Builder Lee Wetherington cannot stay away

Lee Wetherington Homes' new model in The Concession, Manatee County. Staff photo / Harold Bubil; 3-7-2-2014.

Lee Wetherington Homes' new model in The Concession, Manatee County. Staff photo / Harold Bubil; 3-7-2-2014.

Lee Wetherington has built more than 4,000 houses in his 40-year career, but he doesn’t live in one. Wetherington, long known as one of the most innovative semi-custom builders in the region, lives in an upper-floor condominium apartment on Palm Avenue in downtown Sarasota.

Parttime. When he’s not there, he has a view of the the San Diego skyline from H-Dock at the Marriott Marquis & Marina. His neighbors include Olympic snow skiing champion Bode Miller.

In 2012, Wetherington bought a 65-foot Ocean Alexander yacht named “SoCal Dreaming” and spent 18 months refurbishing the 2004 boat from stem to stern. He has a love for projects, and this has been a major one.

“It has three suites, a full kitchen, two generators, a fresh water maker, HD satellite television, a sat phone, an AT&T hot spot for Internet connectivity,” said Wetherington.

For those trips to Catalina Island, the yacht has radar, GPS and depth finders. “You can program in coordinates and the autopilot will take you right to that spot,” said Wetherington.

The builder is in love with California. He served at Camp Pendleton while in the Marines, and looked at houses and condos there before making a deal for the yacht and slip.

He doesn’t spend all his time at the helm, though. If he’s entertaining guests, he hires a captain, who also handles maintenance. Wetherington admits he knew nothing about boats when he bought SoCal Dreaming, but he has become certified under the tutelage of his captain.

An avid bicyclist, Wetherington rides 25 miles daily throughout the San Diego area on a racing bike, and he keeps another bike in Sarasota. He is a noticeably more trim than in the days when he was running his company, Lee Wetherington Homes, “twenty-four/seven/three-sixty-five.”

But thanks to wireless communications, Wetherington, 67, has returned to close supervision of the company and doing what he loves: designing houses and visiting construction sites, while leaving the administrative heavy lifting to COO Bill Hager, sales director Peter Mason and others.

“I don’t see me going away,” said Wetherington, showing off his new model at The Concession in east Manatee County. “After 40 years, you don’t want to micromanage. What I always have done is be very good with organizing great people.

“I am more of an outside guy than an inside guy. I have always had an eye for design. There is something there. I don’t want to lose that. Bill Hager is great with the numbers and the organizational side. I’ve got a very young team — Meredith Rogers, Jay Cho, Todd Hubbard. Then you have the the old people — me and Hager and Pete Mason.”

Like a lot of builders and developers, Lee Wetherington Homes had a rough trip through the Great Recession. When the market crashed, he owed $22 million on land tracts bought at the height of the boom. To avoid bankruptcy, he filed an assignment for the benefit of creditors, forcing his lenders to negotiate settlements. They took almost all of his land, and the builder wrote several checks worth millions to complete the settlement.

Wetherington then stepped back for a couple of years.

“If you own a business, if you talk to any builder, it is 24/7/365. That is just the way it is. You wake up at 3 in the morning thinking about it. . . Saturdays and Sundays you think about it. Dinner, you are thinking about it.

“So after 40 years, it was time for a different approach. I was not going to be able to get rid of it, and I wanted to spend more time with my philanthropy. The approach I took was, No. 1, we don’t borrow money from the bank. I am the bank. We are not going to leverage our money like we did last time.”

At 67, he said, “I did not want to be 85 years old and looking at a plan or looking at a financial document and have that to be the last thing I remember before my forehead hits the desk.”

He started the years-long process of selling pieces of his company to his top employees. The fact that he has returned, still owning 51 percent, underscores his love of building and design, and his desire to give the company a tune-up to make sure quality stays to his standards. That included replacing some staff.

His business success, while meaning profit for his company and income for his employees, enabled his ultimate goal — funding his philanthropic efforts.

