By John McManus
Massive, 25-plus-foot-high, heavy curtains mask off the backstage of a grand ballroom in the convention center at the Mandalay Bay Resort on the Strip, like any given Las Vegas hotel convention center, on any given day. This particular day, in early November 2005, I'm waiting in the semi-dark behind those gigantic thick drapes for my moment on stage.
Back there in the dimness, amid a tangle of lighting and sound and video cables, a fellow I'd only heard about up to that point extends his hand to me. "I know who you are, John McManus," he says, "I'm Larry Webb."
I know he's Larry Webb. My moment on stage was to salute Larry Webb as the late Big Builder magazine's executive of the year for his leadership at John Laing Homes, one of the literally countless industry awards Larry has been honored to accept. Sensing my stage fright as we're about to pop out to the podium, Larry says to me, "Take off those f---ing glasses. Let the people out there see you, John McManus, for who you are."
I did take off the glasses. It meant I had to squint harder to read the award script about Larry and his team's accomplishments at John Laing over the prior 12 months. The audience of builder executives and their partners truly saw me for who I was--somebody with an awful lot to learn about what they do, what they need to know, and why it matters.
I'll never forget that moment though. Behind those curtains, Larry Webb's words meant to cheer, calm down, and connect, and, one human being to another, they sunk in. I'd wager that many many people in home building and outside it can recall the instant and the words exchanged at the moment they met Larry Webb. For me, that moment is permanently etched. It was "so" Larry Webb. Few people in our business are "so-[fill in the name here]." Larry Webb is one.
For Larry Webb, who announced this week that August 30--the 10th anniversary of the founding of the New Home Company in the depths of the Great Recession, he'll pass the day-to-day mantel of leadership to 56-year-old Leonard Miller, a home building company is not an abstraction. A company--whatever its size--is not, in his mind, a sum total of a set of competencies, but rather a flesh-and-blood, living organism of people doing a job for other humans.
He asks of his company, of any organization, of the entire business of home building, "who are we?"
He asks of his company, of any organization, of the entire business of home building, "who do we want to be?"
Now, Larry Webb grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., went to college at Northeastern in Boston, studying history in the late 1960s, and went on to Harvard, where he got his masters in city planning. A brush at the time with Robert Caro's Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Power Broker," about New York urban planning megalomaniac Robert Moses, helped spark a fire-in-the-belly drive in Webb that burns strong up to this day.
"We came out of that Harvard program believing we were bound to serve a higher purpose," Webb told Terra Search's Matt Slepin during a fun, fascinating podcast Matt released recently.
Fast-forward through Larry Webb's early-career stints in education, and economic advisory and market research and analytics consultancy work, to the late-1980s. Since then for the better part of 12,000 days running, Larry's awakened each day and run a home building company. Each day, it was "who are we?" and "who do we want to be?" Each day, it was about advocating, for customers' lives and their experiences as customers, and for team members' lives and their experiences as staff.
"For most of that time, I never even thought about having a 'Number 2,' or developing a succession plan. We'd go through the exercises, but I guess I thought maybe I'd just keep going until hit the end of my life, working at my desk," Larry told me the other day, after NWHM announced its 2nd quarter earnings and revealed the succession plan, first to teammates, and then to Wall Street.
In the past couple of years, Larry Webb has awoken to a reality that goes beyond the muscle-memory of leadership, and has seized on the moment to begin to let go of the reins. So, about a year ago, he began talking with New Home Company board members and key strategic team members--including his wife, Joan Marcus Webb, chief marketing officer at the New Home Company, about a transition plan.
"New Home Company has been in a pivot to more affordable housing, and when this transformation plays out, by the end of 2021, as much as 85% of our program will be for homes priced within FHA lending limits, and Leonard, who ran a division for 13 years at Richmond American, will bring a lot of value to this transformation. He and [chief financial officer] John Stephens are the right leaders for this time," Larry says, adding, "I'll still be doing a lot for the company, handling the investment community and taking part in the land strategy, and one of my jobs will be to serve as a mentor for Leonard."
When he talks of mentoring his successor, Larry's words sound like the kind of sage counsel he might once have wished to receive himself.
"Anytime you walk into a position of this magnitude, if you're not careful, you may have too many people reporting to you, and you're trying to do too many of the things yourself," Webb says. "We have a strong culture, and the division presidents are totally on board with the transformation, so the focus might best be on continuing to empower those DPs, and for Leonard to just step back and coach himself. Up and down the chain, we've got an engaged team who're passionately committed to customer care, to doing the right thing, and to treating associates well.
"The other thing is about listening," says Webb. "Listening to the people who actually do the work has been the single best way for me to learn what I'm doing and what needs to be done. So, advice for all of us--especially us Type A males in the business--is to be quiet and listen.
Webb joins the ranks of Lennar's Stuart Miller and Toll Brothers' Robert Toll who've each stepped out of active, hands-on control of their enterprises' strategies and operation after decades at the helm, but who remain in the picture as valued sources of learning, perspective, and sage opinion. Successors inevitably find their footing as time passes, and soon imprint the company culture with their own brand of strategic priority and focus. In the early days, however, the hearts-and-minds guidance of a Bob Toll, Stuart Miller, and, now Larry Webb can meaningfully impact odds of success.
At times like these, we sometimes scramble to find quotable quotes, fitting of the moment. I did not have to look far, for the book I'm currently re-reading, Joseph Michelli's "Driven to Delight: Delivering World-Class Customer Experience the Mercedes-Benz Way," has this one:
"If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader."--John Quincy Adams."
There's really only one word that goes with the muscle-memory reflexes that have kicked in the moment Larry Webb has awoken each day for the past 12,000 days. Now, as he closes out a career chapter, and will wake up some time after Labor Day with a profoundly new role among teammates, friends, family, and business partners, he is freer about using that word.
"I've been so incredibly lucky to have been working with many of the New Home team for more than 20 years, and we've certainly been through some battles together. I find that in my conversations with men and women I work with, and in memos, there's only one way to put it, so I do it more and more. I love the people I work with. They'e who the New Home Company is and who we want to be".
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