The saying, “If you’re not growing you’re dying,” is a common mantra for many entrepreneurs, but that full-throttle mentality can occasionally do more harm than good.
Sometimes, even in the ultra-competitive world of business, the tortoise beats the hare. That reserved approach has guided Chris LaFace and Ripa & Associates to impressive heights and its appearance on the 2017 Gator100.
Ripa & Associates’ impressive growth over the past few years is rooted in, ironically, the Great Recession. Ripa & Associates, a leading general contractor based in Tampa, was flourishing before the financial crisis ravaged the construction industry. The company was forced to lay off 150 workers, and its annual revenue—about $100 million— was cut in half.
While the Great Recession knocked Ripa & Associates down, it didn’t knock them out thanks to the company’s cautious approach. LaFace (BSBA ’05) said that during the boom years, Chief Executive Officer Frank Ripa was quietly accumulating profits—a “war chest.”
Although Ripa & Associates took a substantial hit, those saved funds kept the business afloat while three of its major competitors went bankrupt, LaFace said.
“We were fortunate that he left a lot of capital in the business,” said LaFace, of Ripa. “It was not a typical down cycle so we were positioned well for it. We had to make some very tough decisions, but, looking back, it was also a fantastic learning experience.”
As the national economy recovered, Ripa & Associates relaxed its cautious approach and expanded. In the lean years, the company served two counties, employed about 150 workers, and had annual revenues less than $50 million.
Now, Ripa & Associates has worked on projects in nine counties, employs 700, and is forecasting revenues in excess of $200 million this fiscal year.
LaFace’s successful journey took a circuitous route. He attended three community colleges before transferring to UF as a junior. He chose Warrington because he liked the wide-ranging career opportunities a business degree provides, and he performed well academically.
“I excelled at it for one reason or another,” said LaFace, who admitted he wasn’t a dedicated student prior to coming to UF. “The core classes were great and there were a lot of resources available. It was a great experience.”
LaFace, 36, said he still uses lessons he learned at Warrington to navigate the company, which is facing another significant challenge in filling its labor force with qualified workers. Construction workers left the industry in droves during the Great Recession, and the vast majority did not return.
“A lot of people got laid off, and they couldn’t sit around waiting for construction jobs,” LaFace said. “And, with the younger generation, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of interest.”
LaFace concedes there isn’t a magic antidote to solve the labor shortage, but he said it starts with outreach through job fairs and schools.
“It’s not a sexy industry, but you can make a great living,” LaFace said. “I know guys who started out making $11 an hour, and now they’re making six figures.”
LaFace said the Gator100 is a special event for him because of his family’s deep ties to UF, and it serves as a reminder of how far his career has come the past 12 years.
“I wouldn’t be here without my education.” LaFace said. “If I went to another school—especially one northwest of us—I probably wouldn’t be in the same situation. UF has been great to me and my family, and this [Gator100] means a lot.”