"Another thing that has impressed us is the quality of people that we were referred to outside of the company. These were of the highest caliber of people. Living in a Keystone neighborhood has made for a most pleasurable retirement."

George and Carol

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If he builds it, they will buy

(August 27, 2007) Mr. Crowell's approach has helped the company grow significantly. When the housing boom took off at the beginning of the decade, Keystone doubled the number of houses built, reaching 164 in 2001.

"Lamar and Mark ... they didn't grow because growth could be had," Mr. Gresham said. "For a while, anyone could (build) a house. We rode the tide like everyone else. But it was all planned, too."

The next five years saw numbers climb steadily, eventually hitting 300 in 2005. The firm was the first Augusta builder to move into Aiken, a tactic that proved rocky at first.

"It took us awhile to get going in Aiken," he said.

The market has been up and down, but Aiken has been good to Keystone, where it builds everything from townhouses to houses in the mid-$100,000s. Competitors Bill Beazley Homes and Nordahl Homes command a bigger market in Columbia and Richmond counties, he said, while Keystone is strong in Aiken.

At some point, he said, he hopes to stretch his legs outside the Augusta-Aiken area and move into other markets when the housing industry picks up again.

"We have no distinct plans for any particular area or any particular timing," he said in an e-mail. "When the time comes, it would be in the Southeast."

Gearing up for growth

As the company grows, Mr. Crowell has begun looking at other possibilities for Keystone.

The housing market in Augusta-Aiken, though slowing, isn't in dire straits like Las Vegas or even Atlanta. The local market enjoyed growth during the housing boom, but it didn't create a bubble that would later burst.

He said he expects to do as well as in 2006, when the company built 296 houses, possibly better. The key is to monitor trends, which he does by spending hours reading up on the market to stay ahead of the game, and meeting with builders from across the country.

The company plans to grow in volume but has no plans to move into higher prices, Ms. Oellerich said.

Keystone is working in the Trolley Run neighborhood in Aiken, where houses run about $350,000, but beyond that, it gets too complicated with demands for customizing, he said.

"There's a point where people are fine with a production-oriented house, which is what we are," he said.

The company has toyed with the idea of using manufactured housing, but low building costs in the Augusta-Aiken area and the negative connotations surrounding them make stick-built houses a better deal for now, he said.

In the end, Keystone's style provides a steadier market in an unsteady industry.

"People always need a home, but people don't always need a half-million-dollar home," Mr. Gresham said.

Keeping perspective

Even as he focuses on growing Keystone, his family has made him take a step back and realize the bigger picture.

With his older sister Beverly (who is the executive sales assistant at Keystone) battling uterine cancer for the past year and a half, he finds himself focusing more on his family and helping her get through it. After spending a recent Tuesday at the hospital with her, he finds it hard to discuss.

"When I did get back here Tuesday, I didn't get anything done," he said. "I stared at a wall."

At times it has distracted him from work, but he said one silver lining is that it has brought the family closer. The family had always done a good job of staying close, but with his sister's illness, it has rallied, he said.

Keystone donates money and volunteers for the American Cancer Society.

It's a situation he has faced before, when his father's battle with cancer was a wake-up call.

Since then, Mr. Crowell said, he has paid more attention to what he eats and even bought his staff bicycles for Christmas three years ago.

Each year, the staffers come in for voluntary blood pressure checks and health screenings. Although it helps with health insurance premiums, it also helps employees stay healthy, he said.

Even so, he stays focused on Keystone. Though he has come this far, much like his father, Lamar Crowell doesn't sit still and doesn't plan on hanging up his hammer anytime soon.

"What would I do if I retired?" he said. "If you love what you're doing and you're passionate about it, why change

1 "I can't sit in a rocking chair and look at a lake."

Otis Lamar Crowell Jr.

TITLE: Chief executive officer, Keystone Homes BORN: May 23, 1966, in Augusta EDUCATION: Westside High School 1981-84; University of Georgia 1984-89 CAREER: Project manager, Ivey Homes Inc. 1989-93; project manager, residential development, Crowell & Co., Inc. 1993-95; president of Keystone Homes Inc. 1995-2006; CEO of Crowell & Co. Inc., 2007 CIVIC: Board of directors, Savannah River Banking Co.; Aldersgate United Methodist Church; Sales and Marketing Council; Builders Association of Metro Augusta (and Aiken); Heritage Academy; American Cancer Society FAMILY: Wife, Wendy Wells Crowell; son, Travis William Crowell HOBBIES: Golfing and restoring old cars, especially British cars

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