Lee Wetherington, 68, started planning and designing homes in the mid-1970s, as co-owner of a small Jacksonville business. He went on to found Lee Wetherington Homes, which was one of the original six homebuilders invited to build homes in Lakewood Ranch 20 years ago. As his business grew, so did the Florida native’s community involvement. On March 21, Wetherington received the 2015 Lakewood Ranch Community Fund’s C. John A. Clarke Humanitarian Award.

Wetherington has served on a range of boards and committees, such as the Community Foundation of Sarasota County and the Boys and Girls Clubs of Manatee and Sarasota counties. He has donated more than $2 million to local charities over the last decade. Lee Wetherington Homes also helped Harvest House buy 16 foreclosed units that will be remodeled for homeless veterans and their families. “I pick a project to focus on each year and dive into that…I raised $500,000 for Harvest House. My next push is housing for homeless veterans and their families. I’m a veteran, so that project is special to me.

My career started by accident. I was working as a subcontractor for a man in Jacksonville, and he couldn’t pay me for the drywall and other things I did. So I decided, well, if he couldn’t pay me, I’d become his partner. And that’s what I did. I worked in Jacksonville with him for a short time and then moved to Sarasota and started building homes here in ’76. The houses we create are pieces of me, too. So, after I’m gone, I’ll still have 4,000 pieces of me everywhere.

When you’re a business owner, you wake up at 3 a.m. trying to solve problems. Your mind is on your business so much, and your stress level is high. But I recently decided to sell my company to my six-member management team of key employees who have all been with me for years. I don’t have any children, so I thought to let my employees take over. I’m still a consultant and mentor, and I’m the largest stockholder. I remember when you could buy a luxury home in Lakewood Ranch for $85,000. But environments and people change. We started raising the bar at Edgewater and Lakewood Ranch Country Club. In 2000, we built our first million-dollar model, which cost $1.7 million. The way homes are built now is completely different. Our homes are built stronger, more hurricane resistant. People are doing their research now, which is good for us.

Living rooms and dining rooms are becoming non-existent. People pay for them, pay the AC bill to cool them and never use them. Times are changing. Customers want one big space that encompasses an area to eat and hang out, or a great room. Buyers are trading fireplaces for long walls that they can hang their flat screen TVs on. There has been more interest in luxury homes over the years. I think people want to customize where they live, and luxury homes are more custom. Buyers can move walls and make their garages, bathrooms and closets bigger. Sometimes you have to say no, but it’s OK to say yes. One person wanted a bath in their bedroom, and we couldn’t do that. Another woman didn’t want a kitchen because she didn’t want to cook. So, we built our first and only house without a kitchen.

You have to have a good attitude and the ability to solve problems to be a builder. At the end of the day, you have to be able to get it done and finish what you started, no matter what. If you don’t have that bone in your body, you should find a new industry.”

“It’s been a hell of a ride. Life has been good to me.” – Lee Wetherington, founder of Lee Wetherington Homes

By Amanda Sebastiano, The Observer