For more that 35 years, Gretchen Kovac has built a reputation throughout the region as a quality contractor of affordable homes. Along the way, she’s learned a few things about life, family and building the American Dream.
article by Michael DeVault | photography by Brad Arender
When West Monroe contractor Gretchen Kovac begins to speak of eastern Europe, you notice the affection she seems to have for the region. She talks of visiting Croatia with her family, of meeting relatives and visiting sites important to her father and his father before him. If you come away with the impression that she loves the region, it’s with good reason.
“The Adriatic Sea is beautiful,” she says, her voice wavering between the assertive, no-nonsense ease of a woman accustomed to giving orders on a construction site and the nostalgic whimsy of someone enjoying a particularly special memory. It’s no wonder, either, as Kovac has made the trip four times already, and she’ll make her fifth trip to her family’s homeland in May. Family and history play important parts in Kovac’s identity, that strange alchemy of experience, knowledge and lineage that help define who and what individuals become.
Her father arrived in the United States when he was just 27, and he met her mother, when he settled in West Carroll Parish. Together, Kovac’s parents reared five daughters and a son, during which time they instilled the notion of hard work, dedication and determination. Over the years, her father acquired some timberland, and when it came time to build the family home, he cut the timber from his property and sent it to a sawmill. “He actually built our house we lived in out of the timber on his land,” said Kovac, who notes this was her first exposure to the idea that homes could be built. It’s no coincidence that her father is also the source of an early impression that someone builds homes for other people, as well. “He also built three sharecropper homes on the property.”
A successful farmer with six children, Kovac’s father is a testament to the power of the American dream. When he arrived in America, he had a 3rd-grade education. Her mother had made it through the 9th grade before beginning her adult life. Nevertheless, in the Kovac household, education was king. The parents saw to it that all six kids not only finished high school, but also that they continued their studies after graduation. All five daughters and their son attended college and graduated, a feat virtually unheard of in the day. Kovac credits her parents with building a strong foundation upon which she could begin her life and career. “They sacrificed a lot to send us to college, to better our position in the world,” Kovac said.
But better their positions, her parents did. Nowhere is their sacrifice and success more apparent than in the list of accolades their daughter has collected during the last 36 years of building homes. She served four terms as president of the Northeast Louisiana Homebuilders Association and was an active member of the state organization. In 1997, she was elected vice president of the Louisiana Homebuilders, and the following year, she became the first woman to serve as president of the organization. The Ouachita Parish Library Association named her one of the five most influential women in the area in 2012, she was a charter inductee into Delta Business Magazine’s Business Hall of Fame in 2013, and she’s served on the board of the West Monroe/West Ouachita Chamber of Commerce.
Kovac is dismissive of talks about her charitable works—of which there are hundreds—and insists they’ve each been undertaken “because they’re good for the business.” It’s a statement she almost manages to convince you is sincere, until you scratch the surface of her contributions—of which there are hundreds. Only upon close examination does the full scope of Kovac’s community involvement come into focus. She’s served on all those professional boards, but she’s also been a part of numerous efforts that seem to play into her role as a homebuilder. An avid supporter of Habitat for Humanity, she’s donated lots to the organization for the construction of homes. She also has donated lots in Kovac developments for the St. Jude’s Dream Home giveaways. In 2001, she built the home, which netted some $300,000 for the children’s hospital.
Her community involvement doesn’t stop at homebuilding efforts, either. She’s been a part of efforts to boost tourism to the region through her work with the Monroe-West Monroe Convention and Visitors Bureau, donated personally to St. Jude’s and has served with the Living Well Foundation, too. Her interests have spread as far out from building as the Boy Scouts of America, the Ouachita Battered Women’s shelter, and youth athletics. Homebuilders Association of Northeast Louisiana executive officer Paul Stephenson credits Kovac with bringing progressive ideas to the community in an effort to build that community.
“She understands the importance of giving back to the community, of making this a better place to live,” says Stephenson, who’s known Kovac for 25 years. Her efforts making the area a better place to live and work aren’t lost on the HBA membership, either, Stephenson adds. “If people don’t want to own a home in your community, then there’s no point in building them.”
Stephenson notes that Kovac is one of the most influential builders in the state, and she has led the charge in numerous innovative building practices. Kovac was among the first developers to build planned communities in which each home is designed to fit an aesthetic. She was also among the first to completely landscape homes upon completion and to fence in back yards—two innovations that virtually every developer undertakes today. Kovac exercises incredible care and control in her projects. Unlike other developers who often buy land, build an infrastructure, and then sell lots in a subdivision to other builders, Kovac rarely sells individual lots, opting instead to build most, if not all, of the homes herself. It makes a difference.
“You can drive through subdivisions where many builders have built, and there’s no continuity whatsoever,” she says. Drive through a Kovac development and the unity of form, design and landscaping quickly become apparent. “I take pride in that, because I want my developments to look better than anyone else’s.”
Along the way, Kovac has managed to carve out a niche in the homebuilding market in northeastern Louisiana. She’s built neighborhoods in Choudrant, West Monroe, Monroe and in other points far out and close in. Each new development brings with it new techniques and improvements. All homes she builds feature 10-foot ceilings throughout, with double-step crown molding in public spaces and master bedrooms, which adds a touch of elegance to even the simplest of homes. “It’s classic,” Kovac says. “It never goes out of style.”
