For Bill and Kirsten Freitag, construction is a core part of who they are and what they do. The owners of Wilcon Construction understand the importance of creativity, innovation and quality, building these concepts into every housing unit they construct. Since beginning their company in 1986, Kirsten and Bill have consistently expanded and improved their inventory, cultivating a multi-million dollar construction empire that stretches across the region and has offices in St. James and Mankato.
Growing up in construction gave the couple a love for the earth and afforded them the skills to meet many residential, commercial and industrial needs in southern Minnesota and northern Iowa, keeping it green along the way. Wilcon Construction was one of the first custom home builders in Mankato and St. James to go primarily green for their home gallery. It was a natural step for the business, which strives to stay on the cutting edge of housing development, and only one of several ways Wilcon Construction has expanded and reinvented itself over the years.
BUILDING WITH FAMILY
At the start, Bill and his brother Steve were partners with their dad. They managed their masonry and concrete business, Mike’s Construction, from a small Mountain Lake office. Kirsten helped Bill’s mom part-time with the books, switching to full-time when their daughter was five.
As the company grew, Kirsten expanded her skills. Along with Spanish, she took accounting classes, one at a time, through Minnesota State University Mankato.
“That accounting background has been invaluable,” she said.
Eventually, Mike and his sons divided the company. Steve lived in St. James, where Bill and Kirsten had a number of friends. So, while Mike continued the business in Mountain Lake, Bill and Kirsten made the move.
In 1986, Bill and Kirsten started Will-Sten Enterprises. They kept the name general, because they weren’t sure which direction they wanted to steer the business. Incorporating in 1991, CEO Bill and CFO Kirsten wanted the public to recognize they were contractors by their name, so they became Wilcon Construction, Inc. and stretched their expertise across southern Minnesota.
Wilcon was the general contractor for the energy efficient redevelopment of Cherry Ridge Apartments in Mankato in 2007, as well as Viking Terrace Apartments in Worthington in 2006, which included a geothermal heating and cooling system and other green products.
Their first development in Mankato was traditional housing in 2002. Shortly after, they bought some land and developed a 16-lot residential development in St. James. A few years prior to the recession, they started building single-level apartments and townhomes geared toward baby boomers, and they developed some single and multilevel properties they rent out. When the market slowed, they changed seven units of one development into rental properties.
Since then, Bill and Kirsten have taken extensive training to meet the changing needs of baby boomers and aging adults. They’re trained in CAPS (Certified Aging in Place Specialists) and in CAASH (Certified Active Adult Specialists in Housing), programs offered every year through the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB). Through CAASH, they visited communities for 55-plus adults around the nation, attending events and touring developments in Philadelphia, Denver, Florida and many other areas.
“We’d get so inspired by what we’d see,” Kirsten said.
They studied what was popular and working and what they felt they could improve. One improvement is the 36-inch door, which makes moving around in wheelchairs and with canes or crutches easier.
As the Freitags see it, each new house could be the last home a person would ever live in, and Wilcon Construction aims for owners to age comfortably in place.
No step up at the entrance, heated floors, zero-entry showers and everything on one level, along with other creative touches, make patio homes popular. Most of them are in associations.
“People really enjoy the low-maintenance living associations offer, especially when homeowners are gone a lot and don’t want to worry about lawns or snow removal,” Kirsten said.
They still build custom two-story homes on request, and they add basements on request. Basements aren’t necessary for storm shelters in Wilcon homes, though, because the walls to the main baths are reinforced, making the high-end bathrooms with fashionable tile floors and walk-in tiled showers a great storm shelter.
“Not having basements loses so much maintenance,” Kirsten said. “There are no worries about the sump pump when it rains, and extra closets make up for any lost storage.”
On the commercial side, they’ve done banks, schools, remodels and libraries.
“We’re doing a lot of handicap accessibility, especially in schools, and we’ve done some churches,” Bill said. “I don’t know that it’s even half our business that’s commercial anymore. We do some new construction projects and build-outs (remodels), but they tend to be bigger projects, million-dollar projects. But there we are doing what the architect tells us to do, and with patio homes we have a lot more creative leeway.”
Wilcon Construction’s commercial projects have increased in Mankato. To name a few, they did a build-out (remodel) for the Mankato VA Clinic, Community Bank in Mankato and the North Mankato Pioneer Bank, as well as building the Knutson+Casey office building for the new law firm.
In St. James, they updated the Super 8 hotel’s reception area and lobby, as well as adding pool lifts and a hot tub, and they updated the offices and lobby of the Pioneer Bank.
They’ve also done well in the industrial arena. Wilcon built a power plant and generator plants in Worthington and St. James, and the company did a lot of work with ConAgra in St. James and Winnebago Manufacturing in Blue Earth.
BUILDING on EDUCATION
Besides education in CAPS and CAASH, Bill took some construction management courses at MSU and the technical college. Along with Bill, project manager John Hoffman and two superintendents, nephew Ryan Mattison and son Andrew Freitag, attend training on building green so that Wilcon homes are durable, sustainable, energy and water efficient, and safe.
Wilcon Construction is a Minnesota Green Star builder and has built three bronze-level, Green-Star homes. Although Wilcon doesn’t apply for green certification on every home, all homes are built to green standards.
BUILDING A LEGACY
Bill and Kirsten say they couldn’t do what they do without their team, people they call coworkers rather than employees.
Among their 18 coworkers, two sons work with them: Andrew and David. Most of the team has been with the company for ten years or longer.
“Even a lot of the subcontractors we use, we’ve worked with a long time and they’re all part of the team,” Bill said.
One thing that helps Wilcon grow, despite the smaller staff, is the philosophy to “work smarter, not harder,” using checklists and reviewing things often with subcontractors. A knowledgeable team makes the difference. Hoffman is great for his knowledge of building techniques and using paints, caulks and glues with low/no VOCs (volatile organic compounds).