Follow the Leaders
What’s that old saying? “Contempt breeds new business?” OK, maybe we made that up, but for Donny Wyatt, CEO of CoConstruct, it was a feeling of contempt that ultimately led to him starting his third business.
The Charlottesville CEO and newly minted VACEOs member is embracing the challenges that come with transitioning from founder to CEO. And even though his business just achieved Inc. 5000 status for the fourth time, this CEO admits to experiencing some growing pains that may sound familiar.
Donny Wyatt holds a BS in commerce, marketing and finance and an MS in MIT from University of Virginia, and he’s had a long-time infatuation with IT startups. SubletIt.com, LLC – a website designed to help college students list and find subleases on apartments and homes – is one of the business ventures you’ll find documented on his LinkedIn page. (He founded SubletIt just after graduation.) Interestingly enough, AccuNotes, the first venture Wyatt started while at UVA, is not.
With a laugh, he explains that the UVA administration wasn’t crazy about the online note-taking service he created for students. He was asked to shut the company down. What did he learn from the experience? “Never underestimate the human factor,” he says. “You can reference as many spreadsheets as you want, but I didn’t see that one coming!”
Fast-forward to 2005, and you arrive at the birth of CoConstruct. The idea for the company came after Wyatt experienced a “subpar” level of satisfaction with his own custom home-building experience. “It was exhausting going through last-minute fire drills during the process and constantly asking where random bills for thousands of dollars come from,” says Wyatt. “It was just a lot of surprises. And in the end, we felt like we were running the project, as opposed to the builder.”
He quickly realized his experience wasn’t unique after speaking to others. “That’s when I said, ‘Maybe there’s an opportunity here.’”
The result? A company that provides project management software for custom home builders and remodelers. “We handle the three big areas they deal with, which are coordinating their projects, communicating with clients and team and trade partners, and controlling the financials of their projects,” explains Wyatt. “We’re an enterprise-level system that happens to be for small custom builders and remodelers.”
Wyatt reports the company is on track to reach revenues near $10 million for the year, with about a quarter of his business coming from outside the United States. With a current staff of 65, Wyatt says he plans to “scale to whatever size we need to fulfill the demand,” which, by his estimates, encompasses about 90% of his target market in the U.S. – individuals and companies who aren’t using project management software and have a need.
Wyatt admits he spends a fair amount of time focused on finding the right employees to help him scale to size. He says he’s also felt a few personal growing pains a long the way. Like many CEOs, he struggles with work-life balance. (When asked what he does for fun, he says he works.) “I love what I do,” he says. “It’s fun, so I don’t have a lot of hobbies outside. I realize I need to work on my work-life balance. I get some of my best ideas when I’m unplugged, when I’m not doing work stuff, so one of the most productive things I can do is take time off.”
It’s no surprise that even when he’s trying to tune out, Wyatt is thinking about new ways to be productive. After all, he’s experiencing a lot of joy these days – even though he has a struggle here and there. “This is by far the largest team I’ve had right now, and I’ve found that the transformation from entrepreneur or founder to CEO is not always easy,” he says. “For example, it’s all too easy to assume that I’ve communicated a message well when I really haven’t. I’m getting better at making sure my team is aligned and shooting for the same thing.”
“I’m finding what’s most rewarding and exciting for me is that there have been a lot more opportunities lately to leverage my role as CEO and the size of our business,” he continues. “We can have a meeting, make a big decision, and with a lot of thinking and a little effort on my end, we can make really big, important changes for our customers. That’s something you can’t do when there are only three or four of you and you’ve got to execute that all on your own. It’s really exciting and incredibly rewarding to see that.”
Welcome to the VACEOs family, Donny!
Are you a Charlottesville CEO in need of peers who can relate and provide support in a confidential environment? Or do you need real and invaluable insight or a way to help you move through challenges and become “unstuck”? We’re forming roundtables in Charlottesville. Visit Get to Know Us or Why Join today.
Caryn Foster Durham firmly believes in making the world a better place. One look at her LinkedIn profile tells you this West Virginia native wants to make a mark on Virginia tourism and economic development, and that she’s a strong advocate for women in business.
