The Post and Courier

Joe Kirk arrived in metro Charleston in the midst of a housing wave with no end in sight for his company, Saussy Burbank, and the market as a whole.

Back then in 2005, the Charlotte based homebuilder was erecting houses lickety-split at White Gables neotraditional neighborhood in Summerville and The Palmetto Forest section of Legend Oaks in Dorchester County.

Kirk, vice president and general manager, oversaw a staff that would peak at 18 employees.

In 2007, the national housing market started to cave. Saussy Burbank was forced to gradually cut back on its workforce as it hung onto the White Gables business and a few odd jobs.

Then sometime in summer 2009, it happened. Kirk showed up at work, and he was it. “We went from 18 people to me. It was very painful,” he says.

But Kirk didn’t give up. Instead, he got a break of sorts.

Saussy Burbank’s corporate officers had been in contact with The Beach Co. in the Charleston area. The Beach Co. had kicked off its multiuse Watermark development between Bowman Road and Hungryneck Boulevard in Mount Pleasant and had a section of residences to be built.

First planned as townhomes, the places wound up as quaint two-story, single-family dwellings.

While hardly a work overload, the Appling Drive homes at Watermark kept Saussy Burbank afloat in the Charleston area. “That changed everything, “ he says. “If not for Watermark,” he says, the outcome could have been far worse.

Another plus with Appling: “It got us into the Mount Pleasant market.” That had been a goal at least since Kirk relocated to Charleston. “We’ve done seven years of due diligence,” he quips. “We don’t rush into anything.”

Four years after bottoming out locally, the homebuilder has righted the ship as the housing market recovers. The company is back to five full-time and one part-time employee in the local office.

The rally comes as Saussy Burbank moved its main office to a retail and office center at 730 Coleman Blvd., Suite L in Mount Pleasant. The company also opened a design studio where customers can pick out fixtures, flooring, kitchen accessories and other touches.

In a roundabout way, Kirk, 53, could be described as someone who followed in the family business.

His father, Ivie Kirk, was a top manager with Ryland Homes and affiliated companies in Syracuse, N.Y., and later in Charlotte in the 1970s and ’80s. When he died, the funeral was “a who’s who of the Charlotte building market,” his son says.

Joe Kirk grew up in Syracuse, as evidenced by an orange poster with images of a net and the Syracuse Orangemen college basketball program in his Mount Pleasant office. After high school, he enlisted in the Army and focused on military intelligence, specializing in Spanish languages. That lead him to Fort Clayton, Panama.

But he was eager to return to the United States. When his tour of duty was complete, Kirk transitioned to the real estate business.

Kirk had some experience from his father. Also, in 1981, “I started sweeping out homes for Ryland Homes.” Eventually, he headed south and took a job with Anderson Homes in Raleigh, N.C.

He was a superintendent, then a construction manager for six years at Anderson Homes. He would switch to Crosland Homes, which would become Centex, and held managerial positions. Then he met Al McNeill of McNeill Burbank Homes — sister company to Saussy Burbank — and they hit it off.

Kirk spent a half dozen years as area manager in Raleigh and still keeps in touch with managers and staff he worked with there. Every year, they take a trip to see a baseball game or games at a different ballpark. The most recent visit was to Philadelphia to see the Phillies, marking the 21st year of the trip.

In the 1990s, Kirk transferred to Charlotte. That left Charleston as the only area where Saussy Burbank builds that he hadn’t called home. When the Lowcountry position came open, he made the move.

“I’m looking (now) at the Hawaii division,” he joked.

Kirk lives with his wife Pat Kirk, office manager at a commercial construction company, in Newington Plantation in Summerville. The couple have three grown children, Andrea, who has a nursing degree; Allyson, a substitute teacher; and Joey, who is employed at Scout Boats in Dorchester County.

The manager is proud of his employer. “I’m not bragging but we are like the BMW of the home building business. We build a good home.” At the same time, Kirk was able to re-hire employees who had been laid off during the housing downturn.

“We had such a fantastic team,” he says. “Nobody was let go because they wanted to be let go.”

Saussy Burbank in the past year branched into The Ponds, an upscale master-planned community on Summerville’s western edge; and Carolina Park, a sprawling new village near Wando High School in Mount Pleasant.

Kirk notes that the builder locally has “a tremendous relationship” with Carolina One Real Estate, which through its Carolina One New Homes group handled sales and marketing at White Gables and is doing so now at The Ponds and Carolina Park.

After a Wednesday interview, Kirk was headed to Carolina Park to check things out. Saussy Burbank plans to construct houses in Carolina Park proper as well as a ritzier section known as Riverside.

“We build the same quality at $300,000 as $700,000,” he says.

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Reach Jim Parker at 937-5542 or