Fred Lay built a full life from scratch, which has come full circle

There’s a unique quality to the story of Fred Lay. Often, the building blocks lead back to the beginning of his life. 

His outlook, his grit, his giving heart, the way he behaves as a father…nearly every step he takes, on any given day, is paved by a slab that was poured for him before he could even walk. 

Born in Tampa, to a 17-year-old, unwed Hispanic woman, then adopted by a 50-year-old, unmarried cigar roller. His birth mom was impregnated by a 35-year-old businessman who was married to someone else. 

He’s incredibly open and honest about his early experiences. He admits to his mischievous nature. He’s actually just a pretty transparent guy, in general. 

He runs his business, Construction Services Inc. (CSI) very much the same way. CSI is a Class A general contractor, based in Tampa. In Lay’s career, he has worked on over a billion dollars of commercial construction throughout Florida, including Tampa’s Federal Bureau of Investigation building and The Motor Enclave. CSI currently generates $80 million in revenue with 18 full-time employees. 

Meanwhile, his personal tenets include doing business the “right way” and always giving back. 

He references this motivation several times when he tells his story, “Someone gave me a chance for a better life, so I feel I should do the same.” 

FOR MOM

Lay grew up in a home of 600 square feet, in North Tampa. His adoptive mother, who he always refers to as “Mom,” was a cigar roller making the current equivalent of about $9 an hour. 

“We ate a lot of beans and rice, but we never went hungry and always had a bed to sleep in and certainly, always, had love and support in the family  – that was the big part,” says Lay. 

It comes up later in his story, but Lay is keenly aware of the alternative life he could have ended up living, if not for his mom, Daisy. 

“She saved me from an orphanage,” Lay says, adding that his birth mother was going to give him up. “That was probably the point [when my mom] decided, well, I’m not going to let the child go to an orphanage. I’ll take him. And she took on that responsibility, at 50 years old.” 

With his mother working in a cigar factory, which runs 24 hours a day, Lay would get a call from her to wake him for school each morning. 

“I’d get myself up, get dressed, brush my teeth, grab a snack and ride my bike three or four miles to school,” he says. “You’d never let your first grader do that today…but she didn’t really have a choice.” 

In retrospect, it’s what helped him grow up so quickly, he says. “I had to do a lot of things myself.” 

With very humble beginnings, he shares a touching story about saving up enough money, from mowing lawns and piecing together thrown away bikes, to be able to take his mother to a restaurant. The first time he ever went to one, he was 11 years old. He treated mom to a Cuban sandwich and all she could do was complain about the money he spent in a restaurant and what they could have done with that money instead. 

“She goes, you just paid 59 cents for that. And we could have had how many meals instead?” he says with a laugh. “It was just one of those things.” 

Lay admits the world of education eluded him. He had a mischievous streak and conformity did absolutely nothing for him. He actively rebelled against it. Honestly, to a degree, he still does. 

“I was a terrible student. I hated school,” Lay says.

He was suspended in the third grade thanks to a poem he wrote. It’s not appropriate for print publication here (or anywhere, actually), but let’s just say it was truly colorful and well-written. He can still recite it from memory, today. So can his wife. 

Lay eventually ended up at Tampa Bay Technical High School where, after some push and pull, dropping out and negotiating re-enrollment, he graduated with his fists clenched and the hardest of eye rolls.

“I knew exactly how many days I could miss. I knew that I could go in and show up to a class and then leave and get credit for it. I knew all the tricks, I was focused on the dollar and how could I earn that dollar, and it wasn’t while sitting in a classroom,” Lay says. 

All told, he attended high school for one year and nine weeks and walked out with his diploma and a 2.3 GPA. This GPA wasn’t an important number to him – it was simply a means to an end. No fanfare, nothing fancy and certainly not something he was proud of – back then. 

“Honestly, I was ashamed of my GPA for a long, long time. And then, I don’t know, probably 15 years ago, or something like that, I just said, [expletive] it, I’m going to embrace it and put a license plate on the Ferrari touting it,” Lay says, as he pulls out his phone to show the image. 

