They say the smartest companies are founded on the strength of an idea. That appears to hold true at Ilex Construction & Woodworking, which has grown from a scrambling startup in 1986 to a well-heeled business with 200 employees and more than $30 million in revenue.
Ilex (the botanical name for holly) follows a classic entrepreneurial script: It was founded by two partners with complementary business skills; it attracts top-notch customers who use its services in a big way; and it takes advantage of fast-growing market segments, offering a diversified portfolio that runs from speculative development and new construction to remodeling, woodworking, estate maintenance, and handyman services.
The name has driven the destiny, and that's exactly what co-founders Delbert Adams and Doug Croker intended 20 years ago. They were mulling over an identity for their Baltimore-based construction company when Adams became intrigued by a theory that business names with an X in them — think Xerox, Exxon — are easier to remember. Their specific muse came in the form of three majestic holly trees on the property at one of the first houses they built, and a company name was born. “Ilex is probably the most vibrant tree in the forest,” Adams says. “It's evergreen and withstands all types of weathering. It's symbolic of the strength and virility of a company, and it has given us something to play with as opposed to Adams Construction.”
The tree metaphor fits. Ilex has grown mostly organically in response to talent and market opportunity. Today it has branches in Easton and Annapolis, Md.; and in Middleburg and Charlottesville, Va.; plus a small offshoot in Rehoboth Beach, Del. And its core concept still runs deep: to cultivate high-end clients; to help them realize their dream home and perhaps the biggest investment they'll ever make; and to then guide them in maintaining it over time, as they would any other asset.
BALANCE AT THE HELM Croker and Adams were introduced by a mutual friend and dreamed up the company over a lunch during which they compared passions, goals, and personal styles. Croker, who heads the Easton office, is the former owner of an architectural hardware store and a fan of classical architecture. Adams, at the helm of the Baltimore operation, has a construction management background. “Doug is more of a risk taker; I'm more methodical. It's a good balance,” Adams says. Both men, however, are involved in sales and business development. “We always question each other's decisions,” Adams says. “We call on each other to ask the tough questions.”
When Croker moved from Baltimore to Easton shortly after the launch, he established a second office there. Two other locations were added when satellites set up for lengthy construction jobs morphed into bona fide offices. After the company spent three years building a 17,000-square-foot estate in Middleburg, “we had established a pretty strong team of people who wanted to know what their future was, so we said, ‘We'll plant roots there,'” Adams says, adding that a top priority is to find, train, and retain people who produce stellar work. “We're constantly looking for high-quality people, and when we find them, we hire them,” he says. “We've attracted a fair amount of clientele from all over just because of the people we have working for us.”
CONSTRUCTION EFFICIENCIES Another key to the company's broad reach is its decision to focus on production and fine craftsmanship, leaving design to outside experts. “We've always believed that the design end of the concept should be maintained by professional architects,” Adams says. “It sends a different message.” Over the years, this alliance with high-end architects has helped them break into new markets along the East Coast.
The ability to concentrate on construction efficiencies has been another boon to business. The homes that Ilex builds routinely include elegant custom woodwork such as curved mahogany stair rails, handcarved corbels, and cherry-paneled libraries, so over the past 15 years the company has acquired five local woodworking shops, folding them into two operations — a 65,000-square-foot shop in downtown Baltimore and a smaller one in Easton. “After a while it just became a smarter move to control that aspect of the job,” Adams says. “Because millwork typically goes into the project toward the end, it affects the completion dates.” Seventy employees strong, Ilex Woodworking operates independently of the larger business and serves builders, institutions, and private clients as far away as Illinois and Maine.
SYSTEMS AND PROFESSIONALISM The owners have a lot to keep track of. In addition to custom homes and woodworking, Ilex is the exclusive builder at Leeward — a speculative community under way near Easton — which will comprise several hundred homes priced from $775,000 to $850,000.
A third division is Ilex Services, which employs 20 people spread among three offices. Added three years ago, it handles everything from quick-turnaround jobs like painting and gutter cleaning to complete maintenance schedules for the house and grounds. For a fee, clients can have their pool filters changed, Forsythias pruned, and mechanical systems serviced like clockwork.