Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
Isaac Lidsky may possess the most eclectic resume in entrepreneurship. Over the years, he has been a child television star, a Supreme Court clerk, and the co-founder of an internet startup. More recently, Lidsky has used his gift for logistics to build ODC Construction into one of the fastest-growing construction businesses in central Florida. Tour the ubiquitous luxury and retirement developments here and you will see thousands of homes for which ODC provided the foundations and frames--what he calls a house's "guts."
Lidsky, though, has never seen a single home that ODC has built. He is blind.
Perhaps Lidsky's tumultuous life inculcated in him a desire to control the unpredictable, which is key to managing in this market. Orlando's housing bust was especially dramatic: The number of homes built plummeted from 35,000 in 2005 to fewer than 5,000 in 2009. Subcontractors shriveled, and skilled workers sought more fertile fields, creating a labor shortage when demand picked up. And while construction operates year-round under Florida's sunny skies, almost daily afternoon downpours in summer can stop work and wash away the morning's progress.
In 2011, Lidsky surveyed that sorry scene and detected opportunity. He and a business partner, Zac Merriman, acquired ODC, a small, undistinguished subcontractor that, at the time, had $11 million in revenue. They transformed it into a full-service construction and logistics company designed to make the process of building hundreds--even thousands--of units butter-smooth for its clients. Lidsky had no experience in construction. He'd never even owned a home. With no preconceptions about how things in the industry are done, he proceeded to do them very differently.
So rather than distribute work among dozens of subcontractors, as almost all construction firms do, Lidsky hired his own full-time labor team, more than quadrupling the business's work force to 350. To swiftly scale revenue (ODC did $70 million in 2014), he brought on Tony Hartsgrove, a sales expert with 17 years of experience working for the large national homebuilders that make up ODC's clientele. And he oversaw development of sophisticated software that is constantly allocating resources, identifying tasks, and reordering schedules across all the company's projects, so that even when rain sheets down crews rarely fall behind.
Meritage Homes, one of the country's largest homebuilders, was scrambling in late 2012 as work on 126 units slowed to a crawl because of labor and materials shortages. "We were in this spot where lumber packs were just sitting on job sites," says Meritage division president Brian Kittle. "Isaac came in and laid out a detailed plan for how we were going to close all those units, and he executed to it. He allowed us to be profitable in a year when the cards were stacked against us.
"Isaac has run ODC like it is a part of Meritage Homes," Kittle adds. "They are the only vendor we can say that about."
Hollywood and Harvard
Florida is one of those destination states from which most residents don't originally hail. Lidsky, though, is a native. His parents are Cuban Jews who fled to Miami post-revolution to escape religious persecution. Lidsky was born there in 1979.
In those years, Miami was a winter destination for New York ad agencies that were filming commercials. Lidsky's mother, Betti, studied the industry and got acquainted with agents and managers. At 6 months of age, Lidsky was starring in a diaper commercial, the first of more than 150 he would be in through grade school.
In 1993, Lidsky temporarily relocated with his mother to Los Angeles (the rest of the family stayed in Florida) to join the cast of Saved by the Bell: The New Class, a Saturday-morning spinoff of the hit NBC series Saved by the Bell. For one season he played uber-nerd Weasel. "The whole celebrity thing" was intoxicating, Lidsky says. "Autographs. Press. Special appearances."
But Saved by the Bell had also spun off a primetime offering subtitled The College Years, which failed faster than a slacker at MIT. From its ashes, NBC rescued the inexplicably beloved character Screech and planted him in The New Class. "In the immutable laws of Saturday-morning television, there is not room for two dorky characters," says Lidsky. "I found myself at 14 an out-of-work actor in L.A."
An academically talented kid who skipped seventh grade, Lidsky applied to colleges. He turned 16 about a week and a half before starting at Columbia. A year later he transferred to Harvard, graduating with degrees in math and computer science.
Lidsky was poised to start Harvard Law School when his sister's boyfriend dangled the entrepreneurship apple. The boyfriend wanted to do an internet startup: Would Lidsky sign on as the software guy? This was 1999, so Lidsky's answer, naturally, was "sure." Their advertising optimization business went through several name changes and business models. They raised some money. Hired a professional executive team.
By 2001, Lidsky had had enough. He exited and started Harvard Law. It was a heady time: Academics had just begun grappling with the legal and social complexities of a digital world. Lidsky worked with luminaries like Lawrence Lessig and Jonathan Zittrain. He became the first student fellow at the influential Berkman Center for the Internet and Society.
After graduating, Lidsky did a clerkship with an appellate court judge. Then he worked for the civil division of the Justice Department, arguing cases on behalf of the federal government before the circuit courts of appeal. But "I had dreamed of clerking for the Supreme Court from the first I knew that institution existed," Lidsky says. He applied to the court and was turned down. So he applied again. And again.
