Julius Davis is a fourth-generation Tampa native. He grew up in Jackson Heights, went to Chamberlain High School and the University of South Florida … and has worked on some of the most iconic Tampa landmarks to date. Ulele, Sparkman Wharf and projects at Tampa International Airport, projects.
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 $17 million in 2021.
Bridgette Bello, chief executive officer and publisher of TBBW, interviewed Davis in front of a live audience at The Exchange Hotel, in St. Petersburg.
This transcript has been edited for length and brevity.
Has anything remarkable happened since being on the cover of TBBW?
I’ve gained a lot of friends. LinkedIn has been blowing up. I did have some potential clients that are interested in doing some work with VoltAir and wanted to know about more about me. So that part alone was significant.
The one thing that I thought was more heart touching was my kids were proud. They were like, “Dad, you’re on the front cover [of the] magazine?” My daughter started her first year of college at Clark Atlanta University. My youngest son is at Blake [High School], he’s in the performing arts. A singer and actor. And then my oldest son lives in Austin [, Texas]. But he’s traveling the world right now. Having them be happy about their dad is a great thing. We all want our kids to be proud of us.
About those first few years of the business, looking back, what would you do differently if you had the chance?
We started in 2008, which was bad timing. When we started, the recession hit. Texas was doing well, so that’s why we had our first satellite office in Houston. I had a good friend of mine, a fraternity brother, that lived over there. He worked at [the] airport. And he was looking to give me opportunities there. I had every intention of moving to Texas because I didn’t know what was going on. But in hindsight, that was the best time to start a business because I didn’t have the overhead and the fees are low and you can get most of the projects.
What would I do differently? I’m not sure if there’s anything I would do differently. I would say if I could go back, I would actually slow down. We grew way too fast, not in the right way. If we were to take our time and just kind of slow down and really get the infrastructure in place, things like that, I think we would have been better off where we are now.
The thing about growing, and expanding, fast is that your cash flow must keep up with your growth. There were a few challenges in that. After 12 years in business, I started making acquisitions. Then the pandemic happened. That was just bad timing. Acquisitions before the pandemic was bad timing again but it’s a learning experience.
Getting through it is the key. And I’m proud to say now that we pretty much made it to other side. To speak about the culture at VoltAir, everybody’s like family. They struggle like me, right? They make sacrifices. They’re workaholics and get the job done.
One of the most emotional parts of your story had to do with your oldest son. I think what was really cool, when you were sharing your story with us, is that somehow, in your core, you knew he was out there. You were told the baby wasn’t yours but eventually you found him. We were careful not to elaborate too much because it’s a touchy subject, but I would love if you would spend a few minutes talking about that.
I got accepted at Florida State [University] and I [was offered] a partial track scholarship. USF came back with a full ride. So my mom was like, that’s where you’re going. I wasn’t happy about that. That was 1987 and USF was not like it is today. No football team. I started in the summer, so it was even worse. I made good grades because there was nothing else to do in the summer at USF. But when the fall came around and all of the sorority and fraternity parties started. I took advantage of that, a lot. So, hence, my son was conceived during that time.
I was 19, his mother was 18. There is nothing worse for a parent to hear [when you’re at that age], is for you to come home and say, “Mom, I think I may have gotten someone pregnant.” To watch her disappointment was the worst. She was a single, African American mom. I have two older sisters, but she had one son.
So, I disappointed her. It was an emotional time. The mom’s parents were in denial of me being the father. It sounds cruel but at the time, they had their reasons.
I was told that a test was taken, and it wasn’t my baby. My mom says, “Look, you did everything you can.” I drove down to Miami when he was born, because I had a gut feeling that he was my son. When I came back, they said it wasn’t and to leave it alone.
But for 18 years, every year, every month of the year, I was waiting for that knock on the door or the phone call. Never got it. After about 19 or 20 years, I said, “Well, maybe they’re right” and I just moved on.
Then, about seven years ago, I was sitting in my office, it was a Friday afternoon, and I got a call on my cell. It was a 305 area code and I didn’t know the number, so I just ignored it. But it was followed with a text that said, this is Chris, give me a call. I didn’t know who it was, so I ignored it.
That Saturday, my youngest son was playing baseball and I’m catching up on emails on my phone, and I read one with the subject line that says, “This is Chris, please read.” I read the first two sentences and I knew exactly who he was. I told him I would call him later that afternoon. We talked for two hours.
I drove up to Tallahassee [to meet him]. Have you ever seen the movie Meet Joe Black? The first time they meet each other they just stare for like 10 minutes. It was like I was looking in the mirror. We went to go have lunch and we talked for so long, we could have had dinner at that same place. We were able to finish each other’s sentences.
You talked about how valuable you feel an engineering degree is. Why do you believe that?
I speak to high school students and entry level college students and I really encourage them to get an engineering or science degree. I don’t care what you want to be. You can be a lawyer or a doctor or a publisher, whatever it is, just get that [engineering degree]. Because everything is going towards technology. Whatever field you’re in, there’s some sort of tech software involved. So to understand how that works is to your benefit. ♦
Read Julius Davis’ cover story here
See more photos from this CEO Connect here
Watch the recap video from this CEO Connect here