Recap: CEO Connect with Fred Lay

Fred Lay is 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., 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.”

Bridgette Bello, chief executive officer and publisher of Tampa Bay Business and Wealth, interviewed Lay in front of an audience at Thousand & One, in Tampa. This transcript has been edited for length and brevity. 

Fred, can you talk about your experience being Mr. April? 

As many of you know, I’m a pretty private person. I don’t have any social media. And even some of the stuff that I said in the article, my kids told me, “I didn’t know that about you dad,” which was pretty interesting. And I was very reluctant to do the article, at first, because I’m such a private person and I was rigid. When we left our first meeting, Bridgette said, “I don’t want to just write an article about you, your business and your life. I want to write an article that’s going to motivate and inspire people.” And that’s the piece that really stuck with me.

Probably one of the most satisfying things, since the story came out, is I had a lady who reached out in an email and said, “I’m 45 years old. I was adopted when I was five years old and I’ve never told that to anybody. I was always embarrassed about it, but now I’m telling everybody.” So it did exactly what you said that you wanted to accomplish. That was very satisfying for me. 

You touched a lot of lives by telling your story and I think that’s amazing. So this is a room full of CEOs and business owners and they’re very black and white, cut-and-dry kind of people. They like to hear the nuts and bolts. So tell us, step-by-step, how you actually built an $80 million business so that we can all do the same. 

I built it by having people around smarter than me. Surround yourself with good people. I think that’s the key to anything. And that’s certainly what I’ve done. I don’t have a college education but I’ve surrounded people around me who do have college educations and who are smarter than me. And that’s the piece that I think has created success. My goal, to begin with, was to build a culture. Build the people and let the people build the business. 

Everything you touch seems to turn to gold. And the first time we asked you about your failures, you were like, I don’t fail, I’m Fred, but I don’t believe you, being an entrepreneur myself. I certainly have had my share of failures. And so I want you to dig really deep and tell us about a time that something you touched didn’t turn to gold and what happened after that.

I think, in my business, the failures that come from being a contractor is that if we don’t get a project, I look at that as a failure. We’ve failed. We failed on some level. Either we didn’t have the right price, we didn’t have the right personalities or we didn’t have the right resume. So, as I look at those failures, I’ve always stopped to think, what can we learn from this? What can we take away from this that’s going to help us in the future? 

What is it about your culture, at CSI, that’s so special?

I think I look at it a few different ways. First, I want to give people the opportunity because if you get the opportunity, people who are really going to excel in this world will excel. You just need to give them the room to do that. I’m not a micromanager, never have been, never will be. I expect a lot from people, but in turn you get a lot from the right people. And if the right people are there, they’re going to excel, which raises us all up. I think that’s probably been the biggest key. I want to set them up for success, and whatever they need, [if] they need the education, they need the computer, whatever they need, I want to make sure that they have it. And I know I said before, in the article, is that we send all our project managers, I send them to school to get their GC license where they could be my direct competitor, but I do have a philosophy to train them so they can be your competitor.

At that point, they’re not going to leave. They’re going to stay because they have that loyalty to you. And I think that’s been a huge piece of the success. I think the other piece is that all the troops eat first. When we went through Covid, and our business just kind of dropped off, I sat with everybody on April 15 and I said, “Look, I don’t know what’s going to happen. None of us know what’s going to happen but I can promise you one thing, everyone will get a check until December 31 of this year. When you do that, you’re showing the support and you’re showing how much that team means to you. 

There’s a turn right now that’s taking place where parents of college-age kids are facing different decisions than we have been facing for the last several years. I mean, when I was growing up, it was like, ‘you are going to college.’ What would you tell the parents in the room of college-aged kids right now, who may or may not be interested in going to college?

I would say college isn’t everything. I’m a product of a trade school and I had a different path in life. I think, in today’s world, there are so many kids who are going to college, getting degrees for jobs that really aren’t out there or a degree [that] doesn’t mean what it should. If you’re going to be a doctor or a lawyer, then that’s fine, you need to go. 

But my suggestion to anybody is to take that business degree, get that business degree, learn business, because that’s the fundamental part of any company. But I think there are a lot of people out there who aren’t going to college, just like me, whether they don’t have the grades, whether they don’t have the means to go to college. And I think you can substitute all that with hard work and determination. 

I did an interview and the person brought this resume in with their college degree. I turned around and dropped it in the trash can. I said, “Well, tell me about you. I don’t care about what’s on that paper. I don’t care about that degree. I really care about you. ♦

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