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Successful mix: magazine, Web site, gallery

From brochure to national magazine, PlanHouse takes off

BRANDON — When Jack B. Hughes began printing home plans on brochures for homebuilders in the early 1970s, he had no idea that millions of other people would be interested, too.

Hughes, who nurtured the home plan sales concept into a statewide, then regionally distributed catalog, successfully launched it as a national consumer magazine last year. Fueled by its success, Hughes will open the first PlanHouse Gallery in Jackson this summer.

“Today’s home-building industry is not that different from the one that existed 25 years ago,” said Hughes, 49, of Brandon, founder and president of PlanHouse Designs Inc. “People still don’t know where to begin, who to call or how much it really costs to build. Builders still must focus their energies on building homes, with no time or money for marketing their own businesses or improving customer satisfaction.”

With the PlanHouse Gallery, Hughes created an alternative from “running all over town to see building products” and “relief from the stress of not having an unbiased resource for information on home building and improvement.”

“I wanted to provide a security blanket for consumers as builders, manufacturers, suppliers and artisans gain a new marketing channel,” he said. “The result was PlanHouse, an ultimate home design and product showcase, that would benefit every alliance member — consumers, builders, manufacturers, suppliers and artisans, so that more Americans than ever could realize their dreams through PlanHouse magazine, PlanHouse.com and PlanHouse Gallery. And as they do, I will have realized my own.”

Hughes became fascinated with drawing house plans at an early age. By the time he finished a drafting class in the 10th grade at Pearl High School, he was hooked, he said.

“After school, I’d work for homebuilders on job sites, picking up trash and doing anything needed to get to draw,” Hughes said. “Then when the builder had something for me to draw, he’d stick me in a tiny room. But I loved it.”

After a three-year apprenticeship with Glenn Albritton, one of the “premier home designers in the state,” he said, Hughes began building a library of popular home plans. Initially transferring the home plans to brochures, and handing them out to homebuilders around the state, Hughes invested the profits of the home plan sales and published a plan catalog that included 25 to 30 home plans. The first issue was distributed to 5,000 homebuilders in Mississippi. By 1987, the annual circulation grew to 50,000 in 23 states.

“When the computer age came about, I felt it was important to reshape the business,” Hughes said. “Individuals still had the same concerns, such as ‘Where do I begin? Who do I talk to? What can I expect?’ The questions continued to bombard us until Tom (Underwood) and I hooked up three years ago, and had the opportunity to expand distribution, circulation, and take the concept to the next level.”

Since 1973, Underwood, a Jackson native, has been associated with J.W. Underwood & Co., a local family real estate development company, as president of Underwood Homes, Underwood Development Co., Underwood Invest-ment Co. and Gateway Development.

Hughes and Underwood decided to implement print, Internet and brick-and-mortar with the PlanHouse concept.

“In our business plan, we looked at the magazine, gallery and Web site as three spokes on a wheel,” said Underwood, 50. “As each one spins, it spins the other two, and they’re interrelated with information for an informed, organized, efficient resource for homebuilders and consumers.”

In December 1999, the pair recruited Frank York, a former controller for a Meridian-based, multi-state plumbing supply distributor, as PlanHouse’s chief operating officer.

“Most of us have been through the remodeling, landscaping or interior design process, even if we haven’t built a new home, and we know how tough it can be,” said York, 41, a Jackson native. “When I heard about their ideas to create a resource guide, it struck me as an exciting and interesting idea with a very good future.”

Within a year, distribution for the home plan catalog expanded to 150,000 and Hughes had recruited Peggy Heckler, a former copy director/associate creative director for GodwinGroup in Jackson, where she also served as a strategic account planner, as editor of PlanHouse.

In May 2000, the preview issue of PlanHouse was unveiled, with departments devoted to remodeling, landscaping and interior design. Combined with the fall premier issue, nearly half a million magazines were distributed in 35 states.

“The majority of letters we receive from readers compliment the magazine on two key areas,” said Heckler, who lives in Yazoo City and is restoring a circa 1887 Victorian Cottage that was remodeled into a two-story Colonial Revival home in 1906. “Our home plan renderings are all in color, not just a few featured plans in the beginning of each issue. And those familiar with other magazines in the category appreciate the fact PlanHouse offers at least 40% new plans every quarter. Most magazines run the same plans over and over in different compilations. We’re always introducing new designers and new plans.”

In addition to direct mailings, and distribution through home centers and lumber stores, PlanHouse’s distribution has been expanded to newsstands and bookstore chains, such as Books-A-Million. Hughes recently inked a private label deal with McCoy’s, a Texas chain with more than 100 retail home improvement stores.

“When plan orders come in on private labels for all home centers we distribute to, we send lead sheets to the company,” Hughes said. “That equates to material sales for those lumber stores and home centers. They love it.”

Already with a good rapport with homebuilders — 40,000 received the current issue — more than 8,000 homebuilders signed on with the PlanHouse Builder’s Alliance, which includes listings on local directories, in the last eight months.

“When we ‘computerized’ in 1990, we began tracking orders of home plans through a database, and it’s amazing the shelf life the catalogs have,” Hughes said. “We still get plan orders today from magazines we distributed nearly a decade ago. We learned that homebuilders and individuals keep libraries of them for reference. Most publishers think that’s a phenomenon.”

Even though he declined to disclose revenues, York said home plan sales increased 50% from August 2000 to January 2001, during the period the new magazine was distributed. And activity on the company’s enhanced Web site, which is referenced on almost every editorial page of PlanHouse, has increased substantially, according to Jason Drake, Web manager.

During the month-long holiday season last year — from Nov. 27 to Dec. 26 — nearly 500 visitors viewed 1,846 pages per day on PlanHouse.com. In a seven-day period earlier this month, the number of viewers jumped to 691, who spent an average of nearly 15 minutes viewing 3,363 pages every day.

The 13,000-square-foot flagship showcase store will open June 1 on Airport Road between U.S. 80 and Interstate 20 in metro Jackson, manned by seven to 10 employees six days a week, and will feature product/supplier showcase displays (more than 70 vendors have signed up), a home plans and home design studio, an interior design marketplace, a bookstore and a caf

About Lynne W. Jeter

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