Lennar's Stuart Miller: ‘Evolve or Die’ as Homes Go High-Tech
Spencer Rascoff is an entrepreneur and company leader who co-founded Zillow, Hotwire and dot.LA, and who served as Zillow's CEO for a decade. He is currently executive chairman of dot.LA and a board member at Zillow and TripAdvisor. In fall 2019, Spencer was a Visiting Executive Professor at Harvard Business School where he co-taught the "Managing Tech Ventures" course. In 2015, Spencer co-wrote and published his first book, the New York Times' Best Seller "Zillow Talk: Rewriting the Rules of Real Estate." Spencer is the host of "Office Hours," a monthly podcast on dot.LA featuring candid conversations between prominent executives on leadership, diversity and inclusion, and startups.
In this episode of Office Hours, Miller discusses how technology will impact homebuilding and design — and how he helped create a culture that embraces innovation at the 60-plus-year-old company.
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Spencer Rascoff: Thanks for the tour we just completed. Stuart just walked me around the building, and we saw the innovation center, we talked about the digital marketing initiatives that you have, the in-house content creation, including video production. And it was really interesting learning how Lennar — which is a, gosh, 60-year-old company now, I think?
Stuart Miller: Sixty-plus.
Rascoff: Sixty-plus. Firstly, for listeners — so, I learned that Lennar is actually a portmanteau, a combination of Leonard Miller — your father — and Arnold Rosen. And Leonard and Arnold became “Lennar." [Laughs]
Miller: That's correct.
Rascoff: You very rarely see 60-year-old family businesses that have become publicly traded, $20 billion market companies. So, why do you think Lennar has been able to not be disrupted over the last 60 years? I mean, that's quite a legacy. What is it about the culture of the company that has allowed it to stay competitive through time?
Miller: Well, we have a really good combination. The foundation that was laid from those early days is a strong foundation of integrity, of value, of excellence, that creates a backbone that has stayed very much central to the way that the company has been built over years. Through its beginning years, the evolution of the company has stayed true to its values, and those core values have held us in good stead. Now, even with that kind of stodgy old background of starting from so many years ago, there's also been a culture — and, you know, maybe that's been my contribution of coming in from the outside, not as a pioneer but instead as a next-generation — we've developed a culture of saying, “We're gonna be on our front foot, we're gonna be evolutionary, we're gonna stay with the times."
We live by a mantra of “evolve or die," and inherent in that mantra is almost an envy for today's innovative platforms, new technology companies that are not saddled with yesterday's past. But a different way to look at that is, we, the dinosaur companies — the companies that come from years and years of evolution — do have the benefit of having these very, very strong root systems. And if we can constantly go back and revisit those root systems, there's a lot of virtue in those root systems — we certainly benefit from it.
Rascoff: I like that, thinking about the company's root systems and how it provides strength. So, let's talk about those chasms that you've had to cross over the last, say, 10 years. You know, one of the things that you just showed me was how the company has really pivoted its marketing strategy away from traditional marketing — by which I think you mean primarily newspaper advertising and maybe direct mail, TV, radio —
Miller: Newspaper, radio, TV, right.
Rascoff: — to digital advertising. And, I guess, describe how that, you know, what was that evolution like? How did you become a company that primarily focuses on digital marketing and not legacy, traditional marketing?
Miller: So, the starting point is, you know, structure of the company is we have a strong corporate office, but our geographic divisions really operate as small independent companies. And as you might imagine, getting 33, right now, small independent divisions — not small; some of them actually quite large — to actually pivot away from their comfort zone and towards something that is new and evolutionary is not something that one snaps their fingers and it just happens. We came up with a concept that we have to become part of this digital age. We created a challenge to our divisions, to think about making that migration. One division actually effectuated the change — migrated from all conventional forms, away from all conventional forms and towards all digital forms of marketing — found that cost went down by about 50 percent, found that traffic went down, but qualified traffic went way up, and this was very interesting.
Rascoff: So, let me understand it. I guess what I'm hearing is, many companies have a challenge of trying to sort of change dogma — and it was accepted dogma, internally, that traditional marketing had always worked for the last 40-odd years, you know, therefore, we should continue. Challenge number one is changing at the corporate office, that mindset, at the executive level, at the board-of-directors level. But then your unique challenge was that you have a pretty decentralized company, where these different divisions control their own marketing budgets. So, you could've just issued a fiat and said, “Hey, local divisional marketers, you will now be digital." Or perhaps you did issue that fiat, and maybe it was ignored. So, I guess, help listeners who run decentralized organizations learn from your experience. How did you pull this off? [Laughter]
Miller: So, your characterization is actually right on: I did issue a fiat, and everybody applauded it and nodded their head yes, and then went about their business and went back to their comfort zone of saying, “Hey, conventional marketing has always worked. That's what we're gonna continue to do. That's how we make our numbers, and we are bottom-line responsible." One division actually took the challenge, and they made the migration. Once we saw what happened with their costs and with their opportunity set, it became an interesting challenge for us to get one division to actually teach another. We could prove a concept, then we could test the concept and educate on the concept, and once we made that leap, we had one division teach another. We had a set of opportunities that we could articulate across the platform. From there, we articulated what we thought the opportunity set was, and we gamified it. We actually got our divisions to compete against each other along KPIs, to compete along the lines of making the migration from conventional towards digital — driving costs down, driving qualified leads up and maintaining growth rate.