“He is increasingly focused on that,” said Diane McFarlin, Wetherington’s closest friend. “During the recession, that suffered, too, and it really took its toll on Lee. But now everything is stable. He has a renewed sense of optimism about the company and the amount of money he will be able to leave the community.”

The Lee Wetherington Foundation, managed by the Community Foundation of Sarasota County, has given about $2 million to local charities in the past decade. Wetherington draws a salary from Lee Wetherington Homes, but it is paid directly into the foundation’s account. Wetherington lives off his investments.

His favorite cause is the Boys and Girls Club of Sarasota County. That could be traced to his childhood in Jacksonville. He considers the specifics to be personal, but it would not be a stretch to describe it as “challenging.”

“He drew strength from that, instead of letting it weaken him,” said McFarlin, who is chairman of his foundation. “He could have gone in the opposite direction; it was the Marines that turned him around.

“And it made him committed to giving back.”

In the 1960s, Wetherington joined the Marine Corps and served in the Vietnam War. When he returned to the States, he was a Marine recruiter for two years in the San Diego area. Thus the origins of his “SoCal Dreaming.”

Wetherington’s long relationship with former Herald-Tribune publisher McFarlin is well-known in Sarasota, where they were often seen at social events. Like Wetherington himself, the relationship has undergone a transformation.

“We have moved from being a romantic couple into a couple who are best friends,” he said. “We talk almost every day on the phone.”

With McFarlin away, serving as dean of the College of Journalism and Communications at her alma mater, the University of Florida, Wetherington still looks in on her mother. McFarlin is in Sarasota two weekends a month or so to do the same.

“We are doing friendship so well; I couldn’t be happier about it,” said McFarlin.

“We have so much mutual admiration. Whenever a relationship breaks up, you worry about the friendship being lost. But our friendship is better than ever.”

Winner of the 2003 Hearthstone Builder Lifetime Public Service Award, the innovative Wetherington still has his Southern twang, and loves expressions like “that dog don’t hunt,” used to describe a design element that doesn’t appeal to buyers.

He showed up for a recent tour of his new model at The Concession with a look of consternation on his face.

“I never had a good bedside manner,” he said, referring to face-to-face encounters with clients and subcontractors. “Now it is nonexistent.”

The model is from Wetherington’s “Diamond” series — it has “nicer detail than normal, a few little tricks.” He said interior designer Marnie Sorensen of Orlando “pumped this up pretty good.”

With 3,500 square feet of living area, it is priced at $1.1 million, with pool and lot. “Our sweet spot is 3,000 to 4,500 square feet,” he said. “The profitability is there.

“People always want to customize, and the nationals (builders such as Lennar) don’t do that,” said Wetherington. “The nationals can’t, and we can.”

After 40 years, Wetherington still loves to talk building. During a recent interview, Brian Pruett of Emerald Homes dropped by the Concession model for an impromptu visit that turned into a nostalgic retelling of the good old days. Other colleagues joined in. It was a sign of the respect Wetherington has within the industry.

“The market is picking up,” he said. “Now that we have a big model, I am seeing a big uptick in the size of the homes we are selling.

“We are never going to be a big company. We used to do 400 homes a year. Now we are doing 40 (with a sales volume of $30 million), but we are doing them right.”

Sales volume has doubled in past two years.

“When I was doing 400, it was crazy. I was going out of my mind.”

Now, with a leaner company, that dog is back in the hunt.


Harold Bubil

Recipient of the 2015 Bob Graham Architectural Awareness Award from the American Institute of Architects/Florida-Caribbean, Harold Bubil is real estate editor of the Herald-Tribune Media Group. Born in Newport, R.I., his family moved to Sarasota in 1958. Harold graduated from Sarasota High School in 1970 and the University of Florida in 1974 with a degree in journalism. For the Herald-Tribune, he writes and edits stories about residential real estate, architecture, green building and local development history. He also is a photographer and public speaker. Contact him via email, or at (941) 361-4805.
Last modified: April 22, 2014
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