Built to Build Better: Leadership Lessons from Building WDS Construction
By Ben Westra
Construction has always been part of our family for as long as I can remember. My father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were all builders. My great-grandfather and grandfather were masons in the 1940s which led to them starting their own construction company – Westra Construction. My father took over Westra Construction from his father in the 1980s. As a result, I was surrounded by construction and I always enjoyed the construction process. So, how could I not go into the family business – It’s in my blood!
Some of my earliest memories were riding in the back of my dad’s car while my father and grandfather rode around to check on job sites on a Saturday. Just listening to them talk about the people, the projects, the problems, and the clients was so enjoyable. I soaked it up!
Summers in high school and college were spent as a laborer in the company’s equipment and material yard and eventually on job sites. I learned how to pour concrete, set steel, operate machinery, etc.- whatever they needed me to do. My father, Steve Westra, told me that to be an effective leader, I had to experience every role within a construction firm. And I loved being out in the field learning the trades!
I attended a small college in Chicago, where I earned a business management degree. Yet, I felt like I wasn’t fully prepared to run a construction company, so I took additional classes at Clemson University as well as at Penn State.
Of course, I still knew very little about running a construction business. But hey, I was going to be under the tutelage of my father and grandfather, right?
When I was getting ready to graduate and looking to return to Wisconsin, ready to plant roots, my dad informed me that if I wanted to work at his firm I could not start at the Westra headquarters in Waupun, WI. “I don’t want you here,” he told me, “at least not yet.” He believed I would not be able to learn, grow, and thrive in an environment so close to him. Therefore, he “shipped” me off to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where Westra Construction maintained a satellite office. I had full trust in my Dad, and he was 100% correct in sending me to a satellite office to learn – and make mistakes – by myself, in order to become a better builder. And, as it happened, a better business builder.
It was in PA that I really cut my teeth as an estimator, project manager, and eventually Chief Estimator for the PA Office. And it was also here that I met Denita Schreier, who today is the WDS Construction Executive Vice President.
Through this process, I learned a very valuable leadership lesson: trust in family.
I realize that not everyone has the opportunity to work closely with blood family members, but the value and benefit of having a family-like atmosphere and world-class culture was embedded in my mind, and it was something that I set out to create when I eventually launched WDS Construction.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
A New Chapter
In 2005, the Westra Construction story was, unfortunately, coming to a close, and its days were numbered. I was ready for a change. I resigned and sent the obligatory “I’m moving on, nice to work with you” email to clients, subcontractors, designers, and other colleagues that I had met along the way. At the time, I really wasn’t sure what was next for me.
But perhaps you’ve heard that where one door closes, another one opens.
The question of “What’s next?” was immediately answered in response to my departure email. A national client I had been working with reached out and said, “Let us know where you land. We want to bring our work to you.”
To me? Why? Why did they have so much trust in me? Why were they willing to take on the risk of working with a different construction firm just to have Ben Westra involved with their project?
I returned to Wisconsin and spoke with my mentors – my dad and grandfather, Dewey Westra, and suddenly, WDS Construction was born. Not as a response to an in-depth business plan, years of strategizing, or even to fulfill a lifelong dream. WDS Construction was born because a client believed in me. In less than four months after leaving Westra Construction, WDS Construction launched and was on the way to building our first project in Ohio. We were committed to over-delivering and exceeding, not just the expectations of our client – the one paying the bills – but also those of the end-users and team partners.
It was through this process, this personal transition, that I learned another very valuable leadership lesson: focus your passion on your client.
I’m pretty sure that the first WDS client didn’t follow me because of my charming personality! No, they followed me because I sweated the small stuff. About them. About their company. About their projects. And I did so with passion and enthusiasm as if I were on their team. Well, that one door that opened led to a second door opening, and soon we were building in Illinois. And then a developer introduced us to a second national client – who continues to be one of our largest clients today.
Fast-forward more than 15 years later, and honestly that philosophy of being customer-centric and over-delivering for the customer is often what motivates me to hire a certain subcontractor or a consultant. Their passion. If I don’t see passion in them, they are not the right partner for WDS.
That’s an interesting thought, isn’t it? This little-contractor-that-could, located in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin – not exactly a hub of global business! – has now worked in 47 states thus far, and continues to work nationally. What gives?
I grew up in southcentral Wisconsin. My family’s business was located here. I may have lived elsewhere, but my roots were always here, and that is why I wanted to build my business here. I wanted to make a difference – not just to the region where I spent my formative years, but also to the people who so greatly influenced my life and the person I became.
And thus, I learned another valuable leadership lesson: servant leaders drive community success.
When you care about where you live – whether your town has a population of 1500, 15,000, or 15 million, you can make a difference in the lives of those around you. I continually strive to be a servant leader and to build a better community.
Putting it Together: The WDS Story
At the end of the day, my leadership philosophy is pretty simple, driven by just three things:
The core purpose we have identified for WDS Construction is to provide for WDS Families and build Communities through our Passion for construction.
Pretty simple, right? And yet it impacts everything we do.
Even the chosen name of our company has foundations in family:
W is for William, my great-grandfather
D is for Dewey, my grandfather
S is for Steve, my father
Family is literally embedded in our company name, and when you walk the halls of our corporate headquarters, you’ll see photos of these amazing men and mentors in my life.
But WDS is not just about the Westra family. It is about the families of every single WDS employee, whether they work from the corporate headquarters or in any office or job site coast-to-coast. They are family, and we care greatly about their families. That’s who we are. In fact, if you know WDS Construction, you probably know that a lot of our employees once worked for Westra Construction. They were family to my family, and they are still family to me now.
As for passion, have you ever had a chance to talk to a WDS employee? We absolutely love what we do. It’s infectious here. We strive to deliver passion and enthusiasm on every project by becoming an extension of our clients, being customer-centric in our thinking and actions, and delivering high levels of quality no matter the size of a project. We strive to demonstrate passion by being a destination for talent – innovative thinkers of all ages and experience levels. People every bit as passionate about construction and their work as I am!
WDS Works for the Greater Good
At WDS and JCW Development, our affiliate company, we know we have been blessed. Being a part of a community that we want to see thrive also means that we need to share those blessings. And we are called in Luke 12:48 to do so: “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required.” Based on this instruction, we created WDS Works LLC, which was formed to have a direct impact on the nonprofit community. We launched WDS Works in 2018 as a benevolent arm of WDS to support nonprofit organizations in the community, supplying construction talent and resources to those charitable organizations who may otherwise not be able to afford the improvements they so desperately need. If you want to see grown men with tears streaming down their faces, come to a WDS Works ribbon cutting. I am so proud of the work of our team is doing to help improve the lives of others.
So, what is leadership to me? Family. Passion. Community.
If you have those things, everything else falls into place. That’s why we’re Built to Build Better. Better projects. Better employees. Better families. Better communities.
When we decided to launch a WDS blog, I thought it was important to tell the WDS story – which is not just the Ben Westra story, but the story of my mentors and the story of our staff. A lot of firms offer construction services. A lot of firms say they are family-oriented and they love their communities. At WDS Construction it is our very existence – our core purpose.
Questions about WDS Construction or our affiliate companies JCW Development and WDS Works? Reach out to me. I’d love to continue the conversation!