Industry vet reflects back on his 35-year career and talks trends of today’s housing
Builder and Developer: You’ve got decades of experience in the homebuilding industry at a very high level. What would you consider some of the milestones that have impacted your career?
Larry Webb: If you’re looking at milestones, one was the fact that I had a chance to work early in my career and was put in a position of quite a bit of responsibility in Colorado. I got to spend four or five years with really brilliant people and got to learn the home building business.
Then, I took a giant chance. I was offered a job to come to California to work for a homebuilder I’ve never heard of before, Kaufman & Broad, which is now KB Home. They gave me the chance to run Orange and Riverside and later San Bernardino counties for them. I walked into a company that was delivering 700 to 1,000 houses a year, and I had never been in that position before. They gave me a chance and it was quite an opportunity. I loved every minute of it.
In 1995, I went to work for a company called John Laing Homes. They brought me in to turn the company around. By 1997, we were the largest homebuilder in Orange County. In 2001, my CFO Wayne Stelmar and I did a leveraged buyout of Laing—we became owners and that was an incredible milestone. We risked everything we had, we signed on the dotted line, we took out large loans and we had three years to pay them off.
We jumped in with Laing, we grew it significantly and by 2005, we were delivering almost 3,000 houses a year and making $2 billion in revenue. In June 2006, it was the height of the housing market and we sold our company in the largest residential transaction at that time in the history of the U.S. to a group from Dubai. That was a major milestone in Laing life and in my life.
Then in 2009, we started The New Home Company. We got the band back together again and our first 30 employees were ex-Laing people. We grew the business pretty significantly and in 2014 we went public.
Probably my last milestone was in August 2019, when I transitioned out of CEO and Leonard Miller took my place and I became executive chairman. Along the way, I’d also say that January 20, 2018, I married Joan Webb, who’s our chief marketing officer, and that’s a pretty good milestone. We still work together and I really believe Joan is the most influential woman in homebuilding in California.
BD: What advice would you offer for building professionals who are looking to have a long career in the industry like you?
LW: The most important thing is to work in the environment where you’re really proud of who you work with and for. I’ve always tried to advise people to not just go somewhere for the money and don’t stay somewhere for the money. The money will be there. If you’re in an environment that you’re proud of, everything will be okay.
BD: In regards to today’s market how are millennial buyers and other groups shaping the market?
LW: There’s two driving forces in the marketplace, including millennials and empty nesters, aging boomers. Millennials are the group that has the most opportunity to attract, and who, up until the last year, the homebuilding industry hasn’t done a very good job of hitting their buttons. Millennials have been quite a bit misunderstood. Builders who get it will have a great opportunity. Millennials are the key to future growth in our industry.
BD: Speaking of the pandemic, has that influenced your product designs and new strategies?
LW: There is no doubt in my mind that the nature where people work has been indelibly changed. Our new housing programs have got to be looking at more than one office space in a place where people do their work in a private or semi-private setting.
Multigenerational living is going to continue. Out of this pandemic, a lot of families got closer together out of necessity or because somebody lost their job or was home from college or was doing their learning remotely. The idea of having privacy spaces or individual units to make your house live comfortably with more than one family structure within it would be a real advantage.
One of the great things that the apartment business figured out was that people were looking for lifestyle. Sometimes they would even take smaller spaces if they had the gyms and the pools and the park. In the land planning business, that emphasis is even more important now.
It’s one of the things that’s so much fun about our business. Not that there’s a pandemic, but trying to understand the implications of that and how people live.