Julius Davis built his business on vision and sacrifice

Julius Davis is a fourth-generation Tampa native. He grew up in Jackson Heights, went to Chamberlain High School, the University of South Florida … and has worked on some of the most iconic Tampa landmarks, to date.

Ulele, Sparkman Wharf, projects at Tampa International Airport, projects that Tampanians drive by every day.

His engineering firm, VoltAir, started with him and a partner in pajamas and now has three offices in Florida, two in Texas, one in Tennessee and one in Atlanta. VoltAir revenue topped the $17 million mark in 2021.

Now, Davis is preparing for the next step in the building blocks and possibly taking a step back.

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At an early age, Davis was good at math and drawing.

An East Tampa native, his mother still lives there.

He’s the youngest of three. He has two sisters and jokes about being the “accident child,” as he’s 10 and 14 years younger than his older siblings.

His parents divorced when he was 5 or 6 years old. His mother was a supervisor in the Hillsborough County Juvenile Delinquent system and his father ran his own masonry business.

“I’ll never forget when my parents were going through a divorce. I didn’t know, at the time, but I noticed my dad was taking his clothes out of the house,” Davis recalls. “I was sitting at the table and I was asking, ‘Where’s Dad going?’ And that was a really tough experience that I went through, even at the age of 6. The fact that I’m 53 now, and I still remember it like it was yesterday really tells me how much that affected me.”

Even though his mom and dad were no longer together, both had an enormous impact on Davis’ life and choices.

“Whenever I had holidays, or vacation days, instead of me having all day to just twiddle my thumbs, and possibly get in trouble, I would have to go to work out in the hot sun, with my dad, as a laborer. I think masonry is the hardest labor job ever, in my opinion,” Davis says.

Davis graduated from Chamberlain High School in Tampa, and was accepted into Florida State University. He was all set to attend in the fall, after high school graduation, when the University of South Florida offered him a financial support package his family could not refuse.

“There was no conversation after that,” Davis says with a laugh.

He started at USF in the summer, to get acclimated to college life. When the fall semester kicked off, Davis says he started to have a little too much fun.

“In the summer, there’s nothing really going on. But when the fall semester arrives, you have all the sorority and fraternity parties and several other distractions. “I’m not embarrassed to say that,” Davis says. “I quickly got my act together the next semester, but I fully enjoyed that first fall semester.”

He graduated from USF in 1993 and took his first job, in Tallahassee, at a large engineering firm where he worked for eight years. It was there he met his wife, and they had their first child together.

Wanting to be closer to family, the Davises relocated back to Tampa.

It wasn’t long before Davis began itching to start his own company. He had seen it at an early age. Both his parents were entrepreneurial in their own right.

“To watch them work hard, and put a lot of dedication into that work, was inspiring to me,” he says. “It’s an American dream. I always had in the back of my mind to start my own business.”

Davis and his partner began the business by taking small jobs on the side, avoiding any conflict of interest with their respective employers. Meanwhile, Davis attended several small business development courses offered through Florida Small Business Development Center at USF.

“I read books, like [those by] Ted Turner and Steve Jobs, and Black Enterprise magazine, to understand how entrepreneurs think. To train my mind to think like an entrepreneur and know what to expect,” he says.

Eventually, it was time to name the fledgling company and he didn’t want to use his name like so many others in the industry do. He wanted something meaningful that would communicate exactly what the company was about.

VoltAir was created to be reflective of what it does, electrical (Volt) and HVAC (Air) systems engineering, but also to be inclusive to future employees.

“It helps to recruit great talent. If your name is on the door and somebody has great talent that can be an asset to your organization, you bring them on board knowing the potential of them being able to get to a point where they can be the president or CEO. If that happens, they don’t have the question, ‘Well, who is Davis?’ ” he says.

Davis and his partner officially established VoltAir in 2006. Day one, they worked in pajamas Davis says and laughs as he recalls the memory.

“I will say the first couple of months were a little challenging getting new clients because when we would go knock on doors, they would ask us where our offices were, which was reasonable. We would say a living room and typically get doors slammed in our faces,” Davis says.

They needed to find office space to legitimize their company.

“It was a wooden shotgun house, maybe three bedrooms, one bath and a small kitchen,” Davis says. “My first piece of furniture was a metal card table and a metal folding chair, a laptop and a flip phone.”

They worked a lot those first few years in the office. Sleeping on the floor, living on McDonald’s, and showering at the gym. It was easier than driving back and forth from home to the office.

It was just the two of them for about six months, then they hired an office administrator and their first engineer about a month later. When they grew to about eight people, it was time to find a larger office.

