For most people, losing one's job can seem like the end of the world. To be discarded after spending years in dedicated service to a company can be extremely demoralizing. And the job market can be a very uninviting place for those in their late 40s or early 50s.
Anyone working for a home builder these days has to be feeling anxious about job security, as companies have slashed their workforces and consolidated their operations to adjust to current business conditions that aren't improving. One research firm, Macroeconomics Advisers, estimates that the industry will lose 250,000 jobs by the end of 2008, and that construction employment, through July, had already fallen well below what current payroll data are indicating.
A lot of those cuts occurred in the field and include legions of immigrant laborers who may not have been on builders' or contractors' books. But senior and mid-level managers haven't escaped the scalpel, either, and find themselves on the street pondering their next career move.
How people respond to the circumstances of unemployment has a way of shedding light on their survival instincts. Sometimes, survival can be eased by a person's financial situation after departing from or being spit out by a company. When John Landon resigned suddenly as co-CEO of Meritage Homes in May 2006, the $52 million–plus that Meritage paid to buy back his 1 million shares of company stock provided a pretty good backstop for when he subsequently launched Landon Development Co. in Dallas. But unemployment can also motivate people to take their careers in new directions, as was the case with Charles Irsch, Centex Homes' former CIO, who resigned during a corporate housecleaning last year, and later formed Dallas-based 10point2 Consulting, which provides technology and strategy advice. (Irsch declined to comment for this article, as did Landon.)
In the four profiles that appear here and the two additional profiles available on our Web site (www.builderonline.com), Builder takes a look at how six home building managers and executives are coping after leaving or being let go by their companies. Four of them, by coincidence, are 47 years old and had been with their former employers for nearly two decades or more.
It's taken some longer than others to get back on their feet. Their ordeals, though, don't seem to have shaken their self-confidence. (Three of the executives started their own businesses.) They are careful to avoid badmouthing their former companies, possibly because all but one has either stayed in the housing industry or wants to. But unemployment clearly has given each of them a new outlook about not only where he's been, but also where he's going.
The Waiting Game
Artisan Homes' founder, Eric Brown, would prefer to stay in the industry. But finding a position that offers the right challenges and compensation has been tougher than he expected.
It's 113 degrees on one mid-July afternoon in Phoenix, and Eric Brown is outside landscaping a 1961 vintage home he recently purchased and is renovating. A year after leaving Artisan Homes, a company he founded in 1998 and sold to Engle Homes in 2004, Brown is ready to come in from the swelter and get his career going again. But he's not desperate enough yet to take just any job that comes down the pike.
Brown left Artisan when Engle, part of Technical Olympic Homes USA, ran out of infill projects, “and there was no room left for my department.” Artisan specialized in innovative condominiums, and its crowning achievement may be Lofts on Central, an award-winning mixed-used design concept Brown developed in 2001 for downtown Phoenix that proved wildly successful and spawned five separate buildings. But in a telling finale to the product, Engle sold the land for what would have been the latest iteration of that design—the six-story, 80-residence Artisan Haus—to a company from Argentina, which is going with its own design, says Brown.
At 47, Brown says he's financially secure, but not to where he could retire, even if he wanted to. “I'm already getting bored, and I can't let this stretch on for another year,” Brown told BUILDER in July, when he started putting his name out into the employment arena. Brown calculates his odds of getting back into home building at 3 to 1. But he was reluctant to light out on his own because “that might be suicide right now” with the housing market as soft as it is. In this economy, he wonders if there's a builder or developer out there willing to ante up for someone with his talent and experience, which dates back to 1979. That's when he first got into the housing industry as a real estate agent. Over the next 29 years, he worked for several builders and developers, with a three-year stint as partner with The Meyers Group (now Hanley Wood Market Intelligence) thrown in.
During his latest hiatus, Brown says he can't help but remember advice he got from his boss at Pacific Scenic Homes: Get out before you have to. The waiting game has allowed Brown to mull professional and lifestyle alternatives, such as opening a restaurant in Australia or New Zealand. He's already designed a 10,000-square-foot pad for it and would consider investing in such a venture. Brown also recently received dual citizenship from Ireland, his wife's native country, and he's not averse to packing up the family—which includes three young children—and starting over abroad. “My wife would like to teach yoga, and I could sell ice to Eskimos, so perhaps we'll do something together, like opening a restaurant/deli with a yoga studio,” he says playfully.
If he were to get back into the business in the U.S., Brown says he'd be receptive to joining a company “that wants to make a radical change” to its business model. He believes the downturn has afflicted too many builders with what he calls “Mikey syndrome,” recalling the famous Life cereal TV commercials that featured two brothers who refused to try a new cereal until their youngest sibling, Mikey, did. Brown also relishes his reputation for being something of a maverick and thinks it might be “fun” going back to home building for a company that's struggling to turn things around when business conditions are less than ideal.