By Matthew Power. Each year, BUILDER partners with Hearthstone Advisors, a national home building financier, to honor some special people, industry leaders who have used their success, prosperity, and connections in the building industry toward some higher good. This award isn't about building great houses, or making a killing in a market. It's about changing the world--for the better.
Both of this year's recipients chose children as the focus of their good works. Robert J. Strudler, COO of Lennar Corp., has poured time, money, and energy into Special Olympics programs in his home state of Texas. And Lee Wetherington, president and CEO of Lee Wetherington Homes in Sarasota, Fla., has made the Boys & Girls Clubs of West Florida his raison d'etre. Although they hail from different parts of the country, and different sectors of home building, both say that simple volunteer experiences steered them into a commitment to do good.
"People sometimes paint a pretty bleak picture of builders," says Wetherington. "But I've never felt I had a black hat on. I've always felt that I'm wearing the white hat. I'll tell you something, builders are some of the most generous, giving people you can find, once you get them outside of the arena they work in."
This year, the Hearthstone winners will be able to help their causes more than ever. The cash award program has grown since 1999. This year's grand winner, Bob Strudler will have $250,000 to present to his favorite charities, and Lee Wetherington will be able to inject $150,000 to his favorite causes. Thanks to donations from 23 generous sponsors many young lives will improve this year.
Robert Strudler lives by the adage that true charity involves much more than simply writing a check.
Several forces conspired to make Bob Strudler the man he is today. Wheelchair-bound due to childhood polio, he later had to address the special needs of his own children. But these obstacles haven't crushed his spirit. In fact, they have made him stronger--and provided a strong incentive to help others.
As COO of Lennar Corp., one of the largest home building companies on the planet, Strudler sits high on the corporate ladder. He has used his powerful position to create the Project Opportunity program, which builds homes for financially troubled families with special needs. These projects pack a double benefit. The team of people building the homes includes Special Olympics athletes.
"There's nothing like having 20 or 30 Special Olympians presenting the keys to a home they have built for a family that really needs it," says Strudler. "In the first one we did up in Dallas, a young man presented a Bible to the new homeowner. We were all touched by that, but none of us expected what came next. As he got up there, this child said, 'This is the second home I've ever participated in. I did one in Houston, and my father died last week, and he would have been very proud of me.' There wasn't a dry eye in the place."
Experiences like that have kept Strudler deeply committed to the cause of helping kids with disabilities. But this work is not about trying to recruit future personnel. In fact, he says, most of these kids may never enter the mainstream workplace. Instead, Strudler says he aims to simply inspire self-confidence.
"The key is to make sure people feel they have a place in society, that they're not just takers--they're also givers. These are special people. They are non-judgmental, and they express themselves freely. Where most of us adopt a persona as we go through life, they wear their emotions on their sleeve."
What about safety? How does Strudler manage to keep the jobsite safe for the Olympians? That's when he calls in the cavalry.
"We conduct safety training and have an associate of the company with every member of the build at all times. Our entire senior management group will come out along with 300 of our own [Lennar] associates, over the seven-day build period for one of these homes."
That experience often spills over into other people taking the lead on community projects. "We had one superintendent that got so involved that he now heads a chapter of Habitat for Humanity. There is a wonderful impact on people."
Sending a message
That high-mindedness can even become part of the corporate philosophy, Strudler contends, citing the recent retirement of a business colleague. "I thought, this guy means too much to me to just give him a gold watch." Instead Strudler established a nonprofit corporation in the man's name, held a golf tournament to raise money, and donated athletic scholarships for 10 kids.
"I guess if I could give a message to builders, it would be that yes, you can give money, but if you give some creative talents, that's worth more than money. Builders are entrepreneurs. They succeed because of creative talent and hard work. Those two traits can be very effective in charity work."
Strudler adds that the Special Olympics kids he works with--including his own children--should not be considered disabled. They face disabilities, but those are simply obstacles to be overcome. And many of them possess a unique, innocent wisdom.
"My own son would participate in these Special Olympics, and each time he would come back with a silver medal," Strudler recalls. "I told him, you've got to run a little faster so you can win the gold. Then I went and watched one of his races. When he got to the yellow ribbon, he stopped. Then he took his friend's hand and waited while he crossed the finish line first."