Hayden Watson, 2019 Hearthstone BUILDER Humanitarian Award honoree.
Hayden Watson, 2019 Hearthstone BUILDER Humanitarian Award honoree.

If you're a home builder--especially one competing in the competitively ferocious regulatory minefields of the Pacific Northwest--and you haven't heard of Hayden Watson, it could be that he intends it that way.

If you have heard of the 48-year-old second generation builder whose first-name eponymous operation has been building homes for 30-plus years, maybe he means that too. Perhaps it's because his super successful firms make it their business-as-usual practice to find extraordinary ways to bend and break through financial barriers that keep homeownership out of reach to so many working Americans.

Developing and building homes in a footprint that starts 165 or so miles to the southeast of Portland, extends north to Washington state and east to Idaho, and is further buffered by the Cascade Mountain range that looms between coastal and central Oregon, allows Hayden Watson and his three companies--Hayden Homes, Simplicity Homes, and WiseSize--somewhat of a stealth advantage. To win as a home builder, Watson and his team don't have to go head to head in their submarkets with the big builders.

They may be off the radar when it comes to the fray of rivalry and local land use machinations in Seattle, Portland and other coastal communities, but were Watson Companies entered into our Builder 100 annual standings, its volume and revenues would easily rank it among the top 40 builders in the United States, operating primarily in Central Oregon, Boise metro and North Idaho, and Spokane, Tri-Cities, Moses Lake and Yakima, Washington.

Jeff Meyers, Meyers Research and Hanley Wood CEO.
Jeff Meyers, Meyers Research and Hanley Wood CEO.

You can catch Hayden Watson in a fireside chat power panel session Meyers Research ceo Jeff Meyers will curate at our upcoming Housing Leadership Summit, May 13-15, at the Ritz Carlton Laguna Niguel. Watson will be joined by Clayton Homes ceo Kevin Clayton and Ivory Homes ceo Clark Ivory in the Wednesday morning session, May 14. Register here now.

From the time in the late 1980s Hayden Watson was making his way through college at University of the Pacific, his sights, his heart, and his singular focus was to do what his father did and his grandfather before him did. Which was to help more people find a home and a community to live in and prosper.

Each year, we recognize someone--from among many heartrendingly worthy nominees--willing to pick up the mantle of the Hearthstone BUILDER Humanitarian Award, which invariably goes to an individual for whom it's impossible to tell the difference between the day job and the life of giving and service to others. This year, it's Hayden Watson, who may just be the biggest, most successful, and most generous builder you never heard of.

Watson spoke recently with BUILDER senior editor Scott Sowers. They talked about Watson's intention from the moment he--at age 18--and his dad started Hayden Homes 30 years ago, fusing a fire-in-the-belly entrepreneurial urge to build an enterprise with a deep-felt mission to help people find their own pathways toward social, economic, and educational mobility through housing. Two decades ago, at a ripe old 28, Watson started First Story, a nonprofit philanthropic initiative whose executive director Claire Duncan says has been a game-changer, both for the individuals it's assisted and as a business strategy paradigm:

"The housing crisis in this country is getting worse, and it cannot be solved by the public, private, or government sectors alone. Hayden recognizes a problem of this scale requires innovative, multisector solutions designed to increase affordable housing and create economic opportunity for those who need it most. Hayden calls it the 'give as you go' philosophy and through it he is showing the tremendous impact the private sector can have. It is my hope that, in honoring him with this award, Hearthstone will launch a new movement of giving in the home building industry as others see that they too can and should give more than they get."

Or at least as much as they get. Young Watson, his Hayden Homes team, and their First Story efforts interweave on every level of the mission, vision, strategy, and purpose narratives we know to be so timely right now, especially in a new home development environment that's pricing more people out than it is welcoming them in.

"To buy one of First Story’s homes, the process works much like a traditional underwriting protocol, stresses Claire Duncan, the executive director of First Story. Applicants apply through the non-profit’s website and then go through an extensive interview process. From there, First Story offers qualified recipients a zero-down, 0% interest loan for the full value of the home."

Firms--home builders among them--naturally place the ability to generate sustainably profitable capital as the highest business priority. Exceptional firms--led by exceptional leaders--place the ability to generate social capital on a strategically equal par with profitability, embedding it into operations and performance criteria. This prioritization and behavior puts such firms at an advantage in today's business environment for a couple of reasons. Sowers writes:

'Watson believes that it’s second nature for home builders like him to want to give back to their communities. “I think builders are people oriented,” says Watson. “I think they have big hearts and they are com- mitted to their communities because the community has taken care of them. They’ve invested a lot of time and energy in relationships, and when they have the opportunity, they give back.”

'Watson comes by this wisdom via spending a lifetime in the home building and real estate business. The roots of Watson’s career can be traced back to his grandfather who served as the commissioner of real estate for California in the 1950s and 1960s. From there the legacy went to his father, a real estate developer in central Oregon. “My dad Robert H. Watson still is my biggest hero, my best friend, and biggest mentor,” Watson says. “Growing up I always wanted to work with my dad. I was trying to get out of college as fast as I could so I could go to work with him.”'

Many people start and build companies with that same fire-in-the-belly determination to do what it takes to succeed, and many home builders through and across the generations have done so. Many of them look at humanitarian and charitable work as priorities as well, ones they give their time and money to as time and money allow.

Some people in this community just differ that way. They don't see, nor feel, nor behave as though profitability and humanitarian impact are separable from one another. One literally means the other in their minds. Watson tells our senior editor Sowers:

“My parents [Robert and Virginia] were part of the greatest generation. They were not presumptuous, and unearned entitlement was not part of their life,” he says. “But beyond giving money, from a time and energy standpoint, they were always ready to help people. They set a really great example and it’s embedded in what we do at Hayden Homes and at First Story. That giving spirit comes from the last generation.”

That "giving spirit" may trace its provenance to parents, teachers, influencers, and mentors of times past, but to hear Hayden Watson, there's no ambiguity in his conviction that his business strategy and giving-back behavior--personally, as a company leader, and as a community member--are one, cohesive plan that gets investment, commitment, focus, management, and improvement on a daily basis. Paying it forward, in other words, is part of the business plan.

Doing well by doing good is just that. It's not "doing well and doing good." It's doing well by doing good. Corporate social responsibility (CSR), environmental, social, and governance (ESG), diversity and inclusion (D&I), and other social impact initiatives have become a "new normal" for companies large and small. Ignoring those foundational dimensions in an organization is to risk isolation and broken access to capital, to young talent, to an increasing number of essential partners, and to consumers.

This is well-understood among those behind the annual Hearthstone award. Now in its 20th year, the Hearthstone program has given more than $6 million to charity, making it the largest philanthropic award in the home building industry. “In today’s housing environment, it’s so important to highlight and recognize the accomplishments of leaders like Hayden Watson who provide the model for constructing affordable housing for families across the country,” says Mark Porath, CEO of Hearthstone.

So, now you've heard of Hayden Watson. He's the grateful, 48-year-old son of Robert and Virginia--who taught him with time, energy, and focus on how to do things for himself, and how to give. He's the husband, for 19 years, of Kristin, who reminds him everyday of ways to think beyond himself. He's the father of three daughters, Alicia, 11; Angelina, 14; and Julia, 16, who together remind him of why. He's one of you. Like so many of you, it's his business to succeed as a profitable private sector concern so that he can do what he really wants to do: help American working households live in the best homes builders can build.