John McManus Photo: Katherine Lambert

Ask Sheryl Palmer what keeps her up at night, and the president and CEO of Taylor Morrison, the nation's No. 13 home building company, says flatly: “Getting to 2011.” Getting to next year means surviving this one. This may sound trite, but being around and able to say, “We're still here!” 12 months from now will be a real battle for many who still count themselves a going concern in home building, so much so that their mantra in summer of '11 may only change by one digit, to: “Getting to 2012.”

Palmer and Taylor Morrison are three years into their current incarnations, and by aligning these stars in early 2007, British parent firm Taylor Wimpey gave North American home building one of its most intriguing dramas.

Palmer—a 25-year marketing and sales maven whose public and private pedigree includes terms in the Del Webb, Blackhawk, and Pulte academies—has designed, populated, and directed an org chart that balances the intricacies of headquarters and the field. Meanwhile, she forged tract builder Morrison Homes and land development whiz Taylor Woodrow into an entity that might otherwise have made sense only on an Excel spreadsheet.

Today, Taylor Morrison not only works as an operation tantalized—like many of its U.S.-based public peers—by the nearby whiff of its own profitability, but as a billion-dollar-plus jewel that either another home builder or a financial company may crave to own.

The North American unit may be for sale, but the sellers are by no means desperate. Owner Taylor Wimpey's motivations lie somewhere between the long-haul recognition that global home building operations may never make sense, and a midterm realization that England's master strategy for residential development may trigger an expensive rush for a constrained lot supply, for which the company would need a lot of liquidity.

They have a fair bit of runway, which makes them different from most of what else is for sale these days. Also, contrary to almost 100 percent of what else is on the block in 2010 and very likely 2011, Taylor Morrison has managed to remain greater than the sum of its land assets. Today, the company competes close to peer leaders in SG&A efficiency, plus design and construction quality continue to set standards, and customer satisfaction ratings have held up well even amid the radical downsizing.

This makes Palmer's job no easier. She not only has to manage a $1.3 billion company in an adverse market, but has to sustain focus amid questions about present potential valuations and future potential owners. Since Taylor Morrison ranks not just as an agglomeration of 20,000 lots, but as a well-run operation steeped in local real estate intel and high-quality products, the method behind Palmer's obsession with a healthy headquarters-to-field operation balance seems to fit the moment.

“This is a local business, and we believe that,” says Palmer. “Having the opportunity to put folks in every seat [in the company] allowed them to utilize resources in the organization and not have to have every local lead approved. [That way, they are able to] feel OK.”

Rather than to patently deny speculation that her company may be for sale, Palmer admits that speculation and realities converge. “Eventually,” she says, “there will be a strategy that will make sense for this organization that could be different than what we are today. But it's not something I can let myself get caught up with day to day.”

Day to day, Palmer's job is like that of her peer CEOs, who, these days serve as Chief Anti-distraction Officers. That's how restless nights may eventually turn into “Getting to 2011.”