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Finalist: David Sessions

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  • | 6:00 p.m. May 20, 2005
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Finalist: David Sessions

President, CEO of Willis A. Smith Construction Inc.

Over the past 33 years, Willis A. Smith Construction Inc. grew into one of the area's top public project contractors. Numerous school buildings throughout Sarasota and Manatee counties bear the company's signature. It is a profitable segment of the Sarasota company's business plan.

Despite the company's success, David Sessions, the company's president and CEO, decided to take a strategic risk about two years ago. Going into 2004, he wanted to diversify the company's market segments to balance the company's work portfolio and put more emphasis on long-term planning.

"In the past, looking back five years ago, if there was an opportunity for a project we were pursuing it," Sessions says. "Sometimes we were wasting time on projects that may not have been ideal or in the best interests of Willis A. Smith for the long term.

"The difference then it was more short term," he adds. "Now, if there's a project opportunity that does fit, it's a much longer term outlook."

The risk paid off.

Last year, the company produced nearly $60 million in revenue, up nearly 123% from the previous year's $26 million. Over the past three years, the company has produced average annual revenue growth of about 95.8%.

Although reticent to talk details, Sessions says he, business partner John LaCivita and their staff go through a painstaking process to achieve balance in the company's business plan. Balance is the key word, too.

In general, though, Sessions says he maintains a careful watch on the percentage of business that comes through the door.

"We've established we would like to do a certain percentage of public work," he says. "To balance that, we require a certain percentage of private sector work. Then we break that down into many different categories such as educational, religious, industrial and specialty, such as our museum construction work."

Because of the plan's success last year, Session stayed with the strategic change this year.

"It's definitely contributed to our growth and success," Sessions says. "When a potential project comes up we filter it through these parameters. It may end up that (the project is) a very good fit, or maybe it doesn't fit."

The company's work at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art is a good indicator of this strategic change, Sessions says. There the company won bids to build the Tibbals Learning Center, expand the museum's main gallery and renovate the old Aslo Theater into the Aslo Visitors Center. Just the Tibbals and Aslo contracts are worth about $9 million each.

"The buildings really are unique," he says. "I told our folks involved in the project to relish the moment and enjoy this. It's a chance of a lifetime. Building facilities like this doesn't come along every day. This is something you're going to be proud of the rest of your days."

But there is so much more. The company has started construction on the 45,000-square-foot Mote Goldstein Center at the Mote Marine Laboratory and the 10,000-square-foot University Parkway Christian Church. It oversees renovations to the historic Selby House at the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens.

Meanwhile, the company is nearing completion on several public schools projects, including the 110,000-square-foot Venice Elementary School.

But it's this type of growth that causes Sessions to pause and re-evaluate the company's business plan. He has definite concerns about the cyclical nature of the building and real estate industries.

"We've never seen growth like we're experiencing now in Sarasota and Manatee," he says. "That's certainly resulting in a building boom."

Amid this growth come challenges, Sessions adds. In particular, he cites the competition among commercial and residential builders. That's exacerbated shortages over labor and materials, particularly concrete and steel.

"We're seeing different trades in different areas struggling to find enough people to do the work," he says.

While coping with shortages, the company may have a competitive edge when it comes to project management experience because of a recruiting program Sessions and LaCivita established years ago.

Each summer, the company recruits interns from the University of Florida College of Design, Construction & Planning. Both Sessions and LaCivita graduated from the college. Nearly all of the company's assistant project managers now come from this program.

Rather than hire experienced professionals, the company prefers to promote from the assistant project managers who went through the intern program. There's a specific reason for this policy.

"A component of our strategic plan was to provide our people opportunities for growth," Sessions says. "One of the things that we set out to do is to train and influence our project managers to have the same sense of values, certainly ethically, as John LaCivita and myself."


Employees: 2003: 34; 2004: 48 2005: 52.

Revenues: 2002: $15.4 million;

2003: $26 million; 2004: $57.9 million.

Average annual

growth: 95.8%


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