New CEO Returns to Restore Lee Wetherington Homes’ Prominence

With founder Lee Wetherington in semi-retirement, the semi-custom homebuilding company that bears his name has lost market share as well as its prominence in the Sarasota-Manatee construction scene. 

In the boom year of 2004, it sold 392 homes and received design awards. In the past year, however, the company notched just 37 sales.

Bringing the company back is one of two goals of Gregg Carlson, who took over as Wetherington’s CEO three weeks ago after the retirement of Bill Hager.

Carlson, an Arcadia native who worked his way up the construction-industry career ladder from laborer to division president for Maronda Homes, has the task of making the company “bigger, stronger, more profitable.” By doing that, the company can achieve his second goal — expanding its contributions to local charities and the Lee Wetherington Foundation, which for decades has been a major donor to the Boys and Girls Club of Sarasota County. The Fruitville Road facility is known as the “Lee Wetherington Club.”

Giving back is a big part of the company’s mission, Lee Wetherington said via Facebook message from his retirement home — his 84-foot yacht, “Big Daddy,” based in San Diego; he still has a condominium in Tessera on the Sarasota bayfront.

“Our goal is to grow our company but not forget our roots for quality construction and customer satisfaction,” Wetherington said. “Gregg is there for growth, leadership, and management of our systems, which have proven to be excellent but needed to be updated.”

Carlson will rely on his experience leading Maronda Homes’ regional division in improving Wetherington’s marketing and land-purchasing efforts.

“We are in a growth mode,” Carlson said.

The land challenge

Rather than just buying land in big subdivisions like Lakewood Ranch, “we are building on other people’s property,” he said. “People are bringing tear-downs to us, so we can put our homes on their lots. John Cannon has done a great job of that and has marketed it for quite some time. We haven’t put the word out on that, but it is getting there.”

Ready-to-build land is the lifeblood of home builders, and it can be difficult to come by. At Maronda Homes, a nationwide building company, each division was responsible for acquiring its own land to build upon. Carlson will bring this experience to Wetherington.

“Our volume has dropped as lots have dwindled,” Carlson said. “Because of the land constraints today, you don’t have Lakewood Ranch that continues to develop land out ahead of builders and allows them to come in as a merchant builder and buy lots on a take-down. They have conceded to the nationals, who come in and write big checks and take big swaths of land and they don’t have to mess with it. It has made it a tougher environment for companies like Lee and John Cannon to find lots.

“The goal is to take my experience in land acquisition, and the relationships I’ve got with brokers and developers and find those pieces, develop them and put us in a different environment” outside Lakewood Ranch.

“We have been lethargic in making sure we have stuff ahead of us. It wasn’t that driving force for awhile. There may be land owners or developers who are anticipating doing something new, and because of our reputation and our philanthropy, they may consider us over somebody else to help us expand that reach.”

A lower-price market

Carlson said the company might build less-expensive houses to generate more sales. Most new Wetherington houses are priced from $800,000 to $1.6 million.

“As you get into that part of the economic pyramid, there is less oxygen there,” Carlson said. “The goal for us is to not leave that area, but to grow into some markets that are below that, high threes to the $800,000 range, outside of Lakewood Ranch, and bring some volume to the company that we need to make it more profitable.”

In the company’s boom year of 2004, the average home price was $433,673.

“We are not looking to grow back out to the size that we were at one point,” Carlson said. But he wants to have enough work to keep the subcontractors busy, loyal and eager.

Marketing is another issue, as reflected in “lighter traffic” of shoppers walking through Wetherington’s model homes. “It could be a result of our current marketing plan and visibility,” Carlson said. At The Concession development east of Lakewood Ranch, for example, the company’s model doesn’t even have a model-home flag in front of it.

“We may be our own worst enemy in terms of not having traffic in our models because we didn’t do the things to get it there,” Carlson said. “We are looking at the highest priorities and working down the list, and taking care of the low-hanging fruit.”

That starts with reaching out to top-producing Realtors. “You have to have that relationship,” he said.

As for Lee Wetherington’s role in the 42-year-old company, it can be summarized as “cash and creativity.” Wetherington, who stepped back from daily operations several years ago and passed ownership shares to the management team, loans the company money to finance its growth and works with longtime staff architect Steve Nelson on designs.

“When we have a new model, Lee still puts his touches on it. He is great at that,” Carlson said.

The beginning

When Carlson graduated from DeSoto High School in 1978, he had no idea what he wanted to do, so he joined a construction crew as a laborer, building, of all things, automated chicken farms for a “stickler for detail” named Jackie Gunter.

While pounding nails, Carlson took note of what the other workers were doing.

“I kept watching the guys who were making more per hour, and I thought, ‘I can do what they do,’ ” he said. “I kept watching and learning and became a carpenter.”

But when the market cooled, he went into the Navy and worked as an avionics technician, based in Key West. After leaving the service, he sought a license to work in avionics for an airline. He got back into construction just so “I could feed myself.”

Soon, he started making “pretty good money” and he was put in charge of a crew. He “picked the brain” of the superintendent on a job site, who encouraged him to write a resume. Soon he was working for Kellogg & Kimsey as a construction superintendent in the late 1980s, building villas in the Plantation development in Venice.

By 1993, Carlson realized he wanted to work in an air-conditioned office instead of hot, dusty construction sites, so he answered an advertisement that Wetherington had placed for an estimator — someone who looks at blueprints and figures out how much houses will cost in time, labor and materials.

“It was down to me and one other guy, who was much older than I was,” Carlson recalled. “He wanted them to buy a computer and software to do the job. I told them, ‘I am younger, faster, I will last longer and I don’t need a computer. Just pencil, paper, scale ruler and I can do that job for you.’

“Even though I had never done it before, I knew all the parts and pieces to build a house. I think I just wore them down.”

He started in 1993 when Wetherington was building in Turtle Rock and Deer Creek in Palmer Ranch. Soon, because of Carlson’s experience in the field, he was put in charge of the superintendents.

An innovator

Carlson figured out ways to make homes better without a lot of extra expense, such as spending an extra $50 per house on top-quality trim paint and making sure painters properly prepared and sanded the wood to create a more luxurious finish. His sales people would give customers 2-inch pieces of painted trim to take with them and compare to the finish in the model homes of his rival builders.

He also learned the value of charity and making things right. He gets misty-eyed telling the story of a young black woman whose new home, built by Maronda Homes, was vandalized with racial slurs painted on the sidewalks shortly before she was to move in.

“We fixed the house,” he said. “Do good for others.” He will get a chance to do the same with Lee Wetherington Homes.

Being more profitable will “help us do the other kinds of things we want to do. It is not just Lee’s foundation that we want to be that charitable arm. We want to expand that exposure to other charities. That is a big part of it.”

Carlson calls Wetherington a mentor without whom he would not be where he is today. “I have always admired what he’s done,” Carlson said. “He’s been an industry leader.

“I love being back at this company,” he said. “I trust that what I know how to do is going to pay dividends for everyone who is involved in it. The charities can benefit from that.”

In fact, Carlson is the sixth former employee who has rejoined the company. “They all share the same qualities: integrity, loyalty, love working for us, and the desire for an excellent customer experience,” Lee Wetherington said.

“Gregg has expressed a desire to finish his career with us, so we put in place a path to ownership.”

By Harold Bubil
Real estate editor