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Business Observer Friday, Jul. 2, 2010 12 years ago

40 UNDER 40 WINNER: The Kids Are All Right

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With $50.1 million in 2009 revenues, Willis A. Smith is built around a workforce of people in their late 20s and early 30s.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

A portion of Willis A. Smith Construction's workforce worried company executive David Sessions a decade ago.

“We weren't 100% happy with some of the individuals who had been in the field for a number of years,” Sessions says. “Some were set in habits that might not have matched the culture of this company.”

So Sessions and a few other top executives made a conscious decision to get younger. They began to heavily recruit potential employees from the University of Florida M. E. Rinker, Sr. School of Building Construction. They also went to career fairs around the state and hired summer interns.

It was a substantial change for the firm, which was founded in 1972 by local general contractor Willis Smith. The company previously found employees, especially project managers and assistant project managers, mostly through other firms and by local referral.

The transformation paid off.

The company, with $50.1 million in 2009 revenues, is now built around a workforce of people in their late 20s and early 30s. Overall, about 40% of the 49 employees are under 40, and, more notably, 14 project managers are under 40. Project manager is an integral position at Willis Smith because it entails making key decisions and having regular direct contact with clients.

“The results have been fantastic,” says Sessions: “This is the next generation of this company.”

Most of the employees who make up that generation say the company's get-younger culture is fostered by one overarching principle: Autonomy.

For example, Ben Sasse, a project manager who has been with the company since 2005, says he was surprised at how early in his career he was given the flexibility to make worksite decisions. Sasse, a graduate of Texas A&M, is one of the few non-Gator project managers at Willis Smith.

“In our business, field expertise is something that's difficult to come by,” says Sasse, 33. “But they give you every opportunity to grow here.”

Fellow project manager David Otterness, 30, also says he's been allowed to solve his own problems in the field and learn from his mistakes.

This independent approach is the backbone of other departments, too. Public relations specialist Elise Lipoff, for instance, says she creates glossy marketing materials without having to worry about being second-guessed, a point of trust in the competitive industry.

Even the company's new headquarters building in Lakewood Ranch is a testament to independent thinking: Just about every employee with an office was consulted prior to construction about what layout would work best for them. “I was used to working in a dingy, moldy cubicle,” says Lipoff, 29, who worked for a few other local companies before joining Willis Smith in 2008.

Employee camaraderie is another element that defines the younger generation of Willis Smith. Many of the project managers are good friends outside of work and a diverse segment of the employee base plays on company softball and kickball teams.

And then there is the annual ski trip for about a dozen project and assistant project managers, where the company provides an all-expenses paid jaunt to places such as Breckenridge, Colo. or Jackson Hole, Wyo. It's a time to get to know each other, not worry about projects or even the recession.

“Work is pretty much thrown out the window as soon as we get on the plane,” says Otterness. “It's a lot of fun."

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