Two justices, three babies
Good news arrived in 2008. Sandra Day O'Connor--recently retired--invited Lidsky to clerk for her. (Retired Supreme Court justices retain offices and staff.) "The first week I was there she came into my office and said, 'Oh, Isaac. How would you like to work for Ruth this year? Why don't you just walk down the hall and talk to Ruth?'" Lidsky did, and ended up dividing his services between O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Before Saved by the Bell lured Lidsky to Los Angeles, retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease, had been diagnosed in Lidsky and two of his sisters. In law school Lidsky began using a cane and screen-reading software. "I came out of law school a moderately functioning blind guy," he says.
Three months before starting at the Supreme Court, Lidsky met with the librarians and technical staff there to arrange for case materials to be downloaded and made available in a format that could be read electronically. "It takes a village," says Lidsky of the help and support that allowed him to become the first--and so far only--blind Supreme Court clerk.
After the Supreme Court, Lidsky accepted a job at a large international law firm in London so his wife, Dorothy, could get her master's degree at the Sotheby's Institute of Art. In early 2010, the couple learned that Dorothy was pregnant. A short time later they found out it was triplets. "We hightailed it back to the States for medical care," says Lidsky. When one child began showing signs of severe distress, doctors delivered the triplets at 29 weeks. Their combined weight: 7.5 pounds.
The smallest child, Thaddeus, finally came home after 70 days in the neonatal unit. Lidsky took three months of paternity leave, a benefit his employer offered but did not expect anyone to use. "The whole law firm rat race--living in a two-bedroom apartment with newborn triplets after what we had just gone through--none of it made any sense," says Lidsky. "We needed to change."
Lidsky consulted a career coach, who after four or five sessions and some psychological testing determined he was best suited to be a CEO. But "as a sixth-year associate in a law firm I didn't have anyone breaking down my door to run a company," he says. One of Lidsky's best friends, his former Harvard roommate Merriman, suggested they buy a business together. "The economy was in a state of misery. You had industries that were at or near once-in-a-lifetime lows," says Lidsky. "It started to make sense."
A rest-stop rescue
After several abortive attempts to buy a company, Lidsky found himself back home in Florida, the co-owner of what was then called Orlando Decorative Concrete. ODC was a relatively modest subcontractor that did foundations and masonry in central Florida. It had ridden the rising tide of the early 2000s, then switched to a rock-bottom-price strategy during the downturn.
Several months after the acquisition, "we realized that far from treading water, the business was sinking rapidly," Lidsky says. The specter of bankruptcy rose. "Zac said to me, 'I have spent 12 years building financial security for my family, and in three months you've ruined it.'"
Lidsky lamented his situation during a phone call to his mother, Betti. She offered him $350,000, which she'd saved over the years from her husband's legal career and her own jobs as a nurse and social worker. The recession had taught her the vulnerability of banks, so the money was in cash. Lidsky said no, but ultimately changed his mind. At 5:30 on an October morning in 2011, he and his wife buckled their then 1-year-old triplets into a Chevy Suburban and got on the Florida Turnpike, heading south. Betti Lidsky, who still lived in Miami, got on the Turnpike headed north. They met at a rest stop midway.
"The exchange took two minutes," says Lidsky. "She handed me the bag of money, gave me a hug and kiss, blew the kids some kisses, and said, 'I know you can fix this.'"
Lidsky and Merriman set out to do just that. They got rid of customers that were costing them money, including their second-largest account, which represented a third of the company's revenue. With Hartsgrove's help, they brought in more and higher-volume clients. They developed their logistics system and created a project management team that operates out of a war room. "By getting rid of the unprofitable work and trying to squeeze some extra dollars out of the profitable work we bought ourselves a little bit of runway to invest in operations," says Lidsky. "But it was excruciatingly frustrating because you have to sell ahead of building it."
The business expanded from laying concrete foundations and building concrete block walls (used for the first floors of Florida homes because of hurricanes) to erecting entire frames. As the housing market regained mass and muscle, so did ODC.
Vision without sight
If you drive by an ODC work site, take a look at the trucks, some of which are equipped with large ice-making machines. "We send them out with crews every morning to make sure they get plenty of water and keep hydrated," says Hartsgrove. "We also make sure they take their breaks."
In Orlando's still-fallow labor market, "workers find workers," says Hartsgrove, explaining ODC's ability to recruit hundreds of employees. "We treat them much better" than competitors, he says. "We have employee appreciation days. We try to give them a bonus at the holidays. We pay all our overtime and offer health insurance. We have stringent safety guidelines."
Of course, leadership also matters. And it turns out that that career consultant was right: Lidsky is suited to be a CEO. His blindness has made it necessary to surround himself with excellent people whom he trusts and to whom he delegates.
Unable to read body language or facial expressions, he requires everyone, including customers and business partners, to articulate what they're thinking. "I can't see you. Are you shaking your head? What do you even think about this?" says Lidsky. "Often it is pushing for an explicit verbal response that leads to more discussion and more ideas."
As for his inability to see what ODC has accomplished, Lidsky is dismissive. "I have three beautiful children and I have never seen their faces," he says. "It's not productive to spend a ton of time thinking about that.
"If you are going to assess your lot in life or your circumstances, it's only fair to look at the whole picture," he continues. "And from that perspective, I am beyond lucky."