Traton Homes credits surviving housing crash to astute mother, 92
by Katy Ruth Camp
krcamp@mdjonline.com
May 01, 2011 12:00 AM | 2069 views | 0 0 comments | 12 12 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Family-owned Marietta business Traton Homes has been a staple in the community for decades. Pictured clockwise, Chris Poston, Bill Poston, Clif Poston, Milburn Poston and founder Clifford Poston. Clifford, 92, co-founded the business before passing it down to her sons Bill and Milburn, who in return handed the business down to their sons Chris and Clif, who now run the company.<br>Staff/Erin Gray
Family-owned Marietta business Traton Homes has been a staple in the community for decades. Pictured clockwise, Chris Poston, Bill Poston, Clif Poston, Milburn Poston and founder Clifford Poston. Clifford, 92, co-founded the business before passing it down to her sons Bill and Milburn, who in return handed the business down to their sons Chris and Clif, who now run the company.
Staff/Erin Gray
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MARIETTA - For 40 years, the Poston family has kept Traton Homes in Marietta going strong through housing market booms, declines and crashes. But a steady voice has been there to guide and teach them - a conservative voice to which Bill, Milburn, Chris and Clif Poston credit much of the company's success.

"Mother's 92 years old and still comes in every day," Bill said of his mother, Clifford Poston. "Builders are not known for being very conservative, but mother kept the books by hand. She's extremely conservative."

Clifford said, "I grew up during the Depression and we pinched pennies. So if the bricks on one house were the same kind and number as the bricks on another house but cost more, I wanted to know why. It blew my mind that people could buy houses with so very little, so I told them long ago that things were going to get bad at some point."

Bill said, "It was always 'The sky is falling' with mother."

Clifford's other son, Milburn, added, "But she knew more about the business than we did."

The Poston family came to Atlanta from Valdosta in 1939, when Clifford's husband, Red, was promoted in his insurance job. They moved to Smyrna in 1952 to start Poston Realty & Insurance, later known as Poston, Guthrie and Fowler. In 1971, Clifford, her sons and daughter, Marian, started Traton Homes after the unexpected death of Red in 1963.

Bill's sons Chris, the company's senior vice president, and Clif, the company's executive vice president, joined the company in 1997 and 1999, respectively.

Bill said the company's formation began at Clifford's dinner table, as he and Milburn would bring their families to her home every Sunday night for a home-cooked meal. At first, they wanted to name the company Poston Construction, Bill said, but when their attorney informed them there was already a Poston Construction in Georgia, they decided to use the first part of Milburn's daughter's name, Tracy, and Clif's full name, Clifton, and merged the two as Traton Homes.

"We have always gotten along," Bill said. "That doesn't mean we don't scream and yell at each other, but we love each other and we share a belief that we're all for one. We built the company on equality and passed that onto the boys."

Milburn said, "Bill and I have made the exact same amount of money year after year, and so do the boys. Nobody says, 'I was responsible for this so I should get more' because we all contribute, and we're family."

The family has grown over the years to include friends and colleagues who are now doctors, lawyers and accountants in Cobb.

"There were a lot of Marietta's finest laying our sod in high school and college," Milburn said. "One mother called us and said her son was staying out all night in the summer and complaining about school and needed a job, so we let him put down sod. She thanked us later because she said he was home by 8:30 every night after that and in bed by nine, and all of those boys always went back to school after they spent a summer doing hard labor."

But like most builders, the past few years have not been easy.

"We've probably gone through four really bad periods, and they used to come about every six to seven years," Bill said. "But we were all on a roll for about 14 years, and the boys had never seen the bad times, the way it got in the 70s and 90s. And it's even worse now."

Clif said, "(Bill, Milburn and Clifford) were more keen to it because they had been through it. Me and Chris were critical of them sometimes because we thought they weren't being aggressive enough. We wanted to go out and get those properties like everyone else was, to a degree. But a lot of those businesses who were aggressive dropped off the map because they did too much. So it was a good life lesson."

Clif said the company would bid on lots and come in 25 to 30 percent lower than others who were winning the lots, which made all of them believe a fall in the market was imminent.

"We started sensing things were about to go down in May of 2006, so we started paring back on our subdivisions and really getting conservative," Bill said. "Lots and land costs got extremely out of line, so we backed off. We knew that, but of course, mother wouldn't let us forget it."

Milburn said lots doubled in cost from 2001 to 2006. Clif said properties in Cobb and Paulding counties were going for more than $100,000, and many were trying to turn commercial properties into residential, all of which Clif said was counterintuitive.

Chris said the company has been able to go back and buy back many of the lots they underbid during the boom for a fraction of the cost the original developers paid. But many of their homes are being built on lots that were foreclosed on or left vacant as a result of the housing market crash.

Some residents have taken issue with that.

Dan Barth, 59, said his home in Paper Chase Farms off of Burnt Hickory Road was once worth $1 million. When Traton bought the remaining lots in his subdivision, they had promised high-end homes with the same style of Williamsburg look as his and other million dollar-plus homes in the subdivision, though at a slightly lower price point. But once the homes began to be built about a year ago, Barth said they were not in the Williamsburg style, were marketed at a much lower price point than the homeowners were originally told, at around $300,000, and had none of the features such as a shake roof and gated fence like their homes that they were promised.

"We've had one issue after another with them, and they're costing us hundreds of thousands of dollars with what they're doing and they don't care at all," Barth said. "The biggest issue I have is that they lied to us - told us they were doing one thing, then started building another and basically said, 'Well, this is what the market will bear.' And they're marketing the subdivision by telling people to come live in a million-dollar subdivision for $300,000. Their goal is obviously to make money and get out of there, and leave us with the fall."

Clif said every builder will hear a complaint about one thing or another, but that he and the company takes pride in telling people exactly what's being built.

"We try to exceed expectations, but we also try to be fair and do the right thing. We're not going to give any less, but we're also not going to roll over and do something that's not right or not going to work," Clif said.

The company has built more than 8,000 homes, Bill said, and the company hopes to generate $80 million in revenue. The company's best year was in 2005, when it generated about $131 million in revenue, Bill said, while 2009 was the worst at around $35 million. The company has a model home grand opening this weekend at the Rockford Township subdivision behind Marietta High School next to the Lee's Crossing subdivision.
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