Building on Solid Rock

Building on Solid Rock

This is a reprint of an article from 2005 in the Cincinnati Business Courier.

Business Courier by Karen Bells, Courier Senior Editor
Date: Monday, March 14, 2005, 12:00am

Plenty of business executives bandy about “mission” to describe their company philosophy. At HiFive Development Services Inc., the concept has the ring of truth.

Mark Davis, a principal and founder of the Mason-based design-build firm, and Don Davis, vice president of business development, were raised in Bilaspur, India, and in the Philippine Islands by parents who were Christian missionaries. When Mark Davis started HiFive in 2001 with longtime colleague Brian Zilch, they knew that living their faith through action would be an important part of their business plan.

One way they’ve done so has been by donating design services to local churches that are renovating or building new facilities. The pro bono work saves churches tens of thousands of dollars in design costs, said Mark Davis, and often can lead to six-figure savings. Beneficiaries of the service have included the Vineyard Springdale, Faith Evangelical Free Church in Milford, Cincinnati Christian University in Price Hill and The Living Leaf Community Church in Mason.

HiFive also extends its mission-oriented philosophy to local communities, designing new fire stations free of charge for both Harlan Township and Salem Township in Warren County, as well as the new Rankin House Visitors’ Center in Ripley, which focuses on the Underground Railroad’s roots in the Brown County town.

And last year the firm organized and was key sponsor of the HiFive Cincy Challenge, a Select Soccer tournament that drew 12,000 attendees and 3,000 participants and raised $40,000 for the Warren County Soccer Club. In 2005, Davis expects to draw 240 teams and raise at least $60,000 for the club.

The philosophy also extends to the eight-person staff. HiFive pays 100 percent of employees’ health care costs, and Davis and Zilch buy lunch for the staff five days a week, every week.

But HiFive’s business strategy isn’t all about giving things away. While the portion of the business that works with churches is usually at best a break-even proposition, the company overall is profitable. HiFive did $5 million in projects two years ago; for 2005, it has $20 million in projects in progress, with another $20 million in firm projects in the pipeline.

Industrial work is a passion of Zilch, a civil engineer, and Davis, an architect, and an area where they have decades of experience, including six years together at Cincinnati United Contractors and two at Neyer Properties. But that market has been weak for a couple years. Where they’re seeing lots of work is in restaurants, medical offices and hotel projects.

HiFive would like to target more projects where it serves as a true developer and planner, Davis said, which is why a current project with the Dayton-area city of Riverside is exciting. “It makes us a developer and planner instead of just a design-build firm,” he said. “Plus we get to design and build all the buildings there.”

The city is redeveloping 20 acres across from the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at the entrance to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Riverside granted HiFive master development rights over the $20 million-plus project, which will include two hotels, restaurants and office buildings, said City Manager Jim Onello.

The site was blighted and had lots of police and drug activity, said Onello. The city purchased the land and is starting demolition next week, and HiFive has been helping for nearly 18 months on a variety of development issues, he said.

“They’ve been working with hotel prospects in particular, as well as working with us on marketing the site and helping us find investors,” said Onello. “They have more experience dealing with hotel investors, and cities don’t.”

Before choosing HiFive, Riverside visited several of the firm’s development projects and talked with officials in Mason about work it has done for that city. “They’re very civic-minded and sensitive to how cities operate,” Onello said.

He expects to break ground in 2005 on the hotels and at least one restaurant at the project, dubbed Center of Flight. While the growth in other areas of business is exciting, the mission to help churches will always be a part of HiFive’s plan. Still, the free design service has been so popular that church projects now account for almost 60 percent of business, Davis said, and HiFive has to pull back. Even when it handles the construction portion of the church projects, for which it is paid, the projects are either break-even or net about 2 percent.

“I think we’re going to probably ramp down to about two churches per year,” he said.

The projects can be much more time-consuming than other work, as HiFive works with churches’ sometimes tight budgets, the wish lists of the congregation, and the capital campaigns.

“Making money as a small business is purely about maximizing your resources, which is your people,” said Zilch. To that end, the design work on a big hotel can take Davis two weeks; the design on a big church can take a year or more. At Miami Township-based River Hills Christian Church, senior pastor Jeff Metzger said HiFive has been working with him for more than a year and is “probably already at design scheme HH,” having worked through an alphabet’s worth of blueprints and then some.

Metzger found HiFive after first investing more than a year of time and “tens of thousands of dollars” with another architect on an unworkable design for a new church. River Hills also had been struggling to find land, and HiFive helped it find a 23-acre site several miles away and provided assistance with zoning changes.

HiFive provided a reality check and help balancing the congregation’s wants with what it could afford in the project, which will cost close to $4 million plus the price of the land.

“Obviously, Mark has a passion for this. He’s not making any money on this project; he’s doing it as a service to God and to the community,” said Metzger. “And I don’t know where we would go in Cincinnati to get a better designer.”