Sunday, February 15, 2004

Ralph Drees takes charge

Famed homebuilder, 69, tackles public office

By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

FORT WRIGHT - It might seem that 69-year-old Ralph Drees, who over three decades developed his family's home-building business into one of the nation's largest, would be ready for golf courses, beaches and ski slopes rather than fiscal court meetings, ground-breakings and campaign strategy.

"He's turned control of the company (over) to his son," said friend and fellow homebuilder John Yeager. "He could retire. Ralph should be winding down."

Age: 69
Residence: Crescent Springs
Family: Wife Irma, five children, including David Drees, CEO of the Drees Homes, and Barbara Drees Jones, the company's marketing director.
Education: Newport Catholic High School, 1952.
Military: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 1956-58.
Political involvement: Erlanger City Council, 1960; ran as a Republican for Kenton County Commissioner in 1981, losing by 148 votes to Democrat Charles Summe; frequent campaign contributor; alternate delegate to 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia; co-chair of Gov. Ernie Fletcher's Northern Kentucky fund-raising in 2003 election.
But that's not Ralph Drees.

Hard-charging and ready for a new challenge, Drees said he is eager to apply the same passion and dedication that went into building a nearly $1 billion a year home-construction behemoth into running Kenton County government. His son, David Drees, has taken over the building business.

"If I'm home, I go to work every day," Drees said. "I don't have any hobbies. I play a lousy game of golf. I don't hunt. I don't fish. I go to work, and I like it."

A month ago, Dick Murgatroyd joined Gov. Ernie Fletcher's administration in Frankfort and Drees took the oath of office to replace the former Kenton County judge-executive.

Already the business mogul is already showing mild impatience with the pace of government that he says contrasts with the brisk pace of running a multi-state business.

"Too many meetings ...and too much paperwork. I don't know how they get anything done," Drees said when asked the differences between the public and private sectors. "But I'm also learning there's a lot more to know about this job than I thought there was."

Not the 'political norm'

His mannerisms are that of a hard charger bursting with energy. Even while drinking decaf at the Fort Wright Bob Evans restaurant, Drees taps his arm on the table as he talks, phrases and syllables flowing together because thoughts come faster than words. His laugh is hearty, distinctive and frequent.

Long-time friends say they have no doubt public office will inspire, but also frustrate, Drees.

"Ralph will call a spade a spade and a rose a rose, and because of his personality and high integrity he will do what is right for the community regardless of what it means to him personally," said Fort Mitchell lawyer Mark Arnzen, a friend of more than 30 years.

"But I expect he might run into some frustrations along the way," Arnzen said. "You can't run a government entity like you run a business. But Ralph's also pretty able to adapt to things."

"We'll be better for it," said Yeager, president of Ashley Development in Edgewood. "I just can't comprehend why he took the job."

Another friend, Jim Huff of Fort Mitchell, operator of the real estate firm that bears his name, said he encouraged Drees to accept Fletcher's appointment.

The Drees administration "will deviate from the political norm," Huff said.

"He'll run it as he thinks it should be run, and that isn't how it's always done in politics," said Huff, who like Drees has been involved in Northern Kentucky politics for decades. "But Ralph has good judgment that in the end will show up and you'll see his talents and wisdom come forth."

Drees clearly finds parts of public life downright silly.

"They all want to protect me," he said, referring to Kenton County GOP staff. "They tell me I shouldn't talk to reporters too much, I should be careful what I say. That's not the way I operate."

'Just the way I am'

Drees is the son of Theodore Drees, a German immigrant and Drees Homes founder. Theodore and his brother George built their first house in 1928 on a lot in Wilder.

Ralph Drees took over in 1968 after working with his father since boyhood. Today Drees Homes builds nearly 3,000 homes a year in eight states and will finish fiscal year 2004, which ends March 31, with sales of $984 million.

Drees gives the credit to his employees.

"We have good people in our company. We hire the right people and its very common for them to stay 25 years or more."

Yet for all the wealth he has amassed, Drees has not strayed too far from the unpretentious manner in which he was raised: A staunch adherence to the German tradition of fiscal restraint, a devotion to the Roman Catholic Church, married to the same woman for 46 years, living in the same house for 24 years and keeping the same friends for decades.

His extravagances are a beachfront home on Florida's Gulf coast and a love of travel.

While learning the trappings of public service, Drees is also gearing up for an election. He has to run in November for the remaining two years of Murgatroyd's term. Although he doesn't yet have an opponent, he already has an April 1 fund-raiser planned at Huff's home.

Drees has taken criticism that he received the appointment after araising nearly $650,000 for Fletcher's campaign.

But the barbs haven't had much of an impact on Drees' confidence or sense of humor.

"April 1, that's a good day for a fund-raiser," Drees says before bursting into his signature high-pitched laugh.

Northern Kentucky's two other judge-executives - Gary Moore of Boone County and Campbell County's Steve Pendery - took Drees to breakfast last week at Bob Evans.

They'll meet regularly, Drees said, to discuss common issues and ideas.

"I can't say I gave him any advice," Moore said after the meal. "Ralph is a very seasoned businessman, and I think he will develop his own style that will serve him in the public sector, just as he had a style that served him in the private sector."


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