Kellogg World Alumni Magazine Spring 2008Kellogg School of Management
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  Carmin Awadzi '05
  Carmin Awadzi '05
  Winston Awadzi '02
  Winston Awadzi '02
Photo © Nathan Mandell

Alumni Profile: Carmin '05 and Winston Awadzi '02

Kellogg couple launches custom home company

By Aubrey Henretty

Carmin Awadzi '05, president and founder of Wheaton, Ill.-based Magnolia Custom Homes, takes home design seriously. On a recent afternoon, she dropped everything to field a call from a client wracked by indecision. At issue were the particulars of two kitchen windows in the client's new home. The call lasted 90 minutes.

For Awadzi, whose real-estate business was featured in 2007 on HGTV's "Dream House," the call was a routine diversion. "If you want to call me at 11 o'clock, 12 o'clock, if you want to talk about cabinets — I'm there," she says. Awadzi knows too well how a bit of molding or a light fixture can send people into a panic. A few years before she became a successful real-estate entrepreneur and a minor TV star, she was a first-time homebuilder with no one to call for cabinet advice.

It all started when Awadzi's family, including husband Winston — a 2002 Kellogg grad — and four children, moved back to Chicagoland after pursuing post-Kellogg opportunities in Kansas. They wanted to "plant roots" in the area, said Winston, but none of the homes they toured seemed right for them. He suggested that Carmin take a year off to build a new home for the family. Carmin, who had run her own software-development business before earning her MBA, wasn't convinced. "Are you nuts?" she asked Winston.

An engineer by training, Winston says he first looked into business education in the mid-1990s. With the Internet just beginning to catch on and his engineering skills in high demand, Winston considered starting his own business. "I started to learn how much of an engineer I was and how much of a business person I was not," he says. He was at a professional crossroads: Should he join a large firm to gain business experience or return to school for an MBA?

When management at Lucent asked Winston to join the company in 1999, he says he initially balked at the offer. But then the company flashed its trump card: "They said, 'Well, what if we pay for your Kellogg education?' And I said, 'Now you've got my attention.'"

Now the director of consumer sales at Sprint, Winston manages a team of several hundred people. "I have continued to build upon my Kellogg education," he says. "That's at the core."

Carmin says the value of an MBA in real estate is "immense," adding, "Without my Kellogg training, I certainly wouldn't have been able to start this business and have it be successful so quickly." A woman in a male-dominated industry, Carmin initially had to work around contractors skeptical that a woman with no previous building experience could possibly know the first thing about constructing homes, so she had to do a lot of independent, guerilla-style field research without the industry's blessing. Fortunately, obtaining blueprints for existing homes from city records, estimating the costs of materials and calculating the profit margins all felt like second nature after Kellogg. "I knew I had to stay four steps ahead of these guys," she says.

Nonetheless, Carmin says being a woman did give her credibility with an important segment of her customer base. "I knew that I would have a distinct advantage, because who makes the primary decisions about home purchase? It's the wife," she says, and the wife doesn't mind when another woman calls her up after dinner and invites her out to look at a few more houses right now. "I'm selling lifestyle, she adds. "I'm not just selling a house. And I don't think a lot of these guys get that."

Carmin says her business has brought her closer to her community: "Building homes is building community. It's so personal to people. To be able to build a home and to make a living doing something that touches people so intimately is amazing."

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