Rob Hutton has surfed the ebb and flow of the home building industry over the past 30 years. While watching, self-admittedly stumbling, and rethinking, he has learned countless lessons regarding what it takes to succeed in the industry.
After climbing the ranks, Hutton served as a division president with D.R. Horton for 13 years and as a regional president with Lennar for over 10 years. Now retired, Hutton mentors the next generation of home building professionals and has released a new book, “The Operator,” a how-to guide for ambitious young managers.
BUILDER chatted with Hutton to find out more about the book, his outlook on the current housing market, and some of the lessons he learned over his career.
BUILDER: What’s a lesson you learned early on in your home building industry career?
Hutton: To forget about the money and simply focus on two things: learning the business and finding ways to add lots of value.
BUILDER: How has it been to navigate the industry over the past 30 years?
Hutton: It has been lots of fun as the industry has experienced tremendous change over the past three decades, and management teams have been forced to innovate and adapt or get left in the dust. From multiple recessions to oil shocks, a pandemic, massive supply chain disruptions, runaway home prices, and interest rate spikes (to prevent runaway inflation) ... overall, pretty sedate.
BUILDER: What’s a key leadership skill young building industry professionals must develop?
Hutton: If they are in the weeds and 100% committed to nailing their numbers each quarter and getting the job done (with keen focus on the quality of their work), they’ll almost assuredly get pushed up. Senior managers are always searching for those who are totally “in it” and can execute.
BUILDER: Are there any industry challenges you’re concerned about for later this year and into early 2024?
Hutton: There’s a tangible risk that rates will stay high for a prolonged period—longer than anyone in the industry would like. This in conjunction with a median new home price of almost $425,000 means that north of 100 million households are simply priced out of the market. That’s 3 in 4 households unable to enjoy the American dream of homeownership. First and foremost, builders and builder associations must press cities to relax zoning laws and thereby increase density. Our urban cores need taller buildings, and our suburbs need a broader range of lot sizes—especially smaller 30-foot, 35-foot, and 40-foot lots—to help increase density and lower costs. Add to that duplexes, triplexes, and garden apartments, and you’ll begin to drive down lot and home prices. Without these measures, we will price out (of the market) an entire generation of home buyers—a tragedy with significant economic and social consequences.
BUILDER: What’s your outlook on new-home demand for 2024?
Hutton: Strong, especially given the extreme shortage of spec and resale inventory. And, if rates moderate, the flood gates (of demand) will open again.
BUILDER: How has it been to mentor the next generation since retirement?
Hutton: The curious and ambitious ones make me smile—reminds me of the early days of my career. Like many who I coach, I was poor, (relatively) smart, and hungry. I was in search of someone who believed in me, would take me under their wings, and mentor me. I found several over the years, and I’m simply trying to pay that forward.
BUILDER: How can a leader set themselves apart from others in the industry?
Hutton: To distinguish themselves, young leaders should be consistently “up” with a passionate commitment to this game (I strongly disliked slow-moving, halfhearted associates). Then, add a) strict attention to detail; b) quick to respond, always following the “sunset” or “24-hour” rule (with all communication, especially horizontal and vertical); c) fiercely competitive—wanting to outmaneuver their primary competitors in the marketplace; and d) no matter what—as long as it’s right, moral, and ethical— find a way to win and get the job done. Do these things, and you will absolutely get the attention of those above you. I was ALWAYS in search of this kind of talent.
BUILDER: What’s one takeaway you hope readers can learn from your book?
“The heights by great men reached and kept
Were not attained by sudden flight,
But they, while their companions slept,
Were toiling upward in the night.”
—"The Ladder of St. Augustine" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
BUILDER: Where did your inspiration for the book come from?
Hutton: “The Operator—Learn How To Become A Rockstar In The Homebuilding Industry,” came from 30-plus years of thinking, mapping, observing, learning, doing, stumbling (often badly), getting back up, rethinking, stumbling, getting back up, rethinking, and doing it again … only better.
BUILDER: Is there anything you want readers to know about yourself or the book?
Hutton: I started out not knowing a thing about business nor the home building industry. In fact, between degrees, I sold watermelons on the side of a highway in Austin, Texas, just to survive. If I can end up managing 1,400 gifted associates and leading a $3+ billion region of a public company, you can too.