Like virtually everywhere else in the big builder community, for one of the nation's best-run private home building companies, the back half of the 21st Century's first decade looked a lot different in 2005 than it does in 2007, 2008, and very possibly 2009. John Laing Homes CEO Larry Webb had led the company's ascent–placing a strong cultural emphasis on employee and customer satisfaction–to its zenith in mid-2006. Then, at about nine home closings every work day and $1.6 billion in annual revenues, Dubai-based Emaar Properties paid $1-billion-plus for the position, the team, the culture, the John Laing brand, and, as it turns out, the fire in the belly. Webb could have bought into his own legend that he'd cashed out at the perfect moment, and graciously planned an early exit from his five-year management deal with Emaar. Instead, he's hunkered down with troops roughly two-thirds the size he had when the business hit the wall, and he feels he owes it to them and to his new management to measure himself against a new set of standards in light of the prevailing brutal market conditions. Downsizing, cash management, expansion where opportunistic–a la Phoenix and Houston–and continued focus on employee excellence and customer care at the operational level are the anchors of the strategy. "From where we are, we can't change consumer confidence, and we can't change the banks, liquidity, and interest rates," says Webb, as he tries to articulate his tactics to ride through the slowdown. "We can control how we operate, and we're keeping our essential culture of constant improvement by shifting to smaller, measurable goals for people to keep winning." Those smaller, measurable goals are to cut costs by a certain percentage, to improve construction cycle time, to improve customer care scores, and to look for opportunities for national purchasing contracts.
A company that is trolling for new markets, acquisitions, and an opportunity to migrate its process and brand toward soon-to-emerge new-home markets is a huge anomaly in the current environment. Webb measures his own impact as a leader in a down market by his ability to stabilize operations in a more finance-driven climate "than there's been in 30 years," to continue to deliver high customer satisfaction levels, to pore over every one of his company's confidential employee surveys so that John Laing associates are working in the "safest, most honest environment possible. People don't tend to work well in an atmosphere of fear," Webb says.
A one-time high school teacher and soccer coach, Webb's modus operandi as a corporate leader draws directly from his earlier incarnation. On a mission to make John Laing Homes the leading private home builder in the U.S., Webb is an outspoken believer in the assertion that home building is better as a private business.
Webb doesn't doubt for a second that home building's cycle will return to positive territory; nor does he think it will ever be other than a cyclical business. Still, the lessons he's harvested from the current state of conditions are two-fold. One is that the areas of business that got hit the worst reflect a failing in "hiring the right people" in our rush to grow, which compromised the intelligence, passion, and process John Laing Homes adopts as its signature. Secondly, through bad times as well as good, "I've got to love what I do," Webb says. "It's a noble thing we do, and I've got to come in each day loving it."