As the first in her family to graduate college, Durham’s ultimate goal is to be a role model for her two girls. She wants them to understand that, “You don’t have to play cards you’re dealt; you can often ask for a new hand.”
Twenty-one years ago, Durham began working at marketing firm Charles Ryan Associates (CRA). Management immediately took her under their wing, intentionally grooming her to take over the business when the time was right. She became a minority owner in 2007, and in 2015, she and business partner Susan Lavenski became sole owners. In 2016, three long-time employees – Matt Isner, Matt Fidler and Alisha Maddox – were added to the partnership team.
In July of this year, Durham was officially appointed by Secretary of the Commonwealth Kelly Thomasson to the Virginia Council on Women. “I own my business, employ 35 people and do business across many states, so I hope to bring some perspective about business and what’s happening in the contiguous states,” says Durham. “Also, I have access to resources that can help on a larger level through my and association with the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO) as the past president of the Richmond chapter as well as my involvement with the Women Impacting Public Policy (WIPP) and U.S. Women’s Chamber. And I’d love to help Virginia get back to the number one spot on the ‘Best States to Do Business’ list!”
The stated purpose of the Virginia Council on Women is “to identify ways in which women can reach their potential and make their full contribution to society and the Commonwealth.” What are some of the barriers Durham feels are keeping women from reaching their potential? Her answer may surprise you.
“A few months ago, I was asked to keynote a women’s entrepreneurship conference in Virginia Beach,” says Durham. “The speech I chose talked about empowering yourself. We are, in my opinion, our own worst barriers to success. That’s obviously a blanket statement, but, by and large, we hold ourselves back more than anyone else. We doubt ourselves and don’t trust our intuition, for example. And we can be unkind to each other.”
“If we’re going to break that ceiling, we have to bring other women with us, and we need to include men in the conversation, because you can’t change the trajectory of things if you only have one side of the equation,” she continues. “We need to take responsibility for our own path.”
The path Durham chose led her to the Virginia Council of CEOs in 2013. “My roundtable is invaluable to me,” she says. “One reason I wanted to join the Council was that I’d never been a CEO before. I knew how to make money and how to hire – I’d been doing that for years before I became the owner of a business – but I didn’t know how to be a CEO. The best gift my roundtable gave to me was the realization that I do know what I’m doing, I’m doing things right, and the questions I have are the same questions that other CEOs have.”
“My roundtable is invaluable to me” – Caryn Foster Durham, CEO, Charles Ryan Assoc.
The business owners in Durham’s roundtable group represent organizations that are the same size as hers, but they all vary in lifecycle stage and industry. “That has been equally gratifying,” she explains. “I truly feel like they have had a positive impact on my business and have helped me be a better person and CEO. I truly feel like I have helped them, as well.”
Durham says she wants to bring similar peace of mind to other businesswomen and will work actively with the VACEOs team to develop events that will attract this underrepresented market. In fact, you’ll find her co-hosting an event with VACEOs this fall!
Meet VACEOs member and Covintus co-founder Nick Bawa. He’s bringing significant corporate recruiting experience, custom software development expertise and an award-winning global talent pool to the table to help small and mid-sized businesses tackle their technology challenges efficiently and effectively.
Bawa has a passion for startups, telling us, “There’s so much excitement and ingenuity in the startup community.” And it’s not just a distant love affair. Covintus is sponsoring over 50 accelerators this year in verticals that include data/analytics, artificial intelligence, augmented reality/virtual reality, eCommerce, financial services, and transportation/logistics.
Bawa has been a VACEOs member since 2007, and describes that experience as “absolutely the best thing I’ve ever done.” We sat down with him to learn more about his experience and his business.
A: Actually, over 15 years ago, I left a great job as an SAP consultant with IBM Global Services. I was traveling the country working with manufacturing and aerospace and defense companies, implementing ERP systems.
I had a bit of unique experience with when and how to apply custom code to off-the-shelf software, so I was increasingly being asked by organizations to help them with their build-versus-buy decisions and help them execute.
