This American Life.

By Hannah Wallace February 29, 2004

On his desk, Lee Wetherington keeps a faded snapshot from 1981 that shows his first Sarasota office. The office, in the Florida room of his house, had an old AC unit and just enough room for a small desk and chair. Wetherington, 56, examines the photo for a moment, and then puts it down. "I never forget," he says.

Wetherington's current office with its big conference table, three-sided desk, and photos of his longtime significant other, Sarasota Herald-Tribune publisher Diane McFarlin, adorning a shelf, reflects his status as the top independent builder in Manatee and Sarasota counties. Last year, Lee Wetherington Companies' sales volume topped $111 million and revenue topped $94 million. The next local independent builder/developer in line, Neal Communities, came in at $66 million, according to a Sarasota/Manatee BUSINESS survey.

Wetherington is jubilant about breaking the $100-million mark and about his selection as one of the three best American builders in 2004 by Builder magazine. The honor is based largely on profitability-his company's net profit margin is in the top one percent in the nation, he says-as well as design and construction, customer service, marketing and community involvement. "It's the highest honor you can receive in our industry," he says.

Last year was a good year all around for Wetherington. He sold a record 303 homes (Wetherington has built more than 2,000 homes in the area since 1981) and has become the largest maintenance-free builder in the two-county area. And his company of 81 employees is doing more than building homes. It's developing Willowbend, a maintainance-free community of 275 homesites and 100 eco-friendly homes next to Oscar Scherer State Park, and this fall will break ground on a Laurel Road project with 148 maintained villas. Wetherington also started a pool company-LeeSure Water Pools-and an in-house design center to help home buyers customize their new Wetherington homes.

Wetherington, who donates about 10 percent of his corporate net earnings to charities every year, also made news last year with his philanthropy. He won Builder Magazine's Hearthstone Award for a lifetime of philanthropy, then distributed the $150,000 award to the Boys & Girls Clubs in Sarasota and Manatee counties. Just last fall, in honor of his longtime support, the new Fruitville Boys & Girls Club was renamed The Lee Wetherington Boys & Girls Club at a groundbreaking ceremony where an emotional Wetherington struggled to speak. The Southwest Florida chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals also recognized him last year, naming him the corporate philanthropist of 2003 for building the Reading Garden at Fruitville Public Library. Wetherington also started the Lee Wetherington Foundation in the Community Foundation of Sarasota County last year with a $1 million gift. He plans to contribute approximately $1 million each year. He donated another $100,000 to the Community Foundation for college scholarships to needy young people; so far, six local high school graduates have received money.

He's come a long way. Wetherington was born in Jacksonville in 1947 to a father who worked hard-"a jack of all trades"- but never could make ends meet. He barely knew his mother. He lived with her for the first year and a half of his life, and then, when she and his father divorced, he and his father lived in one room in a rooming house for a few years and then moved in with his grandmother. When Wetherington was 12, his father married a woman who had two younger sons of her own. Gus and his new wife had two more boys after they married, one of whom, John, had cerebral palsy. (John died last year at age 42.)

Wetherington says John's cerebral palsy opened his eyes to the burden poor families must bear when there's an invalid in the house. "My mother and father were working and someone had to take care of him," he says, "and it was usually left up to me as the oldest boy."

Yet Wetherington minimizes the financial and emotional troubles of those early years. "Life was always later on," he says. "I'm very future oriented. I don't think about the past." But the details paint a picture of a family on the edge. By age 11, Wetherington was working at odd jobs to help buy his own school clothes. There were days when the electricity and water were shut off and Christmases when gifts were out of the question. In high school, Wetherington participated in sports and played saxophone in a rock 'n' roll band, but he says he was rebellious and did poorly in his classes. He ran away from home in his senior year and ended up in jail in Portland, Ore. The judge gave him an option: Stay in jail or enlist in the armed forces.

He enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps that very day. It was 1964, and many were burning draft cards. But Wetherington says the military and its discipline were his salvation. After boot camp, he was sent to electronics school, where he was told that if he flunked out, he would probably end up on the front in Vietnam, but if he passed, he would be farther behind the lines. He enrolled in an intense course to learn algebra and calculus and graduated in the top of his class. At that moment, he says, "I realized, like a lightning bolt out of the sky, that I could do anything I set my mind to."

He spent 13 months-from September '66 to October '67-in Vietnam-although, thanks to his electronics training, not on the front lines. "Death and being scared all the time has an effect," he says. "I don't care who you are. Since I've been back I don't kill things. I don't kill roaches."

After his discharge in 1969, Wetherington moved back to Jacksonville, began doing drywall for an uncle's company and then established his own drywall business, soon becoming the largest drywall contractor in the region with 120-plus employees and a six-level home on a hill. It was 1974 and he was 26.

That same year he visited a friend in Sarasota and decided to sell his business and begin a home-building business in Sarasota with his friend. By 1980, their partnership had dissolved, and Wetherington started Lee Wetherington Homes a year later.

But a few years before that, in 1977, Wetherington had another lightning-bolt moment, one that sparked his interest in philanthropy. A friend asked Wetherington if he could fill in for him for a day at Meals On Wheels. On the last stop of the day, he knocked on the door and a voice invited him in. "It was black inside and it smelled very bad," he recalls. "He was a dying man." When the old man got up to get the tray of food, he stumbled. "I grabbed him, and he started crying," Wetheringon says. "I asked, 'What did I do?' And he told me, 'It's been.'" Wetherington pauses to compose himself. "He told me, 'It's been so long since somebody's touched me.'"

"That," says Wetherington, "was the start of my philanthropic side." Wetherington says he's not particularly religious, but he believes such incidents are a message: "I call it God talking to you." He says he had a similar "God experience" in 1990. Sarasota County was considering a moratorium on building, and Wetherington, who had just finished donating materials and labor to remodel Children's Haven, realized that even though workers in the building industry were constantly giving such assistance to charitable causes, few people knew that. Instead, in the media and the public mind, "we were the bad guys." He started a public service committee in the Home Builders Association and organized the First Day of Sharing. Teaming up with United Way, he and other builders and subcontractors coordinated 400 volunteers to clean up dilapidated nonprofits-a tradition that continues.

These efforts, say other builders and developers, paid off. The moratorium was defeated, builders humanized their image and Wetherington, who went on to become president of both the Manatee and Sarasota home builders associations, established himself as a leader in the industry.

Wetherington insists there's been nothing ground-breaking or brilliant about his success. All he's done, he says, is follow basic principles. He ticks them off: "You have to have the capital. You can't spend. You have to have great locations. And you have to have great designs."

Yet other builders consider Wetherington an innovator. He's a style leader, says Pat Neal of Neal Communities, the developer of University Park and other large-scale projects. "Home builders figure if Lee can do it, we can do it," Neal says. "When Lee added granite to his kitchens, everybody added granite. When he reduced the size of the living room and put it in the family room, everybody changed the size ratio."

Being first with new features has been a critical element in his success, Wetherington agrees. Early on, he decided he would include new features and upgrades in the basic cost of the house. He was the first builder to standardize Corian kitchen counter tops and one of the first to switch from vinyl floors to tile and to use intricate ceiling designs. He was also one of the first builders to merchandize his models so that they looked like people lived there. Visitors would find baseball caps hanging from hooks and tennis rackets leaning up against a bedroom wall.

Visitors to a Lee Wetherington home would know they were going to spend more money, but they were also going to get a higher quality, better-looking product. And as his brand continued to build, says Wetherington, "I was able to start inching my prices up and add more and more to the house. That drove my profit up."

He invested much of that profit back into the business, especially in technology, computerizing his bookkeeping so that as soon suppliers raised their prices it would show up in his costs and he could raise his own prices commensurately. He developed a Web site, bought computerized drawing software and established intranet communication between salespeople at models.

