18 May 2017
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Pioneer Spirit

An adventurous career path led one man to finding homes for those in need.
by Constantine von Hoffman

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Photos by Jeff Moore

Conventional wisdom says expertise gained through years of experience is the key to business success. Conventional wisdom has never met Ross Freeman (PMD 30, 1975). Freeman’s unfettered approach to life—“Well, I’ll give that a shot—has taken him from working in the NASA space program in the 1960s to his role today as president and CEO of Pioneer Group, which creates affordable housing through the renovation and preservation of historic buildings in the American Midwest.

Freeman grew up in a small Kansas town, the son of an hourly employee for the telephone company and a stay-at-home mom, and was the first person in his family to go to college. He went to Kansas State University on a football scholarship, but was injured during a spring practice in his sophomore year. That led him, in what seems to be his credo, to head in a different direction.

“The start of my junior year represented a significant change in my life, because for the first time in 10 years I was not involved in football practices,” he recalls. Other immediate changes included joining the Kansas State a cappella choir (“music had always played an important role in my life”) and, in the first humanities class of the semester, he met Fern, his future wife.

“We were married four hours after we both graduated from Kansas State (Ross earned a BS in mathematics and Fern earned a BS in business education) and immediately moved to Florida, where I was involved in the development of the RL10 liquid hydrogen rocket engine that was subsequently used in many of the major space exploration programs, and Fern taught in the first public high school in Palm Beach County to be integrated.”

One of the goals the couple had when they moved to Florida was to save enough money for Ross to attend law school and, after three years in the Sunshine State, they moved to Topeka where he enrolled in Washburn Law School. “I had always thought that I wanted to go back to the small town and be the only-lawyer-in-town type thing,” he says. However, while in law school Freeman worked part-time doing computer programming for a life insurance company, and once he finished his law degree he stuck around and rose to become the firm’s secretary and general counsel. Along the way, however, Freeman realized he was more interested in general management than leading a law department. While discussing his goals with the company’s president one day, the man suggested that Ross go to HBS.

“It was an unbelievable experience,” Freeman recalls. “Competing against such a talented group of people, at that level, really helped me gain self-confidence and a belief in my own decisions. And being elected our class secretary has continued to be a blessing, as I’ve been in the middle of communications between members of our class and HBS for the past 40 years.”

Freeman returned to the company after HBS, but after five years decided to put the knowledge he had gained to use in the private market place. So he went out on his own, and he and Fern bought ZAX, Inc., a struggling company that produced custom-designed wood and laminate office fixtures, because, well, he thought he’d give that a shot. “We basically had to mortgage everything, including our four young daughters, to do it,” he laughs. (Those daughters are today a lawyer, a corporate executive, and two CPAs, he notes proudly.)

Six weeks after Freeman bought the company, the shop foreman and the head of marketing left, taking many staff and clients with them to set up their own competing business.

“I had never been involved with manufacturing before,” Freeman notes. “I’d never been involved with marketing before. I’d never been in charge of blue-collar employees before. And so it was a heck of a challenge and an invaluable learning experience.”

Using insights he gained at HBS, he started looking outside the markets where the company had been engaged, which led him to exploring government contracts. First came several contracts with the US Postal Service to produce lobby desks, which were followed by several deals to build waterproof plywood shipping containers for gas masks for the Pine Bluff Chemical Arsenal.

The company’s big break came when it was selected to build custom-designed consoles and workstations for the Military Air Lift Command’s Crises Action Area at Scott AFB. That led to building all the consoles and workstations for the Strategic Air Command’s headquarters at Offutt AFB. The culmination of these sole-source contracts was one to build all the custom-designed consoles and workstations for the Army’s Command and Control Center in the basement of the Pentagon.

In addition to the military work, the company was chosen to build custom-designed fixtures for dispatch centers for railroad and utility companies, as well as redoing the interior of executive rail cars.

While the business was a success, it was also highly cyclical. “I’ve never had such a terrible feeling as when I had to lay people off,” Freeman remembers. “Not because of anything that they had done, but because we just didn’t have enough work.”

So, 14 years after he had acquired the company, he sold it.

Freeman was at loose ends for several months until a neighbor, who was also an attorney, asked him to help with a client who was putting together financing for three large affordable housing projects. Freeman didn’t know anything about affordable housing, but figured he’d give it a shot.

“I really enjoyed the work,” he says. “It was such a contrast. You could be working with attorneys in New York and Washington in the morning and working with the residents of the affordable housing projects in the afternoon. I just fell in love with that type of work.”

But he wasn’t comfortable with the way that particular developer was doing it. “I thought I could do it in a way that I could sleep at night,” he says. So he founded Pioneer Group in 1997. The firm started out doing affordable housing projects, then expanded into historic rehabilitation projects that resulted in affordable housing, and finally took on historic rehabilitation projects by themselves, working in Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska. Today, the company focuses on providing affordable housing for low-income families, seniors, and homeless veterans.

“Our family properties are mainly three-bedroom townhomes, and, for many of our residents, these are the first modern, safe, and secure homes they have ever had,” says Freeman. “For homeless veterans, our houses provide a place of their own to call home, and bestows a strong sense of belonging.”

The Pioneer Group’s rehabilitation projects have won numerous state and local awards and two have received a total of five national awards, including two from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Freeman believes he knows why his “I’ll give that a shot” approach to business has worked so well.

“The case study method at HBS illustrated that your situations really aren’t hopeless,” he says. “It was that attitude of ‘If this doesn’t work, let’s try something else, because there’s more than one way to get from here to there.’ That was a new way of looking at situations for me, taking a step back from what has been or what is going on, to see what kinds of alternatives and options are available.”

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