John Laing Homes CFO Wayne Stelmar settles into an apricot-colored divan in the front parlor at the Four Seasons in San Francisco. It's 10 in the morning and despite his perfectly pressed and pleated attire, it's plain to see that he's ready to head home to his wife, three kids, and a hearty glass of California cabernet. It's been a long week of work at the June 2006 Pacific Coast Builders Conference, and an even longer year to date.
Although a self-professed workaholic, the past five months or so have pushed his commitment to the limits. But having buttoned up one hell of a deal to sell John Laing to United Arab Emirates–based Emaar Properties for more than $1 billion in cash just as bad news hit the market has made the extra hours spent worth it.
As one of the deal's chief architects, he's secured a growth arc amidst a new-home economy trough that looks to be more of a trench by the close of 2007. With Emaar acting the part of the rich uncle, John Laing has cash and a global corporate crutch available to take some bold strides while competitors tiptoe through the downturn. With ample pin money to spend on acquiring choice land, talent, and other builders in what is now a buyer's market, John Laing seems poised to grow in proportion to its imagination.
Despite the industry's speculation on the extent to which having this deal on the books will alter the competitive landscape going forward, Stelmar is not wont to take much of the credit for it, if any. “We just did a deal to sell our company at what we believe is an incredibly fair price, and [Emaar] want[s] to let us run the business and let it grow,” he says, with gentle nonchalance.
But perhaps humility is something that is acquired when you've earned your stripes. After learning the ins and outs of complicated financial transactions during his tenure at financial accounting firm Kenneth Leventhal & Co., he put his financial prowess to work in 2001 when he helped facilitate an internal buyout of Whitehall Street Limited Partnership III, a Goldman, Sachs & Co. real estate investment fund. The move ultimately created an employee-ownership program for a limited number of the company's key staffers. (See “Déjà Vu,” below, for a company history.)
“It's hard to get him to get out there and show what cool stuff he does,” says his daughter Dani, 19.
But with every sewed-up deal, he's getting at least a little more comfortable in the limelight. You can tell because as he launches into the play-by-play of the sale, a ripple of a smile emerges from the left corner of his mouth, a tiny betrayal of the excitement percolating beneath his placid demeanor.
PERFECT TIMING What they say in life is also true in business: Timing is everything. Without that, the billion-dollar baby of a deal would've never come to pass.
Although Stelmar says that in the past five years, the company has more or less “always been on the block,” no interested party had ever made an offer that the management team couldn't refuse. “Whoever needed a better position in California, we were the darling to be courted,” he says.
Learn more about markets featured in this article: Los Angeles, CA.