Marnie Oursler of Bethany Beach may be one of the few people to get accepted to a prestigious MBA program after admitting in an application letter that people thought she was crazy.
But after eating almost nothing other than peanut butter sandwiches for two years, Oursler, an $11-an-hour real estate assistant just two years out of college, had saved enough to buy a $250,000 house seven blocks from the ocean. Her intent: fix it up, then sell for a nice chunk of change. Her parents thought she’d lost her mind.
Oursler got busy. She bought materials with her credit cards and did much of the work herself. Nine months later, in 2004, she sold the home—and pocketed a cool $89,000. With the profit, she bought a new lot, then started building a home from scratch.
Oursler has parlayed the experience into the most successful custom home-building business at the beach. Her constant exploration and innovation have led her to another success: showing the country’s largest private supplier of construction materials that building American costs no more than the industry-wide practice of building with materials from around the world.
Now Oursler is a national spokeswoman for 84 Lumber’s Build American program. Together they hope to revitalize a sagging construction industry by boosting sales of American-made products and creating jobs. Oursler knows it can work. In her own small way, she’s done it.
Sitting at the dining table in her home—a beautiful place with soaring ceilings, custom millwork, random-width plank floors, and retro touches such as white subway tile in the bathroom and stained five-panel doors—Oursler smiles. “I like a challenge,” she says.
Oursler grew up around construction. Her great grandfather was a builder. So was her grandfather. So is her dad, Marvin Oursler, who would often park his daughter at job sites around their home in Calvert County, Maryland, before delivering her to softball practice or soccer games. “I was literally digging foundations, tying re-bar, sweeping houses, taking out trash, doing whatever a girl could do,” Oursler says.
She wasn’t much interested in construction, at least not that she nor her father were aware of then. Oursler preferred sports. Her skills landed her on a nationally ranked traveling softball team, as well as a position on the Maryland state soccer team. “Digging a ditch is no harder than sliding into second on your face,” Marvin Oursler says. “Marnie never was this dainty thing out there with the guys. And because of the sports, she related to the guys well.”
When it came time to choose a college, Oursler headed to the U.S. Naval Academy. The famous Plebe Summer, when new students, called “plebeians,” suffer through all manner of tests, “changed me forever,” Oursler says. “I have no fear that I can’t do anything.” Yet when her grandfather passed, she had a change of heart. “I was a good plebe. I just didn’t want to do it anymore.” So she left the academy, heading to East Carolina University on a softball scholarship. There she was named All Conference Big South Shortstop and earned All Conference Academic Honors three years straight, and her Division I team ranked 23rd in the country. She also served as an officer in the Chi Omega sorority. A dual major in information technology and education, she planned to become a teacher, like several of the women in her family, until she realized she didn’t like the school environment.
Soon after graduation in 2001, Oursler moved to her family’s beach house in Bethany while she tried to determine a new path. “My parents said that was OK,” she laughs, “as long as I didn’t work in a bar.” She landed a job as an assistant at a local real estate office. She also started to chart market trends. Based on that research, she identified her first property. By the time she started building her first home, her own, in 2005, she had taken a job as a saleswoman for a regional builder. She won several awards for her performance, but by 2007, the market had started to founder, and so did Oursler. She needed a challenge. By then, she had become acquainted with her neighbors, who had an extra lot they wanted to build on. With nothing to show but the home she’d just finished, a design sense inherited from her mother and a meticulously itemized bid, the 28-year-old persuaded the skeptical couple to make her their contractor. She finished the job ahead of schedule and under budget. Referrals started coming in.
Since then, Marnie Homes has built 28 houses around Bethany. Annual revenue grew from $450,000 at the start to $4 million last year. Oursler performs all design and building functions. Over the years—the worst in the history of the local building and real estate market—she has kept people employed and kept contractors in business. She also ended up building the first LEED-certified home in the state (the acronym stands for Leadership in Environmental Engineering and Design) and, at the request of another client, built a home with 95 percent of the materials produced in the United States.
Featured in the local paper, that house caught the attention of an executive at 84 Lumber. He reached out to Oursler. In August, she and 84 Lumber joined forces. The company has since found a way to make more American materials readily available, based on her action plan, and she has become the face of 84’s Build American campaign, a contractor who has proven that building American doesn’t cost a fortune. “We found that it’s pretty easy to do,” says Jeff Nobers, vice president of marketing for 84 Lumber.
Building all American includes mainly the basic materials—framing, sheathing, roofing, drywall, insulation, hardware. Some of those materials do cost more than foreign products, Nobers says, but through cost controls that save money in other areas, a home can be built for less than one with mostly foreign products, as Oursler has demonstrated—not to mention that American-made products are of superior quality.
With Oursler, 84 Lumber rolled out the Build American campaign at the International Homebuilders Show in Las Vegas in January. With 250 stores in 30 states, 84 Lumber has the might to promote awareness of the benefits of building American. “Marnie has found a way to make this very doable,” Nobers says. “Anything we can do to protect and create jobs and keep dollars in the U.S. is beneficial to the economy.”
Having built a successful business and hitting on a revolutionary idea, what’s a woman to do? If you’re Oursler, you go to Duke University. At 34, she is in the second of six terms in the Fuqua School of Business’ competitive Cross Continent MBA program. The program takes her to various countries for two weeks to provide global perspective on business, followed by several weeks of course work and group projects. No sooner had Oursler returned from Dubai, she left for Las Vegas.
“I stay busy,” Oursler laughs. “I love what I do. Right now I’m just taking it day by day. I don’t want to focus only on my career. I want to focus on my life and family. But I love being the national spokesman. We’ll see where this takes me.”