In 2004-2005, Lee Wetherington was building more than 400 homes a year, employing 110 workers and ringing up $150 million in annual revenue. He says the housing bubble burst in October 2005, although he didn’t know it until 2006. Even then he believed the market was going through a temporary cycle. Instead, in September 2008, the national economy crashed. “It stopped people buying. It stopped traffic. It stopped everything,” he says. Today Wetherington, 63, builds about 12 homes a year, employs eight people and has annual revenue of $10 million. But he has survived. And he has developed a new design philosophy geared to today’s market.
Describe today’s market and your new design philosophy. The buyer who would have bought 3,000 square feet is now going to buy 2,300 square feet, and the one who bought 2,300 is now going to buy 1,800.
We see the demise of the living room and a question about the need for a dining room. Everyone used to want four bedrooms. We see it going down to two or three bedrooms. People want a fairly decent-sized master suite, plenty of clothes closets, a nice master bath, a nice kitchen and a nice great room with dining area.
Our goal is to be flexible and provide smaller, energy-efficient homes with quality and detail, but be able to expand them if the buyer wants a larger home. Prices start in the high $200,000s with lot.
Has the housing market hit bottom? The bottom will be with us until we can see more job creation.
Your proudest achievement? Probably the Lee Wetherington Boys and Girls Club on Fruitville Road. The old club was rundown, and I was asked to raise the money to build a new club. We finished in 2004. I visit all the time.
Toughest part of your job? Having to lay off people.
Life experience that most shaped you? It was probably in the late 1970s. I was doing the first volunteer effort in my life as a driver for Meals on Wheels in Sarasota. I went to pick up the food, and they told me that the last guy I would visit sometimes asked people to come in. I got there and knocked on the door.
This was an old person dying, so it smelled bad. All the blinds were closed, so it was dark. I put down the food and opened up the packages for him.
He started toward me, stumbled, and I grabbed him to steady him. And he started crying. I asked, “Why are you crying?” And he said, “Because it has been so long since anybody touched me.” That was a defining moment in my life and got me started on all the things I have done in philanthropy ever since.
Your goals in five years? I want this company cranked back up to the point where it is rocking and rolling again. I want good health. And I hope to be retired so I can do some traveling with my significant other and work 100 percent for the community.
What would surprise people to know about you? I am a nationally certified aerobics instructor.