It all started with plumbing. The year was 1881. Aiming to provide for his family by doing what he did best, John F. Shea set up a small plumbing shop in Portland, Oregon. It didn’t take long for business to pick up, and in the following decades, supported by his sons, Shea expanded his reach into homebuilding and general contracting. Now, more than 130 years later, Shea Homes is one of the largest privately held homebuilders in the United States, and other J. F. Shea Co., Inc. companies touch everything from heavy construction to venture capital to commercial development, construction, and management. It’s this very diversification that has allowed the company to weather even the roughest industry waters.
Because its work is more than digging holes and putting up walls, the firm has cultivated a sharp business team to support its continued success in and beyond construction. Ross Kay, senior vice president and general counsel for Shea Homes, belongs to this important group. He joined the company in August 2012, and, backed by nearly 14 years as in-house counsel for KB Home, he has helped J. F. Shea Co. revise and expand its network.
“Shea is a family-owned company with a lot of different businesses and a lot of tax-driven strategies, and one of the goals we have right now is simplifying this structure,” Kay says. “Each of these branches has autonomy and is very entrepreneurial, but on the other hand, it’s helpful to increase efficiency and legal compliance by strengthening interaction between these departments.”
“Each of [J. F. Shea’s] branches has autonomy and is entrepreneurial, but it’s helpful to increase efficiency by strengthening interaction.”
SVP & General Counsel
Kay’s work is largely split between Shea Homes and the firm’s heavy-construction projects as a large-scale civil contractor, including work on the Golden Gate Bridge, the Hoover Dam, the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit System, and many others. “Shea does joint ventures for a lot of its heavy-construction deals, and because these are public projects involving big dollars, it’s very competitive,” Kay says.
On the Shea Homes side, the focus is on homebuilding and master-planned community development in seven states reaching from coast to coast, with a particularly significant presence in the Southwest. The company’s work earned it recognition from the NAHB and Builder magazine as one of America’s Best Builders, and it won the Builder of the Year award from Professional Builder magazine in 2007. In 2011, the division was also named a Customer Service Champion by JD Power & Associates.
“One of the great things about Shea is the quality of the product that we build,” Kay says. “There’s a lot of diversity in the market segments we occupy. These are some really exciting projects, and every day there are a lot of things coming at me—which I like.”
Because the firm’s work extends nationally, Kay says it’s important for him to form strong connections with outside counsel while still strengthening ties in-house. During his time with KB Home, working with 17 direct reports, he oversaw construction matters across the country—a purview that allowed him to build his own network of contacts while also reinforcing the importance of cross-counsel communications within the construction industry. “I’m a big believer in inside counsel, partly because we know the business, and partly because it’s more affordable to staff a project with inside counsel,” Kay says.
When the housing market collapsed in 2006, housing and construction companies across America were forced to rethink the entirety of their industry. Many companies failed, but others, including J. F. Shea Co., were informed by past economic shifts and managed to weather the worst by capitalizing on diversified business offerings. The firm honed its ability to deliver smart real estate management, development, and construction services—even in the midst of a slimmed-down market—with support from a conscientious business and legal group. Kay, for one, looks forward to the company’s continued success. “It’s really rewarding to be involved in building the single biggest and most cherished investment people will make in their lives,” he says. “It’s actually pretty exciting, when you sit back and think about it.”