Larry Webb: Coaching Up
Larry Webb is a home builder, and a successful one at that. But it’s not because he’s the best at crunching numbers or turning inventory or satisfying shareholders. “Larry understands what consumers want,” says market consultant John Martin, who has known and worked with Webb since the 1980s. “And then he fires up his team to deliver it.”
Those twin talents, say his friends and associates, have directly driven and influenced the winning community and housing designs that companies under Webb’s leadership have delivered for decades.
“He’s completely genuine when he says he cares about what the customer thinks and needs,” says architect and fellow 2012 Hall of Fame inductee Mike Woodley, a long-time collaborator and friend. “He starts from that perspective with every project.”
While Webb appreciates market research, he’s no slave to data. In fact, starting in the industry as a marketing consultant (a relatively rare beginning for CEOs in this industry), he would “throw a few reports together for a client and then just tell them what he thought,” says Woodley, recounting Webb’s own description of his early days and preference for a more personal approach to market research to achieve great housing design. “He gets far more from walking models, driving around, and talking to people.”
It’s a tack he continues on today. “Larry loves being in front of people, and they respond to him,” says Joan Marcus-Colvin, senior vice president of sales, marketing, and design for The New Home Co. in Aliso Viejo, Calif., Webb’s current venture as a founding partner and CEO. Whether it’s a focus group, one-on-one buyer interviews, or neighborhood block parties, she says, Webb is there chatting up the folks. “They know that he’s genuinely listening.”
And so does his team. “Wherever he’s been, he’s built a collaborative team spirit,” says interior designer Sandra Kulli, another long-time colleague. “It’s a flat playing field where everyone is equal.”
That approach has not only earned him loyalty and admiration, but also allows Webb to stay current on contemporary design and style, and deliver marketable yet innovative architecture. “You never get a box from Larry,” Kulli says. “It is always something special.”
And that, say those who know him, is what brought Webb back into the business after his departure from John Laing Homes in 2008. “He still has a lot more to do,” says Marcus-Colvin. “And we’re so thankful he does.”
Michael Woodley: Spot On
Larry Webb remembers a young Mike Woodley sitting in meetings with the brass at Mission Viejo Co. and the biggest-name architects that builder could buy. “Mike would sketch something right there that was better than their presentation,” says Webb, then a marketing consultant. “I told them, we already have the most talented guy right here!”
And yet Webb says that even then Woodley displayed a collaborative rather than combative manner as he challenged his more-storied peers, a trait that he retains 30 years later. “He is very modest about his work,” says Webb, a fellow 2012 Hall of Fame inductee who continually engaged the architect throughout his home building career. “He’s always trying to help the process and deliver the best product.”
It helps that Woodley respects the business of home building, an appreciation honed as the in-house architect at Mission Viejo Co. and the old Kaufman & Broad before going solo in 1998. “He’s a student of the industry,” says Bruce Karatz, former CEO of what is now KB Home. “He’s constantly challenging what has been done and coming up with something newer to give people a reason to buy.”
He’s also tuned into the business of building, relatively rare among architects. “He’s really good at hitting the footages we target for a community, which is often hard to do,” says Bert Selva, president and CEO of Shea Homes, who has seen plenty of architects submit bloated plans that don’t match his pro forma and sales price targets. “He’s passionate about adhering to our objectives.”
If all that sounds a bit pragmatic, Woodley and his firm have also turned out some of the most innovative land plans and housing designs in the last quarter century, from the zipper-lot plot he devised for Karatz and K&B to the mid-century modern-inspired series he created for Selva and Shea, and the New England Saltbox with the California interior he crafted for Webb’s own residence, among a wealth of other examples.
“Each client feels as though they’re given the best he and his staff has,” says Webb. “They personalize it. You never feel like you’re getting a home out of a drawer.”
Making a Connection
To start to understand Don Powers’ architectural talent and approach, just walk the streets of Warwick Grove in New York’s Hudson River Valley. There’s more than a hint of the regional Queen Anne and shingle-style tradition in the single-family homes he has designed for the project, but there’s something else there, too.
“Don has clear design principles that inform his work, but there’s a lightheartedness to it,” says fellow architect Mike Watkins. “It doesn’t take itself too seriously, and he allows clients to express themselves.”
Kind of like Powers himself, really. Watkins describes him as humble and open to opinions, “a fun guy to work with” who runs a collaborative shop in Providence, R.I., where a foundation of tradition is framed with creativity.
“There’s a great vibe there. He and his team understand that a community or a house should respond to its context, but he has a great sense of how materials work together to make something new and special.”
He also wants to make a difference. Even before finding like-minded souls at the Congress for the New Urbanism, Powers sensed a higher calling than the big, beautiful projects he was designing for large firms in New York and Boston.
“He had an inkling that he was avoiding the big issues of the built world,” says Douglas Kallfelz, a fellow Harvard Graduate School of Design alum who joined Powers’ firm in 2003 and became a firm partner in 2008. “He went out [on his own] to engage affordable housing and holistic community design, where other architects didn’t want to dirty their hands.”
It was also a realm where risk-averse developers often stood in the way of progressive thinking. Though Powers quickly sold local city planners on his vision of compact, walkable communities and traditionally rooted housing, developers can be skeptical of Powers’ approach.
But Powers is ready for it. “Don is an incredibly compelling personality and also very understanding of a developer’s challenges,” says Kallfelz. “He’s able to gain their trust and open their minds.”
So much so that even with a small (if growing) firm, Powers is almost always commissioned to plot and populate the projects that come across his desk. “He understands the nuances of the in-between stuff and the right proportion of all the pieces,” says Kallfelz. “That really allows us to craft a place that has tangible connections to the past with a fresh take.”