As a young boy, Joe Ziler watched his father start on the ground floor of Pittsburgh-based PPG Industries and ultimately advance to a high-level management position.
He will never forget those memorable words his father spoke on the day Joe left home to attend college.
“My father said, ‘You need to go out there and make a name for yourself; you don’t want to grow up being John Ziler’s son.’ I got into my car and thought he was a jerk to say that to me. It took me a while to figure out he was right.”
More than 25 years later, Joe has indeed made a name for himself — as both a successful businessman and a generous humanitarian. After moving up the corporate ladder with numerous national and local homebuilding companies, he now owns a thriving homebuilding and remodeling company of his own.
Despite his achievements, he is quite grounded and modest. Joe supports numerous local children’s organizations to provide brighter futures for boys and girls. And he certainly does not live a luxurious lifestyle. At one point in his career when he was earning six-digit figures, his colleagues teased him for pulling into the parking lot each day driving a 1997 Chevy pickup with more than 200,000 miles. They ribbed him even harder when he spent several years living in a doublewide trailer on his current property.
“When I finally bought a brand-new truck, I parked it in my garage for four months before anybody even knew I had it because I wanted to continue driving my Chevy pickup. I still have the Chevy today because, to me, it is a symbol of being frugal. You never know when the good times may end.”
Born to build
When Joe brought his neighbors, Roy and Mary Teter, a bowl of strawberries as a 4-year-old boy in West Virginia, he soon discovered his love for building. His neighbors were a lovely couple in their 50s with no children. They fell in love with Joe, and he became their surrogate child.
The husband was a railroad engineer who worked in a woodshop located in his basement. The curious boy spent every day at their home watching the skilled craftsman work magic with his hands. He would also assist the man whenever he performed various home improvement projects.
“Nobody in my family could hang a picture on the wall,” he says. “Yet, for some reason I would go to Roy’s woodshop and become fascinated by the little things that he did. He would make me all kinds of neat items.”
Back in those days, registration for kindergarten was done alphabetically. Therefore, Joe was denied enrollment when he turned 5. At the same time, Mary, a first-grade school teacher, was newly diagnosed with cancer.
“While she was out of school on a cancer sabbatical, I would go over to her house. She would teach me on a first-grade level when I should have been in kindergarten. That was very exciting to me, and for her, it was therapeutic.”
Although Mary died of uterine cancer, Roy is 95 and still living in West Virginia. “I go visit Roy once a year,” Joe says. “He always says to me, ‘You do what you do for a living because of me, don’t you?’ There’s no doubt that he made a big impression on me because here I am 43 years later still talking about him and still visiting him. We are products of our upbringing and environment, and that was certainly true for me.”
Home, sweet home
Joe attended Clarion University of Pennsylvania and Allegheny Community College in Pittsburgh. However, anxious to make a name for himself in the real world and earn money, he left college before finishing his degree in finance.
His path toward the homebuilding industry began in 1990. While working as a route salesman for Pepsi, he decided to buy a starter home in a West Virginia subdivision. Because his home was nicer than the model home, Bill Robie, the owner of the Virgina-based community, asked Joe to hold open houses on the weekend.
“He paid me a birddog fee, and this is how I got the taste for the industry,” he says. “I sold some houses, and six months later, he asked me to do this full-time. I agreed to it because he paid me a full commission on each home I sold.”
Having discovered a magical touch for selling homes, Joe became a licensed Realtor. He quickly mastered the art of real estate, earning more than $20,000 in commission in May 1992. Out of 420 Realtors in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia, he ranked among the top 10 in total sales volume.
“I thought to myself, ‘Wow, this is just incredible,’” he says. “This is one of those businesses where there is a direct correlation between how hard you work and what you receive in return.”
For Joe, this success led to a bigger and better opportunity with Tampa-based Jim Walter Homes, which at the time was one of the country’s largest homebuilding companies. He started at the company in 1995 as a branch manager. By 1999, he became a divisional construction manager and was overseeing 32 offices ranging from Fort Myers to Indianapolis.