Using good suppliers and the best available sub-contractors—she calls them “super-great”—Kovac builds quality homes, featuring modern conveniences and innovations she’s gleaned from traveling extensively, keeping abreast of current industry best practices and training an eagle eye on the details. She has a guiding philosophy for each house she breaks ground on.
“I design it and build it as if I’m going to move into it,” she says of her homes, of which she has more than 10 in construction and development at any given time. “Quality is always the same. It never varies.”
Kovac pays close attention to the details, much like she does to community building, because as she puts it, “It’s not all about the money,” she says. “I don’t have time to spend it!”
She laughs, underscoring both her gratitude for a community’s embracing a woman in a traditionally male-dominated field and her pride in what she’s accomplished. The name Kovac Construction has been around so long that it’s hard to believe contracting was Kovac’s second career. After college, she became an educator, serving as Director of Physical Education for the State Department of Education. She also taught at Louisiana Tech, Southwestern and in public schools in Monroe, West Monroe, Alexandria and Lafayette—a tribute to her parents’ dedication to securing educations for their children.
Transitioning from education to building may seem like a leap, but somehow, people just knew that the name Gretchen Kovac was around to stay. That’s according to West Monroe Mayor Dave Norris, who happened to be on the board of a bank when Kovac approached the bank to secure financing for her first development more than 36 years ago. Norris said his board colleagues were less than convinced of Kovac’s potential. “There was a little skepticism,” Norris said, recalling conversations around the board table. “They said, ‘She’s a school teacher. She’s a woman. What does she know about this?’”
Though he cannot remember whether the bank agreed to extend a line of credit to Kovac at the time, one thing did stick out, and that was the words of the bank president. “The bank president said, ‘I believe she’s going to succeed,’” Norris recalled. And succeed she did. Norris called Kovac a pioneer and even today, he marvels at her success. “She’s truly a pioneer in the business she’s in,” he said. And like any pioneer, she’s consistently running ahead of the pack.
“She’s the one who came to me to talk about the kinds of homes people were going to be interested in,” Norris said. “She’s a trendsetter and very prophetic about what the needs are in a community.”
Hardly faint praise, Kovac as a trendsetter is no accident. She’s spent her life familiarizing herself with state-of-the-industry research, examining local, regional and national trends and positioning herself to be the contractor who can give people exactly what they want, what they need, even before they know they want or need it. Early on, that meant focusing on homes that new homeowners could afford. At a time when other builders were focusing on bigger and better, Kovac went for value, building entire neighborhoods of houses that young couples and retirees could afford. Typically priced around or below $100,000 at the time, these homes proved popular, and hundreds of families moved in, beginning to realize that first part of the American dream. But times change, and so do home buying trends. If you need to know where to position yourself in the building trades, just ask Kovac, who peppers conversations with statistics.
“In 1999, the lots were an average of 150 by 100 feet,” she says. Since then, lot sizes have decreased 10 percent—roughly 15,000 square feet. New construction has changed, too, she notes. Today only one quarter of new construction is custom homes. All the while, 10,000 individuals in the U.S. turn 55 every day. “That will take place for the next 19 years,” she said. In other words, Kovac has found her next market.
The current sweet spot for a Kovac development is a 2,000 square foot home ranging between $280,000 and $300,000. It’s a space where young professionals can afford to buy, but it’s also the size that retirees look to when they’re ready to downsize from the larger family home or upgrade from the home they’ve had for years. “I get my head into the books,” she said. “I have to stay abreast of what’s coming down.”
Studious attention to market trends and an eye for aesthetics have reaped rewards for Kovac, who Stephenson notes was the first female inducted as a building member into the Louisiana Housing Hall of Fame. “Even today, there’s only two,” Stephenson said. “So she’s in an elite class.”
Other builders share Stephenson’s admiration. 2014 BayouIcon and real estate developer Joe Holyfield has known Kovac for decades. He describes her as an innovator, an individual who’s accomplished much in her career, and any praise she gets is well deserved. “Gretchen has been on the forefront of home building and developments over the entire parish for years,” Holyfield said. “She continues to amaze me with her energy and commitment to our community, our industry and is well respected through out the entire state of Louisiana.”
Aside from a brief vacation to Europe in May, Kovac’s long-term plans are pretty simple. Though she’s developed properties throughout northern Louisiana, these days, she’s staying closer to home—building within two or three miles of her own house, which boasts panoramic views of the Ouachita River. She’s continuing to build, though, and she’s not easing up on the innovative spirit. On one of her travels, she recently discovered aluminum keyways between adjoining concrete sections, an innovation designed to help curb cracking in concrete. She immediately adopted the technique. If she shows any signs of slowing down, it’s that she’s a little more focused on improving the processes, building increasingly better homes and making sure her customers get their money’s worth. Her goal is to provide homeowners with their vision of the American dream, which she says she accomplishes by making it her dream first. It’s a fresh take on the customer-comes-first philosophy, and one that’s just a little less focused on the bottom line than it used to be. Kovac said that’s because she’s accomplished what she set out to accomplish.
“I don’t need anything,” she said. “That’s a good place to be, isn’t it?”