.


This whole development looks pretty primo to a guy who lives in an apartment building where the mortar isn’t weeping, it’s crumbling. This used to be Melvin Graham’s dairy farm, Billy’s brother. His vision for this property when he decided to develop it has really lasted.


How’d you get started in this business? Start after college. I moved to upstate South Carolina, and for the next eight years I took a job designing buildings for a conveyance-equipment manufacturer, and I wasn’t taking advantage of my passion for residential architecture. I wanted to design homes, and have since I was in junior high school. It was a summer job that became an eight-year job. But one day, my 30th birthday, I just said, “I’m going to the beach and sell real estate.” So I moved to Myrtle Beach and I sold condos in North Myrtle. This was the mid-’80s when they were building all those condos along the beach up there, and everybody was buying them three or four at a time as investments and tax shelters. It was strictly a numbers thing. I was just selling and selling. That changed in the late ’80s when Congress changed the depreciation schedules from 15 to 30 years and tax rates and brackets went down. Again, it was just a job. But the beach was fun. I met my wife there. It was a cool place to live. But as I got older, it started to feel a little too transitional, a place where people live for a while on their way to somewhere else. So we moved to Charlotte and I went to work for a production builder, Ryan, where I spent three years in sales and marketing management. See, I was evolving toward . . . trying to find my passion of custom residential. But this was just sales, more numbers, my full-time job, not my passion.


You had a dream deferred. Then I went to work for a custom builder named Harry Grimmer. This was in ’91, and there were only a handful of custom builders in Charlotte. And he was not really a custom builder; he was more of a high-quality spec builder. Charlotte was booming then, and our company built a lot of speculative houses then, for people moving up and moving in, with no time to custom design a house from the ground up.


What makes it a “custom” home? To me, a custom home is one that has a customer.


That is a brilliant definition. One of my partners said that, Mike Salamone. You should also write down that my other partner is Robby Bowers.


You three started Arcadia after your time with Grimmer? They started Arcadia in 1994 and I started my own company in 1994, Cornerstone Home Builders. We were friendly competitors. I was building a lot up near (Lake Norman) and we were competing in a neighborhood called Radbourne, and we ran into each other a lot. In fact, our offices were in the same building in Pineville. We had a shared wall, and I could pound on it, and say, “Hey, Robby, you there?” We were competitors, but we had a lot of mutual respect. Mike’s from the business side of the business, and Robbie does the construction side. My function is the creation of homes.


Meaning? I like to say my job is fulfilling our clients’ dreams. Most of them have never built a custom home. They get a chance to construct a home from scratch. I love talking with people about their needs, their kids, their lifestyle – their style. Then I can link them up with an architect, a design team and build that dream.


You kind of drifted off the narrative back there. You started Cornerstone, you competed with Arcadia . . . Sorry. I told you I get passionate about this! I just started getting tired of driving from south Charlotte to (the Lake Norman development) the Pointe. And running your own company by yourself – I was doing things that were not my passion. I felt really stretched. It’s really hard to be excellent at everything. In fact, you can’t do it. Nobody can. I knew my passion, and it wasn’t running a business or construction.


And so . . . And so I told Robby one day I was getting out of Cornerstone, in 2002. And he said, “This is great! You play a role that would fit right into our business.” And it is great. We all get to focus, each one of us, on what we’re passionate about. Ask any one of us who gets to do the fun part, and we’ll all raise our hands.


How did you guys do before, during and after the bubble burst? Arcadia has built more than 400 homes in 19 years. In our best year, I think we closed 27, and at the worst of it we had a low of maybe four. We had always done some renovation work, but we did a lot more then, and now it’s become an important component of our business. Right now we’ve got 12 new homes under construction, mostly infill work in older neighborhoods, and not developments. But we still build in here and in the Sanctuary, and – believe it or not – in Ballantyne Country Club, where we’ve done well over 100 homes.


You’ve been chasing your passion since junior high school, and now you’re there. Yeah, and I’m almost retirement age.


You don’t look or sound like a man who is going to retire anytime soon. You’re living your passion, man. Yeah, you’re right about that. I don’t think I ever really will retire. I love this too much. I’m a workaholic. And I’m not saying that as a brag. It

really has had a negative effect on my family . . . my wife and I have one daughter, 19. She thinks she’s grown. But, anyway, I am finally doing what I’m passionate about.


I think there’s a 12-step program out there for you. Ha. That is funny. But I’m serious.


We can’t let this conversation end with you beating yourself up. Tell me, what happened to the “K” in your last name? Ha. That is a good question, and I don’t know exactly. It’s German and English, I think, and it did have a “K,” and it looks like it should, but I’ve been told it had something to do with my great-grandfather getting his paycheck with his name spelled wrong. He started signing his checks the way they were made out so there wouldn’t be a problem depositing them, I guess, and it just kind of stuck. But I don’t really know.


BROWN can be reached (704) 247-2912, [email protected], or on Twitter at @tonymecktimes.

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