Rascoff: Reflecting on it now, does making it through that shift to a digital marketing company — did that represent an existential threat to the company? In other words, let's say you hadn't. Let's say you hadn't woken up that day, seven years ago, whenever it was, and said, “You know what, we're gonna go digital first for marketing." What would the company be like today?
Miller: I think that story is still to be written. I think that we are advantaged for having made the step because where we sit today is — I believe we're in the first inning of understanding digital marketing. All of our marketing across our platform — I would say 95 percent of it — is digitally focused today. We have driven our costs down, across the platform, 50 percent. But the targeting that we are able to do with digital marketing, and the enhancement of that targeting with digital or video kind of content, and delivering to our customer information and inspiration about our product, our company, and an affiliation with us, is just at its very beginning stages. So, I think we'd be way behind our potential — I don't think we would've been disintermediated yet, but I think the potential to be disintermediated is out there for those who don't get on board.
Rascoff: So, one of the ways that you've created a culture of innovation is by changing your office space. In fact, the office that you're in is the office that your father was in when he was CEO.
Miller: That's right.
Rascoff: And yet, just over the last year or so, you've changed the office space quite significantly on some of the floors. Describe why you did that and what impact you think that's having.
Miller: Yeah, so, we actually gutted our third floor (we're a four-floor building). We gutted our third floor, and we redesigned it and created an innovation center. It's an open floor plan; it was really developed under the thought process that innovation is a contact sport. Innovation happens where ideas collide — sometimes purposefully and sometimes by accident. Many of the initiatives that we have on our third floor were taking place in various silos around the company; we've brought them together in one place, where concepts, ideas, programs can collide, people can intersect and interact in ways that were not initially thought of. We didn't go quite the full direction — [crosstalk]
Rascoff: Not full dot-com, but — [Laughs]
Miller: Not full dot-com: We don't have a foosball table and we don't have a Ping-Pong table. But what we do have is an open floor plan with a lot of technology for people to interact with each other and with technologies to evolve our business. And the mantra is to think outside the box and to think together with people who you don't necessarily work with all the time.
Rascoff: In another episode with Mike Corbat, the CEO of Citigroup, he talks a lot about this as well — how he removed offices from their New York headquarters to encourage innovation, get people to literally break down barriers between divisions and the importance of office space to drive innovation.
Miller: Now, we did this right here in the heart of the dinosaur. I mean, this is our corporate office, this is the 60-plus-year company. We can be considered yesterday's company in technology, but we did it right here in the heart of the corporate office so that it activated all of the artery systems through the company.
Rascoff: So, you are making a potentially company-changing transaction. You're currently, I think, the second-largest homebuilder buying the fifth-largest homebuilder. Together, you will be the largest homebuilder in the country — it's an almost, I think, an almost $10 billion acquisition of CalAtlantic. Describe for me what that thought process was like around the acquisition. Firstly, have you done a lot of acquisitions before? And when you were thinking about buying CalAtlantic, what are the things that went through your head?
Miller: So, first of all, we've done many acquisitions before. We've made some of our biggest, most strategic steps forward on the pivot point of acquisitions. It's been a rich tradition within our company of using strategic combinations and acquisitions to elevate our game. The CalAtlantic acquisition is — or, really, it's not an acquisition; it is a strategic combination — was about looking at a terrific group of people, terrific group of land assets, and finding markets that we know and products that we know combined in geographic locations to create scale. Scale, in our opinion — in local geographic markets, 20 to 40 percent market share in many of these markets — enables us to up our game in terms of the innovation that you've seen here in this office. But also innovation strategies as it relates to things that we might do in the field, the construction part of our business.
Rascoff: So, the scale synergies in your business come from reducing construction costs and marketing efficiencies. Are those the two general categories?
Miller: So, reducing construction costs is a little bit too aggressive and draconian. It's all about creating better relationships with subcontractor bases. All of our subcontractor bases are generally local in nature; manufacturing or distribution might be more national, but our subcontractors are primarily local. Having the market share and the ability to develop better partnerships with our subcontractor base enables us to be a better version of ourselves. It enables us to explore how we can reduce costs while making better profitability for the subcontractor and for us as well. It enables us to start looking at different building systems — cooperative systems that we can work with our subcontractors to develop. All of these things are evolutionary tracks that will define the way forward for the homebuilders of the future.
Rascoff: So, let's close with a brief discussion about the future of homebuilding. Your company has been at the top of its field for more than 50 years. I won't ask you to prognosticate 50 years out, 'cause who knows what the world will look like, but even over the next 10 or 15 years, what trends do you think will impact your industry and your company?
