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Building For Success

Ralph and Linda Huff may differ on their definitions of success, but this husband-wife duo has made their mark on Fayetteville’s real estate scene.

They work together in an impressive Breezewood Avenue building. Although their offices are at opposite ends of the same floor, they see a whole lot of each other, and that is fine with them.

Ralph Huff says success “is being able to do what you want when you want and leaving your community better than you found it.”

Last year, H&H Constructors Inc. built 275 houses producing $60 million in sales.

But the Huffs have not forgotten their rural roots. They both grew up in Hoke County. Ralph, the oldest of five boys, was born in Raleigh before his family moved to a farm where they grew tobacco and raised turkeys, cattle and chickens. A broken wrist cost him an appointment to the Air Force Academy, so he headed to the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, where he earned a degree in business administration in 1972.

“What did I want to do with that degree?” he asks. “Mainly, stay off the farm.”

Huff did that by working in a textile plant until he was included in a massive layoff in 1975.

“Everybody has crossroads,” he says, “and when I got laid off, I thought I had better do something different.”

He spent the next three years at a savings and loan company before getting into real estate in Raeford. He was then hired by Murray Duggins to work as sales manager at United Realty in Fayetteville.

“I left there in 1986 to become Jimmy Townsend’s (Townsend Realty) general manager,” Huff says, “and I was running the business while he was on the road selling lithotripsy machines. I got involved in the sales and marketing of new and existing homes.”

In 1990, Townsend returned to run his own business, and Huff started working for the late J.P. Riddle, helping to open Premier Properties.

“Then came crossroads number two,” Huff recalls. “I was standing on the sidewalk on Ravenhill Road, and I looked up and saw an airplane flying over. I’m thinking, ‘It’s 1990, and I’m 40 years old, and I’m working for someone else. If I had stayed at the Air Force Academy, I might be piloting that plane up there.’

“I went to Murray Duggins and said, ‘Let’s start a construction company, and I’ll sell everything I have to go in with you.’ He said he was already starting one and that he wasn’t interested. Two months later, he decided to sell his real estate company, and he called and made me a sweetheart deal.”

Huff bought Banker United Realty, but the timing was bad. When he signed the papers, the Gulf War had just started.

“Fayetteville was becoming a ghost town,” he says. “But I rolled up my sleeves and used my experience from my days at Townsend, and after our first full year in business, we were in the black. I got the business up and running, we won national awards and everything was great.”

Huff formed H&H Constructors in 1991, and the next year, he started building houses one at a time. That’s when he persuaded his wife to come into the business. Linda Huff had been teaching music for 15 years in Hoke and Cumberland counties.

“We were building 50 houses a year and not making any money,” Ralph Huff said. “Then the music major came in, and we starting seeing a profit. We kept H&H small, building 50 to 60 houses a year, mainly on the edge of Hoke County.”

In 2001, Huff merged with Larry Strother and Suzanne Pennink to form HPS Real Estate.

“I devoted 97 percent of my time to growing H&H,” Huff says, “growing the development side of the business and growing the condominium and commercial business with Tommy Bradford through Elmwood Partners. The end result is that H&H has grown from 50 houses and $8 million in sales in 2000 to 275 houses and $60 million in sales in 2007.

“During the same time (2000-07), the HPS entities of ERA Pennink and Strother and Coldwell Banker United Realty grew to be Nos. 1 and 2 in the Fayetteville real estate market with 20 percent of the total market. But every good thing comes to an end, and in November of 2007, Suzanne Pennink and I became sole owners of Coldwell Banker United Realty and Pennink and Huff Property Management, and Larry went his own way as sole owner of ERA Strother Real Estate.” And on June 1, Coldwell Banker United Realty will reflect the change with a new name: Coldwell Banker Huff and Pennink Realtors. It means that Huff is involved in all angles of real estate from construction to sales to property management. Asked what he does for fun, Huff smiles and says, “My business is the most fun I have. I do play golf sometimes, and we have a beach house. But my getaway is on a little farm I have in Hoke County. I spend most Fridays there on a tractor, mowing grass.

“As for the business, I thrive on it. It’s the art of the deal … putting something together. I feel we are doing things that are making a real difference. I want to leave a legacy.

“We have done a lot of good things, and I am responsible for almost 700 jobs in this community. We give big to everything – I don’t say no very much.”

Huff keeps a busy schedule, and he likes it that way.

“One day,” he says, “we’re going to slow down. But retirement is not in my plans.”

Like her husband, Linda Huff grew up in Hoke County, her birthplace. She attended Appalachian State University and graduated from Methodist College with a degree in music education.

“I always wanted to teach, and I loved it,” she said. “Ralph talked me into coming to work with him. He really wanted to get into the building business. I took that over, and things have gone well. It wasn’t a matter of understanding everything about building as much as it was being organized and learning through the subcontractors exactly how building a home takes place.

“It was on-the-job training – hands on – and that is the best kind. You see it happening, and you learn about the people who are in the trade – what makes them tick.

“Being on the job site, sweeping the houses, working with the appraisers… I was enthralled by all of it. It was as if I was a sponge taking every tidbit in, and I loved it from the start.”

Linda takes building houses personally. “Yes, I make it that way,” she says. “Every home I went out to build, it was like I was building it for myself. It is a personal thing, and I make my superintendents take it personally.”

Building 275 houses a year is a tall order, but Linda emphasizes that does not mean corners are cut. “With us, quality is an important issue. I don’t know how many other builders take a quality walk – grade the house, the job, the workmanship – but we do. We have a quality control person go back and re-check, and the prospective buyer has a walk-through with the superintendent.”

Comparing her former career to her current one, Linda says, “Teaching, it was like I was helping to mold children’s lives with music, and I had a passion for that. In the building industry, when I first started, I was in the field with the subcontractors, and there was the same kind of passion.

“I always demanded the best from my students, and I have done that here in this job. Ralph didn’t have time to run the building business. What I did was to hire some key people who knew the industry. It is important to surround yourself with good people.”

To her, success is “when you have the joy of giving to others in a capacity that makes others happy.”

Sometimes when folks acquire wealth, they are perceived differently by others. And sometimes money does change people.

“I don’t think I am any different,” Linda says. “I don’t think I have changed from the days when I taught at Hoke County. I know I have things, and I am blessed. I don’t think anybody can look at me as snooty. If people look at me differently, then that is their problem.”

Asked about life away from work, she says, “We have our place at the beach, and our two daughters (Molly and Brooke). We have three grandchildren, and I enjoy being with them. My mother is 83. I still have to nurture a family, and I love that.

“Every once in a while, I get off to myself, and that is nice. But I love work. Ralph and I have been married 35 years, and people ask, `How can you possibly work together?’ I think it is because our strengths and weaknesses play off of each other, and we both are extremely driven.

“I would never walk out of this office and just quit,” Linda says. “My favorite thing to do is work.”