“Graduating from high school was anti-climactic for me, but it was important for my mom,” Lay says. “I can remember walking across the stage, shaking the principal’s hand, grabbing the diploma, walking down and handing it to my mom. She goes, ‘Aren’t you proud of yourself?’ I go, ‘This is for you. It is not for me. This is for you.’” 

BUILDING STUFF

At Tampa Bay Tech, Lay wanted to study auto mechanics, having developed a love of cars at an early age. But the class was full, so he ended up in sheet metal class. 

“I was good at welding, and I was good at building stuff,” Lay says. “I wanted experience in the construction industry so I could one day have my own company. I knew, at an early age, that I wanted to control my destiny – in my head, that was the way to do it.” 

He stayed in the sheet metal industry, which led him down the road to construction. 

Before CSI, he had another construction business but walked away from it. When he did, he had clients reaching out asking, “Where did you go?” 

“I felt guilty about it. I thought I was letting them down. So, in 2008, I went and grabbed one guy and then grabbed another guy and then, 15 years later, we’re doing $80 million worth of construction,” Lay says with a little shrug. Who needs a GPA anyway? 

When asked about the interesting timing of establishing a construction business with the real estate bubble bursting and a financial collapse unlike anything since the Great Depression, Lay shrugs again. 

“I mean, you had no place to go but up. I can remember being interviewed for a construction magazine and they said, ‘2008, it’s a crash. You’re just starting a business. How do you sleep at night?’ And I said, like a baby, I get up every two hours and cry,” Lay says with a laugh. 

In his early 20s, he carried a piece of paper on which he would write notes to himself. At the top it was labeled “Things to Remember When I’m Signing the Front of the Check, Instead of the Back.” These were the things he didn’t want to forget when he was the boss: the things he’d experienced as an employee that he didn’t want his team to experience while working for him. 

“Over the years, when I felt like I made big decisions within the company, I’d open that piece of paper up and look at it and say, okay…it was like a self-check along the way,” Lay says. “I’d check, am I still on target here? I don’t want to forget how I felt when I signed the back of the checks instead of the front of the checks. And that’s kind of guided me along the way. And I think it’s what built the culture of the company to what it is today.” 

Lay says there wasn’t one major project or “win” that propelled CSI to the success it’s currently enjoying. 

“I think the biggest piece of success has really come from the culture of the company. I really want to create an environment where people have opportunity and if they have opportunity, then they’re going to add to the bottom line,” Lay says. “That’s been the biggest part of the success of the company.” 

Lays puts all his project managers through school to earn their general contracting licenses and allows them the time and the money to do so. “If they leave tomorrow, they could be a direct competitor of mine. I have the philosophy that I put people in a position and train them to leave me, so they don’t leave me,” he says. 

Sure, it’s unconventional, but that’s Lay’s way. He’s always been a rebel, with a cause. 

FRED AS THE DAD HE NEVER HAD

Not surprisingly, family life is an important pillar of Lay’s life. He married young, the first time, at 18, and had two wonderful daughters. As often happens, the marriage ended after the children grew older. As he says, married couples sometimes grow together, and sometimes they grow apart. He and his now wife, Laura, had previously met through work and became friends. Both were married to other people at the time, though, and they were not remotely interested in each other. Laura admits she was a little intimidated by him – she refers to him as a hot head, back then, once observing him frustratingly throw a stapler across the room. 

“It was jammed,” he says, smiling nonchalantly. 

Laura and Lay have now been married for 11 years and, in another full circle moment, have an adopted daughter who is 10 years old. He and Laura adopted her as a baby when Lay was 50 years old. She is named after Lay’s mother, Daisy. 

“I had a Daisy Lay who raised me and now I get to raise a Daisy Lay,” he says, tearing up. 

According to Laura, Lay has simmered down his hot-headed ways and settled into a calmer life as husband, dad and grandfather. 

“I remind him now, when I’m a hot head, hey – I’m 15 years younger than you, so you have to give me time to catch up,” she says with a laugh. 

TOPPING OUT 

One thing he’s grateful for is the life he has been able to provide for his children. 