But even with all this investment, in the mid-'90s, Wetherington noticed profits slipping. "My net to the bottom line was running in the six to seven percent range, and then it started to drop off a point a year," he says. "When it got to four percent I knew there was something wrong but I didn't know what it was." He asked a consulting firm in Orlando to evaluate his company in 2000. "We have good news and bad news," they told him. "The bad news is you will be bankrupt in 18 months. The good news is we can save you."

Wetherington restructured the entire company, firing his top administrators-"they hijacked my company and I didn't know it"-and hired Bill Hager, now his chief operating officer and "the glue that holds this place together," he says. He's now careful to look for employees with "principles," and at this point in his career, he has developed a knack for finding and recognizing top people. "It's a talent, a gift," he insists. And in an industry plagued by employee turnover, he's worked to reward and retain his staff. His employees share in company profits, with 7.5 percent of annual profits distributed back to them. He also offers employees flex time. The result: Annual employee turnover, he says, is two percent as opposed to the industry average of 60 percent.

Wetherington has also established a reputation among his subcontractors for fairness. He even calls them trade partners. "There's a lot of builders out there who will beat you down to nothing," says Danny Via, president and CEO of Danny Via Plumbing, which has done all of Wetherington's plumbing since he began 16 years ago. "Lee won't beat people down to the last penny." Paying subcontractors well works, Via explains, "because if you don't, people don't do their best work."

Through his leadership in industry associations, Wetherington has worked not only to promote builders' image and interests, but to influence issues that affect the larger community. For example, he's an outspoken advocate for affordable housing, which will require changes in permitting procedures and in public attitudes, he says. "It's going to take five county commissioners to stand up to the neighborhood people coming in, saying 'I don't want them to live next to my single-family home because it will drive down my value,'" he says. "We need to have a place where single mothers, policemen, nurses, teachers, government employees, the people who work in newspapers, can get close in and co-mingle with the rest of us. They're not less than us. They're the same as us."

And in his own company, he continues to look ahead. Today, his homes are priced from $210,000 to $1.5 million, with the company's bread and butter in the $250,000 to $700,00 price range. He plans to increase the number of luxury custom homes built from five percent of the business today to 20 percent in the next three years. In the next two to four years, he also will be building an attached product-duplexes, four-plexes and two-and three-story townhomes-in the $175,000 to $250,000 range for the avalanche of Baby Boomers who are starting to arrive. He's looking for raw land to start developing communities aimed at the aging but still active Boomers.

He has no plans to retire or sell to anyone but his employees. "I get offers two to three times a year," he says, "but I'm going to ESOP [employee stock ownership plans] this thing. I've promised my employees that. I won't ever stop working, though. They're going to find me dead one day at that computer at that desk."

It's doubtful that those who knew the rebellious high-school dropout with the unstable family life would ever have predicted he would have become such a hard-working, successful pillar of his community. But though Wetherington has had to work through issues in his own relationships-twice-divorced, he says that his 10-year relationship with McFarlin is the longest he's ever had with a woman and he views her as a true partner-the poverty and problems of his youth seem to have shaped both his drive to succeed and his compassion for others. "I associate with them," he says of the disadvantaged young people the Boys & Girls Club serves. The U.S. builder of the year, leader of one of the country's top building markets, and official 2003 corporate and lifetime philanthropist, looks around his spacious office and says earnestly, "If there'd been a place like that for me when I was growing up, I would have accomplished much more."

Company Profile

Founded: 1981

Employees: 81

Sales volume: $111 million

Revenue: $94 million

Revenues in 2002: $61.9 million

Revenues in 2000: $33 million

Average sale price of a single-family home in 2001, $326,000; in 2002, $346,000; in 2003: $365,000

Number of homes built in 2003: 304

Total number of homes built since 1981: 2,000

Average annual growth: from 2000 to 2001, 57 percent; 2001 to 2002, 28 percent; 2002 to 2003, 40 percent

Average cycle time from sale to delivery: 9 months

2003 sales: 26 percent in Lakewood Ranch

27 percent Tara

32 Willowbend 

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