Tar Heel of the Week

Tar Heel of the Week: Tom Gipson builds Habitat houses here, and around the country

CorrespondentJune 14, 2014 

  • Thomas Gipson

    Born: December 1942, Corning, N.Y.

    Residence: Raleigh

    Career: CEO, Thomas Gipson Homes; member, Friends of Habitat of Raleigh

    Awards: Ultimate Volunteer, ABC’s “The View,” 2009; Purpose Prize Fellow for Innovation, Encore.org, 2008; Builder Achievement Award for Outstanding Achievement, National Housing Endowment, 2006

    Education: A.B., Franklin and Marshall College; MBA, University of Pennsylvania

    Family: Wife, Pat; children, Kary, Clay, Dori, Elizabeth and Jesse; 10 grandchildren

    Fun Fact: One of Gipson’s hobbies is to collect classic cars. He has 15, including a 1984 Ferrari, a la Magnum P.I., and two Rolls-Royces that he has used to chauffeur high schoolers to their prom, including the children of Kevin Campbell, director of Habitat of Wake County.

— Tom Gipson’s career as a homebuilder grew from a childhood fascination with the process of turning wood, drywall and concrete into a place where families grow and thrive.

For the past dozen years, the Raleigh builder has helped channel that process for the benefit of needy families – creating and promoting a national Habitat for Humanity program in which professional homebuilders construct entire houses in a single week.

Gipson, 71, started the Home Builders Blitz in Wake County in 2002, when 12 builders donated labor and supplies to build 12 local Habitat homes in a week. He then worked with Habitat staff to launch the program nationally in 2006.

Last week, builders across the country constructed more than 200 Habitat homes, for a total of more than a thousand such homes since Gipson started the program.

Gipson’s one-week concept helped Habitat for Humanity tap into the expertise and generosity of an industry that is natural fit for a nonprofit group focused on building homes, says Kevin Campbell, director of Habitat of Wake County.

Campbell moved to Raleigh from Habitat’s national headquarters to help Gipson launch the national program; he notes that 75 of the 480 Habitat homes built in Wake have been constructed through the Builders Blitz.

But Campbell says Gipson’s contribution has gone much further in more than a decade as a volunteer – from his initial pitch to Habitat leaders, to face-to-face meetings with builders in 50 cities, to maintaining the program through the steep downturn in housing markets.

“Tom was just very persistent and has built a lot of relationships over the years that make this work,” Campbell says. “He’s a strong businessperson, but he also has a soft spot for the families and realizes the difference a home is going to make, especially for the children. That’s very motivational for him.”

Steve Thomas, star of “This Old House” and “Renovation Nation,” traveled last week with Gipson to promote the blitz, covering five cities from Portland, Ore., to Jacksonville, Fla., in five days.

“Tom is one of these guys who decided he personally can’t tolerate the abysmal housing situation for many people around the world,” says Thomas, who was at the site of the Raleigh blitz Thursday. “So he decided to start working on that problem in his own community with the people he knew best.”

Father’s example

Gipson told the crowd at Thursday’s luncheon that his work with Habitat is his way of continuing a tradition of community service set by his father, who played leadership roles in nearly every organization in their small town.

“Anything that could be done in my town, my dad did it,” says Gipson, who grew up in upstate New York. “He set an example that I thought at the time, and I still think today, is impossible to match.”

Gipson also fell in love with homebuilding through his father, who worked for an electric company but also developed some of the family’s 50 acres of farmland. Gipson remembers a sense of awe as he watched houses rise in the fields and turn into neighborhoods.

He went into a business career, earning an MBA and working as a financial consultant with Accenture. The company moved him from Philadelphia to Charlotte and finally Raleigh, where he decided to turn to building.

His colleagues thought he was crazy. But many of his business skills easily translated to the new field, he says, and the business he started in 1977 allowed him to give up his hectic travel schedule to stay home with his growing family.

He has largely built high-end homes in the fast-growing perimeter around Raleigh, including Lochmere in Cary and Stonebridge in North Raleigh. He says it has always been fulfilling work.

“The experience of building a house is unlike anything else,” he says. “As a financial adviser, you never finish anything. As a homebuilder, within a few months, you have something real and tangible, and you see the results.”

Gipson was active in a number of community groups, including Friends of Habitat of Wake County, where he was asked how to get builders more involved in the group’s work. While professional builders have much-needed expertise, it’s often difficult for them to commit to a months-long building process with a volunteer staff.

Gipson had once built a house in a week for Habitat, in 1991, and he gathered 11 other local builders to discuss trying it. They created a plan to dramatically compress their usual time line, recruiting the professionals they usually work with to donate time and supplies.

They weren’t sure that they could do it, but once they did, they vowed to do more. The next year, they built 24 homes.

National program

As they sought to expand their efforts, Gipson’s wife suggested the next logical step – taking the effort nationwide. And so Gipson met with national Habitat leaders, who embraced the idea, sending Campbell and another employee to Raleigh to develop the program.

They spent a year planning and recruiting builders across the country to participate, with Gipson making the pitch dozens of times, emphasizing the program as a way to leverage their skills and contacts for a good cause.

“They can take a week of their time and make a $50,000 contribution to their community,” he says. “How else could they do that?”

In 2006, a biennial national program launched, with more than 400 homes built the first year. The program took a hit during 2008 and 2010, when the housing crash drastically cut participation, but it’s picking up again, topping 200 homes in 2012 and 2014.

The blitz doesn’t involve rushing through the various tasks involved in building a house, but rather doing those tasks simultaneously, with shorter breaks in between and close cooperation with inspectors.

Wood framing goes up on Monday, and by Friday, crews are doing the landscaping and laying carpet.

Stable housing has been linked to everything from better health to better school attendance, and Gipson has watched the very first family whose home he helped build in 2002 send all of the children to college.

He recalls a moment in that first home, on the fourth day, when the electricity first went on.

“The kids were jumping around in joy,” he says. “The glee in their eyes just made it all worthwhile.”

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