“It’s a love story,” Dolores Davis says about the company her parents built. She’s speaking in a documentary CG&S Design-Build made to celebrate 60 years of the home design and remodeling company
It’s the story of when two kids from Austin, Clarence and Stella Guerrero, met at a dance at St. Edward’s University.
“He came and asked my friend to dance, but somebody beat him to it,” Stella Guerrero, 85, says in the documentary. “I was left all alone at the table, so he asked me to dance.”
Clarence Guerrero grew up with a father and brother who were carpenters. “I followed him when I was about 4,” Clarence Guerrero, 89, says of his father. “I went with him everywhere he went.”
After a short time in the Navy, Clarence Guerrero went into carpentry, too. “That’s all I knew,” he says.
He knew how to build a home, and he knew how to sell the job to a client. He did not know how to do the books or pay the taxes.
That became Stella Guerrero’s role. “The business would not have made it without her,” says son and CG&S co-owner Billy Guerrero.
“It was a match made in heaven,” Davis says.
CG&S Design-Build will celebrate its 60th anniversary Sept. 23 with a party for employees and friends of the firm. It’s a business that grew from a mom-and-pop operation to a company with 31 employees working on about 60 to 65 projects a year out of the South Austin house that once held the family of 10, plus the foster children the Guerreros took in.
CG&S Design-Build has seen Austin’s home design style grow from simple and practical to more sophisticated and architectural. The company has won awards for its projects and had homes on numerous home tours. It’s weathered the lean years of 1986, 2001 and 2009 when the housing, building and remodeling markets were flat and years even before that that they can’t name. And it’s helped bring the concept of design-build to Austin.
Three generations of family have helped take Clarence Guerrero Construction into CG&S Design-Build.
A company out of necessity
Before the Guerreros started the business in 1957, Clarence Guerrero worked for other construction companies, but it was difficult to find jobs. He worked for a company that traveled around building gymnasiums, but with the first of eight kids already born, it was time to be home more. Finding work as a Hispanic carpenter was hard. “Me and my father and my brother were the only three carpenters who were Hispanic (in Austin). … It put us in the sloppy jobs, the hardest jobs,” Clarence Guerrero says in the documentary.
“It is better today, but I never can forget,” he says.
He tells a story of stopping at a cafe with four or five other carpenters. The waiter takes the order of all the other carpenters, who were white. “How about me?” Clarence Guerrero asked. He was told, “Oh, I’m sorry. We don’t serve Mexicans.”
The carpenters that he was with walked out of the cafe. “I was so proud of them, even until today,” Clarence Guerrero says.
The business started out of necessity, Davis says. “They have to raise those children.”
They didn’t think they could get a fair shake working for someone else, she says, so they went into business for themselves.
“They were super-hard workers,” she says. “They were very committed and determined to make it in Austin.”
“They had an amazing work ethic,” Billy Guerrero says.
The business unofficially started a few years before 1957, but 1957 was the year Stella and Clarence Guerrero realized they needed a tax ID number and got one, becoming official.
Clarence Guerrero would work their original East Austin neighborhood — “95 percent was all referral,” Billy Guerrero says.
He would take on little jobs that others left behind. Mostly he taught himself how to do a job, though he did take one year of architectural drafting classes after serving two years in the Navy.
“He would do anything,” Davis says. “He was fearless.”
He would build a two-story garage even though he had never built one before. “‘No problem. It’s just bricks and sticks,’ that was his feeling,” she says. “What he didn’t know, he would figure it out.”
The business wasn’t as formal as it is now. Austin also was very different, with a lot less code to follow and paperwork needed.
“Dad would bring a proposal. It was a contract, but it was more his word,” Billy Guerrero says.
Where family and business meet
The kids grew up being part of the business. They were taught how to answer the phone and get the information. On weekends, they would help their parents at job sites. “We would earn money and go to the 7-Eleven,” Davis says. “We would do anything for candy.”
They were taught the importance of hard work, but also play.
“Dad was super strict,” Davis says. “He was hard on us. We always knew he felt that he had to be hard with us to teach us that life is hard. You have to work hard.”
Her mother was more nurturing, but she also taught them that work was important. In addition to keeping Clarence Guerrero Construction’s books, Stella had two side businesses: selling jewelry and cleaning newly finished houses before the owners moved in. She also made three meals a day and went to the kids’ activities at St. Ignatius school.
“She had to manage a lot, a husband and eight kids,” Billy Guerrero said, yet “they partied like it’s 1999. They knew how to have fun.”
His parents never missed a dance. They threw parties at the house. They cheered for the Longhorns. Later, they went to Las Vegas a lot, and the Super Bowl. Even now, Stella Guerrero plays poker on Thursdays while Clarence Guerrero and son Simon go on an adventure to find new barbecue spots.
When the family moved from an East Austin house that Clarence Guerrero had built to the South Austin house that he built, which is now remodeled as the company’s offices, they had a huge backyard with horses and chickens. There were cows and horses across the street.