“[My work] gave me the opportunity to travel with my kids,” Lay says. “To come home and have them say, oh my gosh, we got to touch the Berlin Wall…working so hard, and making that money, was justified, in my head, because I could spend quality time with them and give them experiences that they would’ve never had otherwise.” It isn’t the gifts that change people, it’s the memories, and experiences, that stay with us forever. 

Lay’s other passions include cars – he owns 24. He built a custom-car garage to house them, away from his condominium unit on Harbour Island before car condos were a “thing” in Tampa Bay. He even hosted a TBBW CEO Connect there, back in 2021. He built The Motor Enclave and has dabbled in the racing business in the past. 

“I don’t sleep well at night, so I’m up looking at cars online –if I find one I buy it. And then, I decided a year and a half ago that I was going to start thinning the herd. And so, I’d sell two and then I’d buy one,” Lay says with a smirk. 

Generosity is also something he dedicates time, treasure and talent to. He admits to often feeling compelled to support organizations that help children in need. 

He created a program within his company, CSI Cares, that is dedicated to supporting Tampa Bay organizations and provides the opportunity for CSI employees to have paid time off for volunteering. Through their contributions, in the past 15 years, CSI has given $5 million to charity. 

For 10 years, CSI has sponsored Social Services Day for Leadership Tampa Bay. “That day has always been important to me because I got so much out of that day, as a participant, that I want other people to get the same value out of that day that I did,” Lay says. He graduated from the program in 2013. He was not kicking and, or, screaming his way to that diploma. 

A PROUD PATRIOT 

One thing Lay wanted to be sure to talk about, near the end of his interview, was his love and appreciation for the United States of America. 

“When I was 12 years old [my mom] took me to the South Texas border of Mexico, to introduce me to my biological grandparents, my great grandparents and all my cousins. They threw a big party,” he recalls. “The second day I was there, I told my mom I wanted to go home. It wasn’t for me. I saw where I could be. I don’t think I understood it, completely, at the time, but I saw where I would be if she hadn’t adopted me, what my life could be like, and it scared me.” 

Thanks to a woman with a kind heart, Lay doesn’t have to wonder. 

“I’m proud to be an American. This country has provided me with so many opportunities. And, I think, that’s probably something not a lot of people know about me, is how proud I am to be an American and to live here,” he says. 

Lay’s done well for himself, his family and his community. Not bad for a mischievous orphan with a 2.3 GPA. Tampa Bay is lucky to have him. ♦

You May Also Like

Cover Update: Michael Lundy

In October 2019, when Michael Lundy graced the cover of Tampa Bay Business and Wealth, he shared big plans for OLDER LUNDY, including expanding into Pinellas County.  As founder and

Elaine Myrback is living and leading with a zest for life

To underestimate her would be a big mistake. Big, huge, mistake.  Elaine Myrback doesn’t mince words. She’s not interested in following the status quo and she has no time for

How Cliff Scott found a second chance in business and in life

The story starts with a man. He was homeless but not entirely hopeless, not yet, though he tried to be, on more than one occasion. But God had a plan.

Jim Norman’s winding road of success

He could be called a boomerang surgeon.  Physician Jim Norman was a surgeon, quit practicing to pursue the dot-com boom of the 1990s and, later, returned to surgery. One might

Other Posts

Tampa hotel lands on Esquire’s Best New Hotels 2024 list

Esquire has unveiled the Best New Hotels of 2024, the newest destinations across North America, Central America, Mexico and Europe, naming one Tampa hotel on the list, Tampa Edition. “Much

Kahwa Coffee opens container location in St. Petersburg

Kahwa Coffee, a St. Petersburg-based coffee chain, opened its newest location, at 6601 4th St N., St. Petersburg. The new location offers a drive-thru service and a walk-up window. The

TBBW’s Women Who Win award finalists participate in Hammers and Heels Habitat build (PHOTOS)

Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas and West Pasco Counties hosted a volunteer build day, exclusively for the finalists of Tampa Bay Business and Wealth’s 2024 Women Who Win awards. The

Florida Polytechnic University names new president

The Florida Polytechnic University Board of Trustees has selected Dr. G. Devin Stephenson as the next president of the University. Stephenson, who currently serves as president of Northwest Florida State