A: We leverage enterprise-level competition winners to build custom software solutions. We operate on a project-by-project basis, which is always fixed price and fixed timeline, with a process centered around transparency and experienced project management. Whether someone is looking for a technology partner or to supplement their current team, we have the expertise.
A: We have an amazing array of clients, from startups in healthcare to multinational corporations in the packaging industry. It really makes things interesting, because we’re exposed to so many different industries and stages of business that are all looking to grow. We find that our model really works great for small and mid-sized growth companies.
All of our projects are fixed price and timeline, sort of guaranteeing the work we do, which is unheard of.
A: Technically, we vet the best talent across the world. We’ve been monitoring third-party competitions and selecting the top one percent from those online development communities. These men and women consistently win the competitions they enter and have proven themselves as experts in their fields. They’re looking for someone to trust versus a freelance website. We are that trusted resource.
A: Constant communication and feedback. Everyone we work with is accustomed to working virtually, so that isn’t the challenge. It’s more about building strong relationships and trust.
A: I do, yes! There’s so much excitement and ingenuity in the startup community. A lot of hands go into making a business successful, and in this community there are a lot of great intelligent people looking to lend their expertise and assistance because they are genuinely interested in seeing someone else succeed. It’s uplifting to be a part of this community, and I love hearing about new ideas and helping new businesses.
A: It actually began with the work we’re doing with accelerator programs – offering our expertise and filling the need for high-quality software development. Covintus enjoys working with purpose-driven companies and giving them the advantage of an on-demand IT staff. It allows us to build relationships with organizations that share our values and goals of building a more just, equitable and sustainable world.
Half-joking, Arlene Lee, CEO of R.E. Lee Companies says, “I have a scientific mind and an artist’s soul!” But, it’s really true. The Cornell University graduate, author and entrepreneur, helms one of the oldest construction companies in Central Virginia, and she relishes in the discovery it brings – even within complex spreadsheets. “I love the flow of lines,” she says. “And to me, the flow of information has a beauty to it. Ideas and strategy are beautiful, too.”
Arlene spends most of her time focused on strategic and long-term planning for her Charlottesville-based, family-owned business, but she also she finds great satisfaction in the history R.E. Lee has helped shape. “It’s so cool to think about all of the buildings around Charlottesville and the state that we’ve built in the last 78 years,” she says. “Some of them we see every day. It’s really great to be linked to the community in that way.”
What motivates this busy CEO? “I’ve been entrepreneur for many, many years in a number of different businesses,” she explains. “But the best part of my job is working with the people in the company. We have people who just pour their hearts into this company and the work they do. Some are multi-generational employees. They inspire me to want to work harder with the work they’re producing with their hands.”
R.E. Lee is a born-and-bred Charlottesville business that began in 1939 as R.E. Lee & Son, a construction firm dedicated to building and restoring fine and historic homes. In the 1950s, the company transitioned to commercial work, and in the 1990s, it spun off into several divisions. The company adheres to a parent-subsidiary structure today.
Arlene became an official part of the R.E. Lee family in 1991, after meeting fourth-generation family member Chris Lee at Cornell University and marrying him in April of that year.
The couple worked diligently to preserve the traditions set forth by the pioneering, honorable professionals before them. Arlene was a member of the board of directors for many years and became acting CEO of R.E. Lee Companies in 2016, two weeks after Chris’ sudden death in December 2015.
Today, she is CEO/Principal of parent company R.E. Lee Companies and Principal/Treasurer of its five subsidiaries: R.E. Lee & Sons, Inc., Piedmont Development Group, Piedmont Concrete Contractors, Piedmont Plaster & Drywall and Piedmont Facilities Management.
R.E. Lee’s parent-subsidiary structure means the businesses it contains can cover the entire lifecycle of the building process. And it provides other advantages that prove valuable in the volatile construction industry. “The fact that we have a subsidiary structure and we’re in a smaller market means we have more than one chance at a project,” Arlene explains. “If our contractor doesn’t get a job, one of the subsidiaries often does. That helps us weather rough patches a little better.”