“My brothers and my sisters were my friends,” Davis says. “The positive thing about a big family is you always have a playmate. There was always something to do.”
They played in the creek. They had rock wars. They traveled the neighborhood and went to places they weren’t supposed to go. “Just be home for dinner and lunch,” Davis says they were told.
They still play together. Many of them live on the same street. In the 1970s, Clarence Guerrero had the foresight to buy a piece of land in Buda that he has sold pieces of to his children and grandchildren.
A second generation
One by one, many of the kids ended up in the business. At one point sons John and Thomas were running the business with Billy. In fact, the CG&S stands for Clarence Guerrero and Sons. (Though really it should be “and Stella,” as Stella Guerrero likes to say, and Dolores Davis would like it to be CG&S&D, now that she’s in the firm.)
Sometimes it wasn’t always what their parents wanted for them. Billy Guerrero was set to go to the University of Texas but chose to join the firm instead at 18.
“My mom cried the day I told her I was not going to UT,” he says. “But it worked out.”
He’s now worked or owned the business for 41 years, longer than his parents did.
“It was more we wanted to stick with it,” he says of this new generation. “We were as stubborn as my father.”
In the late 1980s, Clarence and Stella Guerrero were ready to turn the business over to their sons, yet they would still show up every day. “Every single day, he’d tell me what I’m not doing so well. I took it all in … until he was finally weaned of the company. It was difficult for them to let go, which is understandable.”
While Clarence and Stella Guerrero taught them that family was important, their sons had to learn that you can’t run a business that way.
“Family is highly important, but it’s not the business,” Billy Guerrero says. You can’t use “but we’re family” as an excuse.
Sometimes that means having a change in ownership. By 1998 John had left the business, and by 2000 Thomas had left. In their place is Stewart Davis, whom Dolores met when they were 16 bagging groceries at the H-E-B and years later married.
Stewart Davis is an architect and helped build the next phase of the company’s story.
In the early 1990s, clients had begun asking for more and more sophistication as Austin was changing. CG&S found itself going to Stewart Davis, as an architect, for consultations. Then they went to a conference in Dallas, where they learned about design-build. On the car ride home, they decided to take the leap.
What design-build means is that they are able to do all the architectural work as well as organize the build under the same roof.
“My father was more simple projects,” Billy Guerrero says, but Austin was changing. “The demands are different.”
“We were definitely going down a new path,” Dolores Davis says. “It became a niche.”
Design-build allows for more control over the process, she says. “You could help guide the client through the tedious process.” CG&S has expanded that even further to include a designer who is creating furniture to go into the space, too.
“Austin’s whole design community has grown so much,” Dolores Davis says. “That’s a really good thing. … There’s more awareness and respect for architecture and design.”
As design became more central to what the company does, Stewart Davis became Billy Guerrero’s partner officially, and the two now own the company together.
A third generation
Clarence and Stella Guerrero have 39 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren. Four of the grandchildren and one grandchild-in-law now work at the firm.
The question is what will happen next.
“Hopefully it will go on another 60 years,” Billy Guerrero says. “It took so much to build this.”
And yet, he says, “I do plan to very soon get out of the business, to let my company succeed me,” he says. “It’s really in their hands.
Dolores Davis believes they might have five to 10 years left before a new ownership structure will be needed. “At what point do you leave?” she asks. “Mom and Dad did. What does that next one look like?”
Will it be the third generation? Will it be employee-owned? “We really don’t know yet,” Dolores Davis says.
For Billy Guerrero, it’s important to keep the reputation that his parents built. “We’ve never not paid anyone. We always do the right thing.”
Her parents taught: “Stay humble; do really good work,” Dolores Davis says. “We provide good customer service to be successful. The focus is our client.”
“We are a big firm as far as the volume of work we do, certainly, but we don’t feel that big,” Billy Guerrero says.
Find the next new concept
“There’s always a need,” Dolores Davis says. It’s the need or the pain of what is not working that drives people to take on a remodeling project. Sometimes it starts out as an oven that needs to be replaced, which turns into remodeling the kitchen, living and dining room.
For CG&S, it’s about figuring out what a client’s pain is and how they can solve that, as well as what the budget is and how they can work with that.
“We’re not cookie-cutter,” she says. “We’re specific to the house and the owner; their design aesthetic and their needs. You can’t drive down the street and say, ‘That’s a CG&S.’ We listen to our client.”
The challenge is to stay relevant. Austin, Dolores Davis says, is known for creating disruptive technology to make something new. “So what’s the new thing? That’s what CG&S is trying to figure out,” she says.
CG&S is important to Austin, Stewart Davis says in the documentary: “Old Austin folks know us; new Austin folks know us. I think we’re part of the landscape out there.”
“It’s a Hispanic-oriented business,” he says. “Against all the odds, it became a well-known upscale design-build company. That’s certainly a unique story, and it happened in Austin.”