Drivers along the Earl Rudder Freeway in the late 1990s must have though it a peculiar sight to watch three attractive residential homes being built next to the southbound feeder road between Barron and Rock Prairie Roads.
Who in their right mind would want to live that close to College Station’s East Bypass?
Well, Randy French thought it was an ideal location.
French is the founder and president of College Station’s Stylecraft Builders.
“Those were our offices for a time,” French says, “and they doubled as our model homes.
“We had a consultant suggest that we build those and make them portable. Since we didn’t have any large subdivisions at the time, it didn’t make sense for us to locate a model home there. The consultant said he had a client in Minnesota who had great success building his model homes next to a freeway.
“So we tried that.”
Long-time local residents will remember that those homes have been torn down and replaced a couple times.
“We weren’t very good at building portable homes,” French laughs. “This is the third generation of those houses. Other people now use them for offices.”
Stylecraft’s headquarters are located in a permanent building right next door. Those offices are shared by Randy and his staff, which today includes son Doug French, the company’s chief executive officer.
Proud is the father of the son who follows in the family business. Randy himself was once that son to his mother’s popular daycare enterprise here in the local area.
Randy’s dad came from Italy.
Italy, Texas, that is, north of the Dallas area.
“We moved to College Station when I was a youngster and Dad took a job in the meat department of the local Food Town grocery store in downtown Bryan,” Randy French says. “Eventually, we moved to the Edgewood subdivision in Bryan, and that’s where my mother started our family daycare business.”
Melba French was, by all accounts, a force of nature. She was affectionately called “Big Mama,” more for her personality than her stature.
“Mom was a visionary, very entrepreneurial,” Randy French says. “After she started the daycare business, Dad quit his job and began helping her. Pretty soon, they started expanding.”
The Frenches called the enterprise “French’s Schools.”
“At the beginning, my room at home was where the three-year-olds stayed,” Randy laughs. “Finally, Mom and Dad bought an old house, renovated it, and moved the business there.”
Eventually, French’s Schools occupied five different locations in College Station and Bryan, and Randy, while in college at Sam Houston State University, began keeping the business’s books.
“We had 700 kids and 125 employees,” Randy remembers. “Riding home from college with a friend on the weekends, I’d sit in the back of the car and write out payroll checks.”
Randy learned a lot about business from his mother.
“One of the most important things I saw her do was to always look on the bright side of things.”
Big Mama’s demeanor left a lasting impression on Doug French, too.
“She was always the life of the party,” Doug says today. “By the time I came around, she was a pretty successful businesswoman, so a lot of the stress was gone.
“She felt like she could take nothing and turn it into something and I think that’s true. In fact, that’s something Dad and I pride ourselves in today.”
Randy French started what’s come to be known as Stylecraft Builders in 1982, “but it wasn’t because I was a builder,” he laughs. “When I was young and I picked up a screwdriver around the house, it was best to go hide the women and children.”
But thanks to his years working in the French family’s daycare business, Randy knew he had his mother’s entrepreneurial spirit. As a real estate developer in the mid-80’s, Randy recalls going nearly a year without a salary. Local times were tough.
“I had three small children, including Doug, so I had to do something,” Randy says. “I decided I could make it as a custom homebuilder, so, I jumped in and started building larger homes one at a time.”
That changed, thanks to a chance meeting with Houston’s legendary real estate developer Walter Mishner.
Mishner was known as the ‘kingmaker’ because of his ability to raise money for politicians he supported. It was at a political fundraiser in Houston where Randy French met Mishner.
“I was sort of waiting around, hoping to have a chance to speak with him,” Randy says. “When I finally got the opportunity, I introduced myself as a homebuilder.”
“Custom or production?” French remembers Mishner inquiring. “Custom,” French said, adding, ‘“Why do you ask?”
“Because custom builders make a great living,” Mishner told Randy French. “They drive fancy pickup trucks, and they send their kids to private schools. But the builders who become wealthy are production builders.”
Randy French says he immediately envisioned the impact Mischner’s view could have on his ability to provide for his family, so, when he returned to College Station, he quickly heeded the advice. Stylecraft shifted course into the production home-building business in the early ‘90s, and the French family has never looked back.
Doug, meanwhile, showed his entrepreneurial abilities at an early age, buying candy in bulk at Sam’s Club, then selling it in packages of four to schoolmates. He attended Texas A&M and received an undergraduate degree in psychology.
“I remember when I was at a pretty young age,” Doug French says, “my dad telling me to get an MBA. My college plan was to get my psychology degree, then go out on my own for a while and kind of see what happened.
“Then I sort of came to my senses. I questioned why I should go out and spend years trying to build a new business when my dad has already done that. I realized how much I respected him for his achievement, and also how much he had already taught me.
"So after I got my MBA at Baylor, I asked Dad what he thought about me coming back and working for him.”
“His response: ‘I can’t think of anything better.’”
One of Doug’s first duties with Stylecraft was to take a look at the company’s balance sheet. His candy-brokering instincts took hold and in no time he started saving the company money.
“I think that first month I saved us like $90,000,” Doug says. “I felt good coming in and earning my keep, so to speak.”
“Doug started out very low key,” Randy recalls. “He was respectful to his fellow employees, trying to figure out where he best fit in, not trying to be the boss.
“We share that same ‘servant’s heart,’” Randy adds. “Over time, Doug assumed more and more responsibility. Finally, I felt comfortable taking time off because when I’d come back from vacation, Doug would have cleared all the work that I had left on my desk.
“As CEO now, Doug is technically my boss, and that’s okay,” Randy says with a proud father’s smile.
Stylecraft has expanded into production home-building throughout Central Texas. The company has grown significantly since father and son teamed up.
“I’m a touchy-feely person,” Randy says. “I love the people part of the business, as did my mother.
“Doug is like that, too, but he’s more metrics-driven and started making the necessary changes to grow the company.”
In 2018, Stylecraft completed construction on more than 700 new homes in north and east Central Texas. The company employs nearly 150 people and will be a major player in the redevelopment of College Station’s old Texas Motor Speedway into the Southern Point residential subdivision. Up to 1,500 homes will be built there, most priced in the low $200,000s.
The Frenches’ success has enabled the Stylecraft family to be among the College Station area’s most generous corporate citizens. The company supports a wide range of causes—including the City of College Station’s new “Fun-for-All Park” located at Beachy Central Park—but one way in which Stylecraft gives back, of which Randy and Doug are proudest, is the refurbishment of old churches in the Central Texas area.
And not just any old churches.
“One of our ministries is to rebuild small churches here in Texas that are at least 100 years old,” says Randy French. “They’re usually rural churches where the congregation doesn’t have a lot of money.
“These churches are usually pretty dilapidated and we wind up, in essence, giving them a new building. We’ve done that probably 10 or 15 times and when we finish, we gift the new church back to the congregation. It’s a wonderful experience.”
Stylecraft Builders was recently named one of Texas Monthly magazine’s “Best Companies to Work for in Texas”.
“Our employees tell us that’s one of the best things about working here,” Doug French says. “They love the way we give back, and our employees play a key role in how we do it.
“We all feel there’s a bigger purpose in life and I hope we are setting an example that will inspire other local companies to do the same.”