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Willis Smith Construction CEO looks back on 35 years of growth

David Sessions has led the Lakewood Ranch-based firm to its status as a giant in the building industry.

Willis Smith Construction CEO and owner David Sessions looks back on 35 years with the company, and leading it through its significant growth.
Willis Smith Construction CEO and owner David Sessions looks back on 35 years with the company, and leading it through its significant growth.
Photo by Jay Heater
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The uproar at the time was over the cost of the Lakewood Ranch Library.

It had ballooned from an initial project cost of $5.14 million in 2018, to the $17.1 million that was approved in 2021.

Meanwhile, Willis Smith Construction, which had been signed as the builder, was awaiting Manatee County's decision so it could put a shovel in the ground.

By the time that ceremony occurred, Willis Smith CEO David Sessions was smiling because of the lessons he has learned in five different decades of work with his company.

"The last thing you ever want to do is hurry through a project," said Sessions, who celebrated his 35th year with Willis Smith on March 7. "You don't want that door to open and hear, 'I wish we would have done this or that.' Or, 'I wish we had slowed down the project.'

"You have one shot to get this right."

While the Lakewood Ranch Library will be another landmark for Willis Smith Construction, Sessions said he doesn't even consider his favorite projects, or by any means rank them.

He said, over the years, he wants his company to be known for its "body of work."

It all begins

He admits he might have wanted those landmark projects back when he took a job as a project manager with Willis Smith in 1988.

It was a small company at the time, but one with a solid reputation.

"It was a very different delivery method at the time," said Sessions, who lives in Lakewood Ranch. "People would either come to us, or the cheapest price got the job. I would put together an estimate and be wondering how we could be competitive. We absolutely watched every dollar."

As soon as he came aboard, he concentrated on developing good working relationships with architects and those in the industry. That continued into the 1990s as the business continued to grow.

"We had to convince people we were capable of building their project," he said. "We were knocking on doors. We wanted to show them we were capable."

After 35 years, Willis Smith Construction CEO David Sessions says he hopes people will judge his company by its body of work.
Photo by Jay Heater

In the 1990s, the pressure was on every project.

"Client by client, architect by architect, project by project, we were building a portfolio," he said. "People started to recognize our company. We took a quantum leap forward."

In the 1990s, bids started to be awarded based on experience and approach to a project. Builder presentations became of huge importance, which was problematic for Sessions, who was quiet and introverted.

"I had to learn quickly," he said. "There was a tremendous amount of stress. Every word of a 30-minute presentation was analyzed and scrutinized."

Willis Smith embraced the presentation procedure and assigned a team to the task. It was a key in the company's rise.

Adding key clients

All along the way, Willis Smith picked up key clients, such as Mote Marine and Ringling College. The company built the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Sarasota and developed a relationship with the Catholic Diocese of Venice.

When the 2000s arrived, Willis Smith was a major player, and still growing. It did its first public school total build with Gulf Gate Elementary School in Sarasota.

"That took us to the next level," Sessions said. "When the 2000s hit, we had some wonderful clients and great references. In the early 2000s, we went through significant growth. They were redoing the Asolo (Repertory Theatre). We are still working on that campus today."

With the tremendous growth, Sessions could no longer be hands-on in terms of the actual projects.

"But as we brought on a younger generation, I mentored, and watched them grow," he said. "That is a strong aspect as to why this company has grown. I hired smarter people than I was, and then turned them loose, and watched them grow."

As Sessions talked about the growth of Willis Smith, and his 35 years, he would constantly halt his train of thought to talk about the young talent that followed him, and that is now leading the company, which was established in 1972.

Young talent

Current President John LaCivita joined the company in 1996 and became a co-owner in 2004. Taylor Aultman, Nathan Carr, David Otterness and Brett Raymaker became minority shareholders in 2015.

"I didn't do this on my own," Sessions said.

Now 62, Sessions isn't about to step away, although he said having young leaders does lighten his load.

"I still will be involved, probably another four to five more years," he said. "You don't walk away from something you spent 35 years building, but I am not working like I did in my younger days. It is very important to me to transition this firm to key employees."

Willis Smith CEO David Sessions, at his office in Lakewood Ranch, makes sure it is known that "I didn't do this alone."
Photo by Jay Heater

Does he wish, after all these years, he had gone into another line of work?

"Absolutely not," he said firmly.

He thought about his statement and then offered, "Perhaps early on, when I was trying to build and grow the business. There were an awful  lot of busy days, weeks and months.

"Significant sacrifices had to be made by me, and my family (wife Amy, daughter Haley and son Doug). There were no vacations. The stress level was off the charts."

Still growing

That stress eventually led to a company that did $138 million in business in 2022, up over $101 million in 2021.

He said that total will rise again in 2023.

The younger leaders will have to manage it.

"There is going to be a gradual transition of leadership," he said. "More responsibility will be given. We will continue to be strategic. This company never has and never will have a specific target, such as 5% growth. It's all about choosing the right projects.

"And we will continue to stay in this region. We have no desire to go to Miami. We want everyone to be able to drive home (at the end of the work day)."

Sessions has a short drive home each day which is perfect for him because he loves his community. He said Willis Smith will continue to increase its involvement with community nonprofits, although he likes to keep those efforts quiet and behind the scenes.

His hope and dreams for the company remain much the same as they were 35 years ago.

"We always want to be in the forefront, leading the industry," he said. "I never had any idea it would grow to what it is today, but we want to continue to use restraint, not pursing every project."

Besides the Lakewood Ranch Library, Willis Smith will unveil Mote's Science Education Aquarium at Nathan Benderson Park in 2024. It will be another landmark.

"Gosh, how does time go by so quickly?" he said. "Now I am trying to figure out how to slow down time."

It is likely his team is working on it.



Jay Heater

Jay Heater is the managing editor of the East County Observer. Overall, he has been in the business more than 41 years, 26 spent at the Contra Costa Times in the San Francisco Bay area as a sportswriter covering college football and basketball, boxing and horse racing.

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