Home building, it's said, is a people business. That fact and its meaning come clear when one of them--one of us--suddenly goes missing from our midst.
Tomorrow, March 4, the family, friends, and Ashton Woods colleagues of Ralph E. Farrell will gather in Buford, Ga., to celebrate, mourn, and say good-bye to a man whose family was his life, and whose rare way of working made family-members of so many of his colleagues. Ralph E. Farrell, who passed away suddenly, Friday, Feb. 26, is what they mean when they say home building is a people business.
For many, the huge loss they feel as they awaken to his absence can only be matched by the equally huge gift he gave to each person with his presence. Ralph leaves behind his wife Cindy, daughter Christine, son Vincent, and granddaughter Blakeley, and countless other family and friends.
Talking to several of Ralph Farrell's colleagues over the past couple of days, and hearing of the many, many teammates, business partners, proteges, associates, customers, and suppliers with whom he bonded personally as well as professionally, Ralph's special brand of charisma surfaced. Whether it was a job site or Ashton Woods' corporate boardroom, Farrell's ears and his eyes were how he learned and how he led. What came out of his mouth was spoken only after he looked, listened, and considered unvarnished truths and real-world challenges and opportunities. While scores of people inside Ashton Woods, and in the company's ecosystem of partners and customers would collectively affirm Farrell's unusual blend of skills, personality, passion, and sympatico, it was his extraordinary knack at singling us out as the focus of his undivided care and attention and interest that sets him apart from many leaders.
Textbook, business school degree culture would mean little to Ralph Farrell. His brand of culture was this person on the other side of the desk, or in the job site trailer, or on the other end of the phone line. Farrell's brand of culture was the moment, the conversation, the eyes, and the ears and the cares and the concerns of the individual in front of him. This was his skill, to make a person feel heard, understood, personally taken in.
It is why his handshake meant some of the biggest companies in the business--Whirlpool, Timberlake, Moen, even Italian market-entrant Veneta Cucine, to name a few--could entrust millions of dollars in commitments and plans and ventures with Ashton Woods without the typical roomfuls of attorneys and accountants in tow.
Ashton Woods ceo Ken Balogh says as much as he speaks of the double-helix of professional mentor and friend that Farrell represents in the arc of his own career, first for many years at Centex Homes, where they first started working together, and then at a turning-point moment in Balogh's career.
"Ralph and I stayed friends after he left Centex to join Ashton Woods in 2004, so we would talk fairly regularly, and when I was looking at my options in 2010, he called me up and talked to me about the chief operating officer position at Aston Woods, he got me listening," Balogh says. "He's one of the reasons I'm here."
Not only would scores of other Ashton Woods people say that same thing, it's also the case that some of what runs deep as Ashton Woods' signature capability--high-level design, customer-centricity, and construction nimbleness--is what it is due in large part to the breadth of Farrell's executional effectiveness across disciplines including design, construction, land, sales, purchasing, and finance.
"For Ralph, it was plainly obvious that 'you can't build a house that you don't sell, and you can't sell a house if you can't build what the customer's asking for,' so he worked obsessively to align sales and the construction teams, especially because they're our front line with the customer," says Jay Kallos, vp of architecture at Ashton Woods. "This alignment, and the way the people in sales, construction, and design collaborate here is baked into our DNA thanks to Ralph.
Kallos goes on: "Teacher, mentor, father, friend, Ralph was all of those to so many of us. You don't think of it all the time, but at moments like this, you realize that you're a family, and, while Ralph's immediate family was the most important thing in the world to him, his wife and children affirm that when he gets home, they know that the Ashton Wood family was important to him as well."
Young Valerio Muraro, the design director who joined Ashton just about three years ago straight from Northern Italty, regarded Farrell as a father figure and a mentor.
"For all the 30-plus years of experience Ralph had in home building, with all the projects he's been involved in and all the teams of people he worked with, he taught me that we can look at each new challenge through the eyes of a baby looking at the world for the first time," Muraro says. "Ralph taught me how to do this, and how to be a good teammate."
A worker among workers, Ralph Farrell will be remembered as a man whose verve, passion, resiliency, and resourcefulness were simply the table-stakes of coming to work every day. Most important to him of all was trust, which is why so many people who Ralph Farrell worked with have a particular personal story to tell about a crystal clear moment he singled them out.
So, they wake up and feel the pang of grief. Then they think about it a little more and they well with gratitude to have known that moment he was that way he was.
That moment, for me, came with a two-line note he wrote on the eve of a trip my wife and I had planned this past December to Venice, Italy.
John, I am sitting here and needed to reach out and tell you how envious I am of you spending Christmas in Italy. I just love the country and the people it is just so beautiful and such a happy place to be. I hope you worked out all the details with Dioniso and enjoy that part of your trip as well. Enjoy the wine, food, people and each other. Merry Christmas, Ralph
That was Ralph. And, too, that is the DNA of a home builder, a remarkable person who's part of a people business.