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Success in being small: Builders stay busy despite low housing market

CORMORANT - What do you get when you combine a former rodeo rider from Nebraska with a construction worker from Montana and transplant them in small town Minnesota?

A growing contracting business.

Josh Lessman and Kirk Ivankovich met each other about three years ago when they both followed their wives to Detroit Lakes for jobs.

Six months later, they decided to go into business together and L.I. Builders Inc. was born.

After going through licensing processes in Minnesota and North Dakota, the pair has now been doing business in the lakes area for two years.

Lessman was living in Nebraska before, but was constantly on the road, touring nationally for rodeo. During the off-season, he did construction.

When his wife was "fresh out of school," she got a job as a physician's assistant in Detroit Lakes, and they moved.

Soon after, the couple met Ivankovich and his wife, who worked with Lessman's wife, also as a physician's assistant.

Ivankovich had lived in western Montana, working for a large construction firm since he graduated from tech school in 1993.

When the two met, they were working for separate companies, but "we decided we could do just as well on our own," Ivankovich said.

Their first project was a house on Cotton Lake in June 2006.

Since then they've continued to work on some custom homes, remodeling, garages, and some commercial work.

L.I. Builders put up the Anytime Fitness building in Detroit Lakes, and are currently co-contracting a project with a Fargo firm for a building in Kindred, ND.

The upscale custom home area, however, is where Lessman said they'd like to find their niche.

Lessman said they're currently working on a custom home on Pearl Lake, and he's been able to play "half-architect," a job he said he enjoys.

"I designed the interior of the whole thing," he said. "When it's all said and done, it's fun to see."

So how is their business, which has stayed busy through the last two summers and winters, flourishing with the recent downturn in the housing market?

Detroit Lakes seems to be in a protected bubble, they said.

Although they said they're really only seeing new construction of custom homes from people "with money to spend," the only thing that has really died is the developers and speculators that can't sell the houses they build.

Ivankovich said the up tick in business has been in remodels and additions.

"With low interest rates, people are looking to add value to their homes," he said.

Lessman said it helps that much of the building right now is for lakehomes, many of which are owned by Fargo-Moorhead natives.

"This area seems to be sheltered a little," he said. "The Fargo-Moorhead area's economy is doing well, so many of them have enough money to build, so we're getting more action here than some."

There's a big benefit to being a small organization, too.

Lessman and Ivankovich, who typically work with one other crew member, Tyler Lindquist, don't have to worry about overhead management and can build closer relationships with clients.

"We can handle the big jobs and we have what we need in equipment," Ivankovich said. "We just don't have the overhead."

Lessman said what they lack in overhead, they "make up for it in determination."

The pair prides themselves on getting started on jobs quickly, and seeing it through to the finish.

Although they can do every step of the process themselves, from excavating to pouring concrete to finishing work, there are some things they subcontract out if they can.

"We have good rapport with our subcontractors, and they're always looking for work," Ivankovich said. They'll typically subcontract things like roofing, siding and concrete pouring -- the tedious jobs they prefer not to do.

Allowing subcontractors to take on some jobs allows Lessman and Ivankovich to spend time on other projects, too. They said they typically have two projects going on at a time, and have to work to spend equal amounts of time to get everything done.

"We enjoy being there, getting it done, seeing it through," Lessman said.

Although it's just the three of them working on projects, they hire more help when they need it.

"We've never had trouble finding help," Ivankovich said.

"We don't get behind," Lessman added. "We always find a way to get it done and done right."