Unhappy with the company’s massive reorganization effort, Joe stepped down in 2004 and several months later moved from Tampa to Lake County. He became a construction manager with Pringle Development, a well-known local company that has built retirement communities such as Lakes of Mount Dora and Royal Harbor in Tavares. He was quickly promoted to vice president and later became chief operating officer of Pringle Homebuilding Group.
After spending years working for large homebuilding companies, Joe had developed an entrepreneurial spirit and decided to become his own boss. In April 2008, he purchased Kevco Builders from Kevin Burkholder, who opened the company 33 years ago. That was a gutsy move considering the economy was in the beginning of a downward spiral.
“Since the economy was tanking, I was banking on the fact that historically, as homebuilding declines, remodeling picks up.”
Running his own company demanded much of his time and focus. Using his strong leadership skills and business savvy, Joe worked hard to plan and execute ideas, make key financial decisions, and successfully manage employees. However, he had to draw upon another quality to help his new company overcome the economy — survival instincts.
“Several months after purchasing the company I began second-guessing myself,” he says. “The economy was tanking badly. But I was never going to quit. I kept telling myself that I would figure this problem out because I always figure things out. That’s just who I am.”
To save money, he officially parked all company trucks and moved the office into a rent-free space in Leesburg. But his big break came in 2009 when he met the owner of a mold remediation company who asked Joe to begin repairing water- and fire-damaged homes.
“That one meeting changed everything for the company,” he says. “We are now repairing fire- and water-damaged homes in nine Florida counties. That’s why I say this is a relationship business and not a money business. When you make the right relationships, money takes care of itself.”
In October 2011, Joe diversified the company by adding a homebuilding division. The company’s first home, constructed in Tavares, was the recipient of the “Best in Value Merit Award” and “Best in Class” at the 2012 Home Builders Association of Lake County Parade of Homes.
Joe feels blessed that his company not only survived the recession but also thrived during a time when many remodeling companies across the nation permanently closed their doors.
“Only once did I put money into the company to make payroll,” he says. “And we always paid our employees and suppliers on time. Other than that, the company has sustained itself through the downturn and up the other side.”
The soft side of success
Of course, Joe is too humble to allow his professional accomplishments to go to his head. While successful business owners are often stereotyped as gruff, arrogant, and materialistic, Joe is down-to-earth, personable, and altruistic.
He particularly has a soft spot in his heart for children. Last December, when the Department of Children and Families held a Christmas party for foster children, Joe proudly played the role of Santa Claus. For him, it was a jolly old-time — and an emotional one, as well.
“One girl had me in tears. When I asked her what she wanted for Christmas, she told me she wanted a baby doll and her family. I was so choked up that by the time the next kid sat on my lap it was hard to ask what he wanted for Christmas.”
That marked Joe’s first time playing Santa, but it certainly will not be his last. “When the party is over, you are supposed to dry clean the suit and give it back to the Department of Children and Families. Well, the suit is hanging in my closet. I told them, ‘I’m your guy now, and I will continue doing this until you do not want me to do it anymore.’”
He also donates money to local youth charities and sports teams and assists Companions for Courage, a nonprofit therapy dog group that is operated by his wife, Missy. Through this organization, dogs and their handlers provide comfort to child abuse victims during private interviews and court cases. For Joe, none of this is for personal gain; it’s about being a good steward of the community.
“People will question me about why I became involved with something because I won’t receive any business from it,” he says. “You don’t give back to the community hoping for business or tax deductions; you do it purely out of the goodness of your heart because you hope you can better the community. My passion is helping children because they are the future. If you can make a difference in a child’s life in some way, that can change the future path of that child. And that changes the world around us.”
Many people may have trouble answering whether making money and owning nice things is more important than giving back to society. For Joe, it’s a no-brainer.
“If you do enough good things for other people and your motivation isn’t to receive something in return, then you become blessed beyond imagination.”
Those words would undoubtedly make Joe’s father proud. His son has been a success in his chosen profession but more importantly, gives back to enrich the lives of others. What better way to make a name for yourself than that?
Written by James Combs Photos by Fred Lopez