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Daughter’s zigzag journey leads home, to Epcon


Sherri Meyer, left, with daughter Nicole Newkirk, enjoys running an Epcon franchise because "every day's different." They carefully divvy up roles in order to increase efficiency.

One day Nicole Newkirk woke up and decided she wanted to leave Indiana for New York City. She had been studying pre-med at Indiana University Bloomington, an hour south of her hometown of Indianapolis, but told her mother she wanted to go to the Fashion Institute of Technology.

It would not be her last spur-of-the-moment life change. Living in the big city, she soon switched her major from marketing to real estate construction management after spontaneously becoming more interested in real estate.

She then enrolled in New York University with a focus on real estate construction management. The latest switch wasn’t totally out of left field, however, as the real estate gene runs in the family.

Going with the gut

Throughout Newkirk’s childhood, her mother, Sherri Meyer, and grandfather, Wayne Schmalhausen, were co-owners of Graystone Group, an Epcon home-building franchise in Indianapolis. As a surgeon, Schmalhausen was a silent partner and Meyer ran the franchise full time.

“Sometimes I just get strong gut feelings—I don’t question it, I just do it,” Newkirk said of her shifting life decisions. After becoming interested in real estate through work at an internship, she obtained her real estate license in New York, suspecting the industry would be further influenced by the retiring wave of baby boomers.

Dublin, Ohio-based Epcon is geared toward building housing communities for empty nesters and seniors, with single-story floor plans, walk-in showers and minimal ongoing maintenance required.

As her mother’s franchise continued to expand, Newkirk officially decided the senior living business was the place to be. She planned to start her own franchise and flew down to meet with Epcon executives.

“I told my mom I wanted to do it in the Carolinas, so I was going to move there next, but she was like, ‘I think you should come home first and learn the business,’” she said, about her mother encouraging her to return to Indianapolis and assist with her next real estate community.

Newkirk gave in and four months later after the homecoming, Meyer was diagnosed with breast cancer. Following the diagnosis, Newkirk realized her return to the Hoosier State was for a very good reason.

“Just as strongly as I felt I was supposed to move to New York, I felt I was supposed to move back, and feel like it was because she was going to get cancer, so I was supposed to be here,” she said. “If I hadn’t been here, that would have been really hard for her to run the new project.”    

Driven by personality

When Meyer first started her real estate career as a broker, she enjoyed working with builders, and became her own homebuilder in 1991, courting prospective buyers, coordinating projects and working with contractors, zoning attorneys and builders to ensure the houses and communities were finished on time.

“Every day’s different, and that’s what I like so much about it,” Meyer said. “Taking a piece of property where there’s nothing there and going through with the engineer, laying it out, marketing and seeing that community finished is so fun.”

Newkirk, then 24 years old, received a trial by fire as Meyer stepped away from her work to undergo chemotherapy and radiation treatments. She managed the business during her mother’s recovery, and then moved exclusively into sales and marketing when Meyer came back to the business cancer free.

Finally with time to breathe, the pair set out to determine who should do what on an ongoing basis. Knowing they had significantly different personality styles, but both variations of type A, Meyer gave her daughter a personality test that suggested marketing wasn’t her strongest suit.

“I knew pretty much what her personality was like, but I wanted to have that as a basis,” Meyer said. “I tried to put her in the position that she was good at, because if you’re good at something and you like it, that’s not work.”

Having an interest in human nature and analytics from her pre-med days, Newkirk enjoyed the skills test. Based on the results, she moved out of sales and marketing. Meyer said Newkirk tended to become frustrated with prospective buyers that occasionally required years of hand-holding before signing a deal.

“She was good at it,” Meyer said, “but if it didn’t happen quickly, then she lost her patience.”

Ready for the next dive

Building houses isn’t Newkirk and Meyer’s only business; they also show dogs on weekends. That means even more time together, blurring lines enough that work infiltrated all aspects of their lives with phone calls from customers, employees and other stakeholders.

They gradually learned to set up boundaries that helped them better achieve after-hours peace. Boundaries included directing their staff to limit non-essential calls, further delegating their work duties and, as Newkirk said, learning to pick their battles.

“It’s hard to keep a normal work-life balance,” Newkirk said of the effort. “You just have to shut the work off when you go there, as that’s supposed to be our fun mother-daughter time … but that’s hard to do.”

“We do have our moments, but it’s better now that she’s an owner,” Meyer added. “She might have thought I was too critical of her, but now that she’s an owner and we’ve delineated all of the responsibilities, she knows she’s totally responsible as an owner and that’s helped her grow and mature.”

They recently brought on a third business partner, Sean Edwards, whose presence has helped minimize the amount of phone calls they both field after work hours.

Once again, that meant divvying up roles, a constant of their 12 years in business together.

With increasing success as the senior living category remains hot, Newkirk is already looking ahead to her next dramatic life change.

“I told my mom I wanted to move to Hawaii and open a dive shop,” she said. “She was like, ‘I don’t know if I’d like Hawaii, but I’m going if you’re going.’”

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