“We’re also able to do things collectively that any one of these companies would be too small to do on their own in terms of how we do business and how we function internally, the benefits we’re able to offer employees – those kinds of things,” she adds.
R.E. Lee Companies employs approximately 130 people and works on projects throughout most of the state. Arlene has a real passion for work safety, and hopes to eventually be known as an industry leader in the area.
A Virginia Council of CEOs Forum member, she finds tremendous value in the confidential nature of her group’s discussions, which has inspired her to actively recruit other CEOs from Charlottesville to join the organization.
When she isn’t planning for the long-term success of her business, joining her safety manager on site visits or speaking to Charlottesville CEOs about the Council, Arlene can be found at her stable with her 33-year-old Morgan horse, Pandora, who shares her birthday. “I have three horses, but my old gal will be 33 on our birthday in April,” says Lee. “I dried her off when she was born, and she’s been with me ever since.”
VACEOs’ recent partnership with the Virginia Chamber of Commerce has led to the formation of new CEO Roundtable groups in Charlottesville – with more planned across the state – which means more business leaders like Arlene Lee are joining the ranks and seeing the benefits of membership. Find out more about the partnership here.
“I think my forum has helped me gain confidence in my leadership ability and style. It’s helpful to have feedback and listen to the experiences of the other CEOs, and I really value their insight and expertise. When you’re running a company, you don’t always have someone you can say anything to and that stays confidential. There’s tremendous value in that.” – Arlene Lee, CEO, R.E. Lee Companies
Jacob D’Aniello is a Kenmore, New York, native and UVA grad who is also a trailblazer. D’Aniello realized from a young age that a successful business venture must be built on a naturally recurring revenue model, so he created a thriving business in an unlikely and untapped industry: pet waste removal.
It’s a business in which a sense of humor is required and encouraged throughout the organization. “We like to say, ‘Your dog’s business is our bread and butter,’” says the DoodyCalls CEO. “We also joke that, ‘We’re number one in the number two business.’”
What’s not funny is how seriously successful his company has become since 2000. Only four years into the venture, he and his wife franchised the business. Today, DoodyCalls is making waves nationally across 16 states and counting.
A: The paper route I started when I was 10 was the impetus for DoodyCalls. The idea of providing a consistent service each week really appealed to me. I also looked at my grandfather, who sold furniture and appliances, and my father-in-law, who sold shoes. In each case, they showed up each day with no revenue. That seemed really stressful to me. I also knew I didn’t want to spend time winning my clients away from my competitors – not that there’s anything wrong with that – but I wanted to focus more on winning people over to a market that they weren’t introduced to yet.
A: We’re very focused on replicating and growing, which is a lot of work within itself. We’re launching some new internal technology systems that are really exciting, and we’ve recently launched a new e-commerce store. We’re now designing and manufacturing our own pet waste stations and litter bags, and as far as I know, we’re the only pooper scooper company that has its own product line, so that gives us the ability to be a little more aggressive in the market.
A: We wanted to franchise because we felt like we stumbled onto a tremendous opportunity, and we really felt like it would be a great opportunity for other people – especially those who may not have access to a tremendous amount of capital. We also thought it would be a lot of fun working with other hard-working entrepreneurs. It’s hard to create an industry by yourself. It takes a lot of resources to blaze a path. The more brains, the better.
A: Don’t franchise until your organization is financially sound. You don’t want to have to count on the revenue from the franchise business for several years. You want to be able to take your time and find the right people to work with. And it sounds like a cliché, but when you decide to franchise, you’re really getting into a different business than the business you’re in. You’re now focused on relationships, franchise recruitment, support, and compliance. Make sure you understand and love those kinds of activities that will make you a great franchisor.
A: I get excited knowing that I can help individuals achieve their goals through business ownership. I also get a lot of excitement out of creating a great place to work, and it’s very satisfying to know that I make a positive difference in the lives of the people I work with. It’s so much fun to work with people. But probably what I’m most excited about is that I really love creating something no one else has done before. We are creating a national brand. We’re trying to do something no one has done.