Miller: Interesting question. It's very hard to look around the corner — it's always hard to look around the corner, but we're very respectful of the world that we're in. I think that we all recognize that today we are witnessing the slowest rate of change that we will ever see in our life from today going forward. It is accelerating at a blinding speed, and what that means for our business is that all parts of our business are going to evolve. The way that people look for homes, the way that people find their homes, even the kind of homes that they're looking for are going to evolve. We have to think about the uberization of the homebuilding world — how are we going to better utilize the assets that people have? We have a lot of people who are empty nesters, who have three empty bedrooms where their children used to reside. What is that going to do and how will that impact the housing market in the future? The points of intersection between customer-homebuilder or customer and realtor are going to change. It is going to happen more and more on digital platforms. How are we going to ignite, excite and inspire people to think about the products that we have, and, to the extent that we engage them digitally, how can that conversation leading up to sale help define the products that people are actually looking for?
One last thought is: I've always wondered when we would see obsolescence filter into the homebuilding world. Spencer, you would never buy a car, today, that has rolldown windows unless you really wanted vintage. And so, obsolescence, natural and technological obsolescence, has made its way into the automobile industry and every other industry we've seen. To the extent that, whether it's Wi-Fi distribution in the home, home automation, energy efficiency or a myriad of other things, the home will give way to technology innovation that makes older homes more obsolete. And people will be looking for new styles, new technologies and new ways to live, and I think that will benefit the homebuilding industry, as long as we're able to adapt.
Rascoff: So, at a very high level, I think the era of home automation should be a huge boon to homebuilders, because it's going to seem a lot easier, cheaper, more reliable to buy a new wired home than to retrofit a used home. Would you agree with that?
Miller: Yeah, well, absolutely the case — it starts with Wi-Fi distribution. We've developed a concept called “Wi-Fi certified." A Wi-Fi certified home is something you can do with a new home; it's very hard to do with an existing.
Rascoff: It drives me crazy that my old brick house has bad Wi-Fi in certain spots, and I've had countless experts come and try to improve it, from Zillow and other companies, and it can't be done. [Laughs]
Miller: So, that's a big benefit to the new home market because we can distribute Wi-Fi seamlessly, wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling. And here's the thing: With retrofit, you're always gonna have dark spots, and more importantly, you're gonna have speed loss or speed variation through the home. We can evenly distribute, without dead spots, evenly distribute Wi-Fi through the home if we think about it while we're building the home.
Rascoff: What about innovations on building itself? I mean, on what timescale, when will I see, you know, robots on construction sites — I mean, literally, like, robots — or more prefab-built, kind of modularized homes? Such that, is there an innovation coming that might bring construction costs down so significantly that the cost of a new home could be a fantastic value? Or is that not likely? [Laughs]
Miller: So, part of that is that “Terminator" stuff that you're asking about, and I'm not ready to get out on those soft limbs quite yet. There will be innovations in homebuilding. They're not here yet. The cost structures don't — and we spend a lot of time looking at these and thinking about these things — and you will see innovations around the edges, whether it's truss plants or wall plants or some manufacturing components. But ultimately, cost structures, and shortages of labor, and labor costs will mitigate in favor of finding new ways to build homes. People have asked about 3D printing of homes, because there are some podcasts and some dream-oriented videos on the —
Rascoff: Yeah, I've seen them.
Miller: Right, most people have. You know, I've tested some of these questions. We wear a name badge every day; it's really almost a two-dimensional piece of plastic. I have tried to find out how easy it is to 3D print this small piece of plastic. We're not there yet. When we can digitally print the name badge, then I'll start thinking about how we digitally [laughs] print the home. And in the meantime, we'll be taking steps, innovative steps, to rethink the building process — driving down cycle time, driving down cost structures and building a better mousetrap as we go forward.
Rascoff: And, of course, self-driving cars might also change our whole approach to urban planning and consumer preferences.
Rascoff: I mean, we at Zillow Group are just starting to do research on this to figure out what impact it might have on real estate, but it's possible that if your hour-commute is suddenly productive because you're not driving that people will be willing to commute longer. We don't really know yet what impact it will have. Do you have a theory on this? [Laughs]
Miller: I think we're gonna have to wait and see, and, I mean, we could sit here all day and think about some of the innovations that are out there, that are going to affect the way that we live. To me, that innovation center that you and I toured a little while ago is all about having a cork in the water of a fast-moving stream, and making sure that we're sensitive, aware of the things that are happening that are going to affect the industry. And maybe we won't see around the corner, but maybe as we get to the corner we'll be tuned-in and ready to react. That's how we're thinking about it.
Rascoff: Stuart, congratulations on the success of Lennar through the decades. What I've heard today makes me feel quite confident that it will be successful for decades to come. Thank you for the conversation.
Miller: Thank you.
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