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In farming, you need three things: efficiency, perseverance and a positive attitude. Those are the same qualities you need to succeed in home building.

Keystone and HOPE International Featured in Business2Business

Jeff RuttRecently, I was interviewed for a Business2Business article about Keystone Custom Homes and HOPE International. I truly appreciate the publication for interviewing me and getting the word out about these two great organizations. Read the article, written by Bill Simpson, below:

It’s a long way from a community of comfortable homes in Lancaster County to the village of El Seibo in the Dominican Republic, but both places are integral parts of Jeff Rutt’s life. Jeff is the founder and president of Keystone Custom Homes, and he’s also the founder of Hope International, a Christian aid organization that uses the concept of microfinance to help people in poorer countries improve their lives by providing them with small loans that enable them to start or improve a business.

Keystone currently has communities in 8 Pennsylvania counties, as well as Cecil County in Maryland, but that’s not nearly as much geography as Hope International covers. The organization is currently working in 15 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe. The Dominican Republic is certainly not a prosperous nation, but with a per capita income of $9700, it’s much better off than many places where Hope International operates, such as Haiti ($1300), Moldova ($3800), and Malawi ($900).

In El Seibo, Blacina Guerrero Sanchez is a microfinance success story. She received a loan of $145 from Hope International, and she has been able to use that small sum to invest in her convenience store. Now, because of the loan, she can afford to buy items in bulk and repackage them in smaller containers that her customers can afford. She provides many products and services that she couldn’t previously offer, and she’s hopeful that her children will be able to go to college. And her loan is definitely not a gift because she has the responsibility of repaying it, with interest.

Bianca’s $145 wouldn’t go far in the United States, but it’s a powerful amount in some countries, and Jeff is hopeful of helping many more people around the world. “We now have about 650,000 clients. We would love to get to a million.”

His path to the worlds of real estate and microfinance began in the farmlands of Lancaster County, and he learned many valuable lessons from the farm life. “My father taught me the privilege of getting up at 4 a.m. and working hard. We actually lived on many different farms. My father would buy them. We’d fix them up and sell them. For a long time, we moved about once a year.”

When Jeff was 13, his family settled on a farm in Wakefield in southern Lancaster County. “I went to Solanco. I wrestled and became president of the FFA. Through that position, I learned parliamentary procedure, and that has turned out to be a skill that I still use because I know how to run a meeting efficiently.”

He eventually bought that farm from his father and operated it until he began to wonder if he could find a line of work that might demand fewer than 100 hours a week. “I went into real estate when I was looking for something with lower hours and lower risks. I met builders, and I was fascinated with arranging all of it. It got to a point where I was doing it all for someone else, and I thought that I could do it for myself.”

So in 1992, he arranged all the pieces for his new business and built his first dozen homes. “We’ve done about 4,400 homes so far, and we’ll do about 400 this year.” Those homes are both single homes and townhouses, and Keystone has become the first homebuilder in the country to win the America’s Best Builder award from the National Association of Home Builders and Builder Magazine 3 different times.

“Our goal is to help families achieve their dreams. We give them more and better choices at the best possible price. We have 50 communities with 10,000 options so you can design it yourself. We build from the client’s perspective.”

The housing industry has had some tough years lately, but the pace is picking up now. “We’re still well below a normal market, but we see lots of challenges and lots of opportunities. There’s a low supply of inventory, but the rates are low and the prices are very affordable.”

As he looks ahead, he sees good things. “I see a bright future for housing. We have many renters and a lot of pent-up demand right now.”

The management philosophy that has helped him to build his business is to allow everyone to flourish and to be open to learning himself. “I never want to be the smartest guy in the room. I want to help others multiply their talents. I think that people, now more than ever, want to work for a business with a meaningful purpose.”

From the farm to Keystone Custom Homes, Jeff’s partner has been Sue, his wife of 33 years. They live in Strasburg, and they now attend Calvary Church in Lancaster. She’s also a farm girl, and she and Jeff met at the church that they formerly attended, although his first attempt to woo her didn’t exactly go smoothly. “I had seen her before, and I wanted to talk to her after church, but I lost my voice. I got something in my throat, but she still said yes.”

Their first date took them to the Lampeter Fair, and their union has produced 3 children. Alisa serves as Senior Recruitment & Retention Specialist at Hope International. Ben was a New Home Advisor at Keystone, and Leah a recent graduate of Dallas Baptist University. There, she excelled in tennis, and her first job took her to the Boston area, where she was the operations director for the Tennis Academy at Harvard University.

For Jeff, Hope International is the result of a vision that he had back in 1997. “I’d read a book called Halftime by Bob Buford.” It’s a book that addresses the challenge of finding purpose in the second half of a person’s life.

“I was sitting in my ’94 Honda Accord and I called my lawyer to tell him about my idea. He tried to talk me out of it, so I went home, and my wife and I prayed on it. The next morning, I told my lawyer, ‘I believe that you work for me.’” And thus began Hope International.

The first destination was Ukraine, and as a member of a church delegation, Jeff delivered containers of food, clothing, and medical supplies. Then, on a subsequent trip, he had an experience that shook him and changed his approach entirely. A local pastor told him that the handouts were having more negative effects than positive ones. The people who were receiving the charity were becoming dependent on the handouts, and a woman whose business was to sell flour couldn’t sell anything when people could get free flour down the street.

Jeff returned from that trip with a deflated feeling and an urgent need to find a better way. The term that he now uses to describe the gifts that he had been distributing is Toxic Charity, and that is the title of a book by Robert Lupton. One passage from the book that articulates the damage that excessive charity can do to people says, “When we do for those in need what they have the power to do for themselves, we dis-empower them.”

When Jeff thought hard about his own charitable efforts, he came to a painful realization. “We were hurting people. I was a toxic charity addict, and I’ve learned that toxic charity has 5 steps:

• Appreciation
• Anticipation
• Expectation
• Entitlement
• Dependency

His solution to the harm done by toxic charity is Hope International and its concept of Christ-Centered Microfinance Development, which represents the difference between a handout and a hand up. “In the first year, we did 12 microfinance loans.” Now, those small loans, as well as Training and Savings, are 3 pillars of Hope International. The organization has grown substantially, and its world headquarters are in the same building as Keystone’s.

The Rutt family is very close, and, through Hope International, they’re able to enjoy some vacations that other families might not consider. “On my son’s senior trip, we went to the Dominican Republic. The whole family went to Zimbabwe last year. We went to Haiti after the earthquake. Ben and Alissa had recently gotten married, and we took our in-laws. We sat in the back of a pickup truck and made up new verses to My Favorite Things. The time with our kids is a blessing. Who needs Disney World?”

In addition to those exotic trips, Jeff enjoys regular American activities and vacations in the United States. “I love to play tennis, and we enjoy water skiing at Smith Mountain Lake in Roanoke Virginia. I love watching tennis. I’m a die-hard Eagles’ fan, and I love college basketball.”

Jeff Rutt is a successful businessman and family man, but he’s not content with what he’s achieved so far. “It’s about going from success to significance. I just want to improve more lives. I want to partner with folks and leverage their talents and skills at Keystone, at Hope, and everywhere else.”  

As you read in the Business2Business article, Keystone Custom Homes and HOPE International were both created on the philosophy to go above and beyond. As this year continues, I hope to share with you all in upcoming posts how we do just that.

Until next time,

Jeff Rutt