The Beck Group hired VoltAir and, not long after, Richard Gonzmart hired them for Ulele and the city of Tampa hired VoltAir and its design-build team for the adjacent Waterworks Park. The rest, as they say, is history. Now with projects at Tampa International Airport, Sparkman Wharf and properties along Tampa’s Riverwalk, VoltAir has had a hand in some of Tampa’s most iconic properties.

VoltAir has three offices in Florida—Tampa, Orlando and Fort Lauderdale—and offices in Dallas, Houston, Atlanta and Nashville. This is due to the demand for their presence in those markets. They have clients there.

“We work on a project, let’s say here in Tampa, and it goes extremely well. Architects pursue another project in a different city, similar scope. And they ask us to be on their team for that. Then we end up winning the project. And then it’s sort of like a domino effect,” Davis says.

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Davis admits the rise of the business had its effect on his personal life. He’s been through two “divorces” since the start of VoltAir, one at home and one at the office.

Davis and his wife finalized their divorce, in early 2020.

“The separation from my wife was something that I didn’t plan and didn’t want, obviously,” Davis says. “In my opinion, it was distractions. When you start a business there’s a lot of effort, a lot of time and a lot of commitment. You don’t have the same time you once did. You’re not as available as you were when you got married, in the first few years. Suddenly, there’s change.”

Entrepreneurs everywhere can attest to that. Long days, sleepless nights and feeling as if you’re stretched too thin.

“Things start off small, but everything else builds on top of it as time goes on. And what happens is you get to a point where it’s not fixable,” he says.

His divorce with his business partner is a similar story. Like any failed relationship, sometimes things just don’t work out and can’t be fixed.

“I truly believe when you go into business with a partner it’s like a marriage. There must be an understanding, you must communicate and you must really want to work things out,” Davis says. “The difficult part about that is that we were friends, as well as business partners. My family and his family were very close.”

Davis is now the sole owner, in addition to CEO, of VoltAir and, with seven offices, he feels that is just enough, for now.

“I’m sort of preparing to transition, to talk about shareholders and create a board of directors, so that I can start to back away from the position I’m in,” Davis says.

He says his preference is to operate as chairman of the board, moving forward.

“My daughter is majoring in engineering. I think she wants to have the option of taking over. If she wants, I think it’d be a great idea,” Davis says.

He adds that his youngest son, while currently studying performing arts at Blake High School, is also interested in studying engineering in college.

“The company is, in my opinion, in a position where it can be run by two people,” Davis adds.

Davis also has an older son that he fathered while in college. While estranged for most of his life, Davis says he is incredibly grateful to have, since, reunited and formed a relationship.

“That was a big change in my life,” Davis says fondly. “Now he and my two other kids, you would think they had known each other their whole lives, they are extremely close. The younger kids were excited to find out that they were going to have a big brother.”

Davis passes on lessons learned, now, down to three young people who are his children. But one word of advice he feels strongly about. Engineering, Davis says, is a solid option for any young person.

“I encourage all students to receive their first college degree in engineering or science. I don’t care what you want to be in life. I don’t care if you want to be an actor, a doctor or a lawyer. Your first degree needs to be in engineering,” Davis says. “If you want to go to medical school, go to medical school, you can become a biomedical engineer. If you want to go into law, you can become a patent attorney.”

As far as transferable skills go, he says you’d be hard-pressed to find a core subject that has more than engineering.

“Engineering teaches you to think logically and to become solution-oriented. So, whether you start your own company, or not, whatever company you work for, you have the advantage, when there are issues or problems that need to be solved,” he says. “You’ve been trained to think of how to come up with ideas to solve them. And that will separate you from anybody else.”

GIVING BACK

The team at VoltAir makes giving back a personal endeavor. Individually, they get involved with organizations that hold a special interest for each person.

As a team, they’ve done walks for sickle cell anemia.

The company participated with Habitat for Humanity of Hillsborough County and has worked with Metropolitan Ministries designing and expanding their facilities but also community service projects with the organization.

Personally, Davis has been involved with YMCA Central and Hillsborough Community College Foundation Board. He’s also a member of the USF Foundation Board, USF College of Engineering advisory board, Tampa/Hillsborough EDC and Tampa Preparatory School board of trustees.

Davis was also appointed to Enterprise Florida, Space Florida and Florida Transportation Commissions by then-governor Rick Scott and, later, reappointed to FTC by current governor Ron DeSantis.

Photos by Michael McCoy, MP Studios

1 Comment
  • John Waterman
    Posted at 01:31h, 21 April Reply

    Perspiration and Inspiration. A true American success story. Pretty sure there’s more chapters to be written….congrats on the ones already penned.

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