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- 2012 - February - 20th -

First Coast Success: Steve Halverson, The Haskell Co.

by Karen Brune Mathis, Managing Editor

Steve Halverson is president and chief executive officer of one of Jacksonville's best-known companies, The Haskell Co., a design-build company founded by community leader Preston Haskell.

Halverson, a native of Enid, Okla., joined Haskell in July 1999 and quickly rose in the ranks of civic and business leadership – in the JAX Chamber, in the Florida Chamber, the Florida Council of 100 and also in the Jacksonville Civic Council of business leaders focused on civic issues.

The Daily Record interviewed Halverson for "First Coast Success," a regular segment on the award-winning 89.9 FM flagship First Coast Connect program, hosted by Melissa Ross.

The interview is scheduled for broadcast this morning and the replay will be at 8 p.m. on the WJCT Arts Channel or online at www.wjctondemand.org.

These are excerpts from the full transcript.

The Jacksonville Civic Council replaced the former Jacksonville Non-Group. Explain what the council does and its role in civic business. For example, the Civic Council, especially chairman Peter Rummell, played a major role in the election last year of Mayor Alvin Brown, the first Democratic mayor in a generation.

It's an interesting process in its creation. It grew out of the former Non-Group. There was a sense of many of us that to collect business leaders together, and then not do anything, was a waste of a resource and sort of a dereliction of a responsibility. So we decided to be different and formed the Civic Council. The idea was to be a forum of strategic thinkers that would try to think deeply about the problems in the community, and offer solutions, and that's what we do.

What are some of those issues, and what are the solutions you've offered?
There's certainly no lack of issues. We've proposed a plan that would revitalize Downtown, require some investment, and that's controversial. Another topic we've been spending time on is pension reform, and the solutions are too complicated for a short interview, but trying to build a blueprinted road map for how to fairly balance the City's long-term obligations with its long-term resources.

Other issues will include work on race relations. That's been studied in a lot of different contexts, but this takes a business-centered approach, and whatever else the mayor and others ask us to get involved in, and are important, and difficult, and where business people have a competent point of view.

How do you measure the success of the issues you tackle?
That's a real good question and it's a hard one to answer because when you take on tough issues, success in terms of solutions is rarely immediately apparent. Sometimes they take years to develop. So I don't know that I have a good answer to that.

My measure of success is whether we change the conversation and cause people to think about issues differently. They might take years to develop, and they probably almost certainly will.

But if we can change the conversation and help it be fact-driven, and based on sound thinking, I think we've done something worthwhile.

What's the status of the development proposals that the Downtown task force of the Civic Council has proposed?
The Civic Council is just a group of people with ideas. It's for consideration by the City Council and the mayor, and it's just in that process right now. It's being shaped. I think it formed some of the mayor's ideas about the JEDC (Jacksonville Economic Development Commission) and government structure, and I hope that it will continue to be part of the conversation as the mayor and City Council continue to grapple with the important issue of how to revitalize the center of our city.

How closely does the council work with the mayor's office?
Pretty closely in a few different contexts. Our president and chief executive officer, Don Shea, was essentially on loan to the mayor's office, as were other executives, so he spent a lot of time on economic development. Several of us offer our time freely when the mayor asks. I've been struck by how open he is to listening to people from all different walks of life. He calls with some frequency on a number of people and I think our individual members are generous with their time and ideas.

Are there any issues that you see that are imminent? You talked about pension reform.
It's in conversation. I don't see many issues that are imminent, and I would not want them to be. The civic council decided that we should only really tackle very tough, complicated issues and they're not susceptible to short-term quick fixes. If something happens really quickly, that would be a remarkable coincidence. I expect this to be something that endures over time.

This all speaks to leadership, and I know that you have a lot of influence and a lot of experience in leadership. Would you talk about the importance of leadership and how it works in solving these problems?
That's a big question. I don't know that I have much influence outside of my own organization, but obviously when you're in a position of leadership in any organization or enterprise, you think about that a lot.

Nothing good happens without leadership. Nothing happens with leadership alone, either, but it's impossible to point to any organization that's successful without competent leadership.

It's very personal. I think a leader of any enterprise needs to first understand why they were called to leadership, and why it's their time. And the answer's different for everybody.

How do people become leaders?

This probably sounds a little flippant. I don't mean it to be, but a certain amount is serendipity. I think people are ambitious and oftentimes seek the goal of becoming the CEO of a business, or president of the United States, but the actual events that take you there are quite dynamic, hard to predict, and impossible to control.

There's a moment in time when you're called and all you can do is prepare yourself to be ready for that. That's what I did. I wanted to be the leader of an organization, and I didn't know if I'd ever have the chance, and all I could really do was be prepared, and assemble skill sets that I thought might be useful and hope an opportunity would arise, and it did.

Tell us about those skill sets. Tell us about your background. What brought you here?
It was sort of a circuitous path. I'm a lawyer by training. I started my career practicing law, but after several years, I moved into business at a large construction firm in the Midwest where I grew up, and I worked there for 15 years and ran a piece of the business at the end of that time.

Along the way I ran into Preston Haskell. Sometimes you meet somebody you have an instant friendship and bond with, and that's what happened with Preston. We met in 1995, and within half an hour it seemed like we'd been friends for life. And five years later, he asked me if I'd join his company to lead it, and it didn't take long for me to say yes.

