Houston’s Mansion Whisperer: This Self-Made Tycoon Knows Just What River Oaks’ Richest Really Want
Al Ross is changing the way people look at mansions in Houston.
When you're building custom mansions, it helps to be in River Oaks.
7 West Lane is typical of how atypical Al Ross makes over a home.
Walk into Al Ross Luxury Homes and there’s Al Ross himself in the coffee nook, fixing himself a cup. Ross offers to get you something, and seems almost eager to do it. There are no assistants or lackeys in sight.
Just the boss making coffee.
For a the founder and head of an ultra high-end luxury homebuilding company, Ross shows a striking lack of pretense. Sure, he’s is impeccably dressed, his teeth are so white they could blind, and his hair’s perfectly in place. But he displays little interest in having anyone fawn over him. Instead, Ross’ employees are working to make the company’s homes and luxury buildings better.
Besides, Ross is used to doing things himself. His Iranian parents sent him to America at age 13 to live with his older brother. He started his own sign company with $200 in his pocket at age 28. He built that into the No. 1 sign company in America before selling it.
That allowed him to follow his home-creating passion and open Al Ross Luxury Homes, which develops custom spec mansions and now high-end luxury condo buildings such as The Monroe. An Al Ross high-rise could soon be rising in Houston, as well.
“We already have a 27-story building design,” Ross tells PaperCity. More importantly, Ross already has his sights on a specific site for the future high-rise — and the property’s available. “We want to be right in the center of town,” he says.
Whether this particular deal comes together or not, Ross seems committed to bringing his version of luxury to the sky. At a time when many developers are playing it safe or pulling back amid plummeting oil prices, Ross has his company charging ahead. It’s the only way he likes to do business.
A few years ago, when he started building ultra high-end custom spec homes, no one else in Houston dared tried it. Conventional thinking dictated that home buyers who were going to plunk down seven figures-plus would demand to have input on their mansion’s design and fixtures. Ross blew away conventional thinking, and now there are buyers waiting for him to finish his creations.
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“Everything we do is about being unique,” Ross says. “What sets us apart? That’s what we’re always asking ourselves to make sure we’re not doing just another luxury home. That’s in our DNA. It’s all about doing something extraordinary.”
As Ross talks, he is sitting in a conference room in his Mercer Street offices. Debra Sanders, his longtime director of marketing, is at his side. Sanders is one of the employees who followed Ross from National Signs, the first company he built up from that $200 start.
When they reminisce about older projects, it mostly centers on problems or issues they encountered that led to future improvements. Such as hiding all the light switches. This has become something of a Ross signature. Step into one of his custom spec mansions and try and find the light switches; you’ll need a while.
Ross abhors unsightly elements, such as switches. So he makes them blend in. Curved walls and windows that disappear into walls are other fixtures of his company’s homes. Fog-less mirrors built into the showers (to make shaving in the shower much easier) might be Ross’ personal favorite, though.
“I wish I’d thought of this when I designed my own home,” he says.
The Monroe — a striking seven-story mid-rise with fewer than 10 condos — brings those type of touches to a larger scale. An Al Ross high-rise would go even higher, while attempting to maintain that same sense of distinctiveness.
For Ross, closets and bathrooms have never been more important than they are today.
“These have to be fantastic environments for the owners,” Ross says. “Master bathrooms have to be luxurious and over-the-top.”
7 West Lane — one of the company’s homes under development — is representative of the typical home site Ross seeks out, and the atypical way he then crafts the new showcase property. It’s right in the heart of River Oaks, zoned to River Oaks Elementary School, and it’s a large home site (a three-quarter acre lot). Ross’ team is fully renovating the current home and turning it into the six-bedroom, six-and-a-half bath, three-car garage custom spec mansion that will sell for millions.
It’s like tricking out a car — only much classier and precise. Ross bets that his version of luxury will wow River Oaks power players — and so far he’s largely been right. While Al Ross Luxury Homes currently has a Memorial project under way, the firm usually fixates on River Oaks.
“It’s our sweet spot,” Ross says.
The Mansion Man smiles. When you’re trying to create luxury magic, you go to the center of Houston’s luxury universe. Flipping through future plans, future Al Ross creations, in that conference room, the man who had to leave his parents and childhood behind long before most of us had to sounds almost like an excited kid.
“With The Monroe, it was difficult finding lots to build single-family homes of this caliber,” Ross says. “So we went up. That’s what the future is for us. This city deserves world-class buildings like this. Other great cities have them. It’s a draw. People want to live in a special building.”
And the man who once built an empire by making signs stand out wants to help lead the way. Al Ross will be there, charging ahead, and making his own coffee.