Tell us about leading the company, especially a company that's a design/build company in this economy.
I've been doing this stuff for 12 years, so we've seen multiple economies. It's a remarkable business structure, this design/build. We basically integrate things that others do separately, and I find a tremendous amount of logic and value in that, and Preston really invented that idea back in 1965 when he formed the business here in Jacksonville. We've been perfecting and applying it ever since.

When the economy is good, it's a really easy business to run; when it's bad, not so much, and that's true for most businesses.

The hardest thing I've done is to guide the business through this last recession, because it's the process of shrinking a business, and there is simply no joy in shrinking any enterprise, because (of the) consequences for people. People lose their jobs, and many did. You simply can't take any joy in that process.

But we got through it in good order, and maintained the center of the company, and maintained the value going through, and that's the most important thing in any enterprise, and we're growing now, growing rapidly, and are optimistic about the future.

Do you have any advice for small business owners who might be facing the same sort of decisions in their companies? How do you contract the business or adjust the business when it will affect other people?
There isn't any easy way to do that, but as you might imagine, I spent a lot of time with many small businesses in this recession that were facing just that, but with fewer resources.

My first piece was always the same — confront reality. There's a great tendency to sort of wish things weren't the way they were, and you can talk yourself into waiting, and that's a mistake.

As soon as you understand directionally what's happening, you have to move with speed, determination and compassion, because it involves people, but the great mistake is to wait too long.

You have to act on your instincts when you see what's happening, and those that act quickly tend to survive, and those that don't, tend not to.

The recession was officially declared over in the middle of 2009. Is the recession over?
I don't think so, actually. Technically it is, in economic terms, but in human terms, it really isn't. People still suffer from many of the same things.

When you have nearly a million unemployed people in Florida, it's difficult to say the recession is over. It certainly isn't over for them.

When you have personal incomes that have not grown for a number of years, the recession's not over for them, either. When people are underwater on their mortgages, the recession's not over for them.

So I don't talk in those terms or think in those terms, because I think there's a lag between the technical correction of a recession and the impact on people's lives, and I think we have another year or so of difficult times ahead, certainly through 2012, before the economy is really recovering in a way that will be felt by regular people.

Any advice for business owners on what to do for that time period?
The same advice that got them this far is to persevere. A lot of times successful people in businesses are simply working a little bit harder at it, and sticking with it a little bit longer.

Conservative financial management — we retired debt at Haskell during the recession period. People said, well, you shouldn't be spending your money that way, and we thought it was the right thing to do.

I think a strong balance sheet is an ally — preserve cash, be careful about debt, but most of all, keep your people happy.

What can be overlooked is the emotional wear-and-tear on your employees. They may have a job, but it's hard, it's uncertain, and there's a fearfulness, and you need to be cognizant of that and take steps to show that you understand, you care, and you're taking it on as a team.

What are those steps?
Sometimes they're so small as to be almost trivial, little things. For me it's talking to people, and talking openly and candidly.

People understand when things are difficult. They get anxious when leadership doesn't talk in a forthright way about it, and describe in very plain language what's happening and why, what you're doing and why, and there's a tendency among some to say, 'Well, I'll keep that bad news to myself and we'll just kind of act,' and that's the wrong thing to do. You need to communicate with people.

And other times, just simple things. I know that in the worst of it, we did things like put popcorn machines in the building. We had chair-massage set up in the office. You could take time to rub your shoulders and to feel better for a minute. Sort of silly things, but the message wasn't.

The message was, 'we care, and we understand that these are tough times, and take care of yourself.' People seem to react well to that.

Where do you see Jacksonville in 10 years?
I'd only been here once before in my life before I came to move here, and I was overwhelmingly struck with it as a place of opportunity, where its best days were ahead and not behind, and that's not true of a lot of cities.

I was also struck by the sort of sense of inferiority that a lot of longtime natives had, and I didn't understand why. I still feel that way.

I think it's a city of extraordinary promise and opportunity. It has great natural resources, a wonderful physical environment, a wonderful climate, a significantly improving education system, and when I say improving, there's energy behind the improvement, so the results aren't apparent yet.

But there's a tremendous coalition in the Florida community that cares about education. I think we will persevere and have a great educational system, which is fundamental.

It's a business-friendly environment, a place where we can create jobs quickly, easily and largely with a strong sort of community, and there's reasons for optimism.

I think Jacksonville will be unrecognizably better within 10 to 15 years from now. I think there are a lot of reasons for that.

Do you have any other words of wisdom or advice?
I don't know that I have any words of wisdom or advice ever, except one, it's always the same.

I've always thought that the world was divided into two sorts of people.

There are really smart people who'll talk to you about how bad things are, and will paint a picture with great supporting facts that say, yeah, everything's gone to pot, and they sound good, really convincing.

There's another group of people that quietly get up every morning, get dressed, and go out in the world convinced that the day will be better than yesterday. And they've got a role to play in that.

As I've gotten older, I've learned to associate with that second group of people. Anything that's ever happened has happened because of them and not the first group.

I'm reinforced every day by the power of attitude over intellect, and the power of positive thinking, and people that just want to make a difference.

Stay with them, and you'll be happier and you'll be more productive.

kmathis@baileypub.com

356-2466

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