One day in August 2005, Tim White, as a member of the board of directors of the publicly traded Meritage Homes Corp., was sitting in a board meeting evaluating final candidates for the company’s first general counsel. After a robust discussion about the leading candidates, White was asked to leave the room. Puzzled by the request, he politely left and waited, and over an hour passed before he was summoned back to the meeting. At this point in his life, White had been enjoying a successful career as a partner and department head of a large international law firm, where he represented a wide variety of homebuilders, developers, and other businesses. Upon being summoned back to the meeting, though, the directors told him, “We want to make this general counsel position work with and for you,” and they gamely enticed White into accepting the job himself.
He was blindsided. “I had not before that moment given any serious thought about leaving the private practice of law,” White says. “But I would not have left for any client other than Meritage.”
Meritage Homes, which is headquartered in Scottsdale, Arizona, is one of the United States’ largest homebuilders, and it is publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange. The company has been featured on the Fortune 1000 and the Forbes Platinum 400 as one of the best big companies in America. It is known for its high level of design and value and is the industry leader in building energy-efficient homes.
White joined Meritage not only out of respect for the business but also because of a simple love for homebuilding that reaches all the way back to his childhood. In grade school and continuing into high school, he spent his free time sketching floor plans and elevations for homes and creating styrofoam models of those homes. He also took drafting classes that focused on home and building design. When White was in high school and college, he would often stop at builders’ model homes and open houses whenever he ventured upon them, and the habit still endures today. Now, though he mostly visits his company’s homes, he still enjoys taking in competitors’ models in order to evaluate them and imagine how he would have done them differently.
“The homebuilding business is tangible. You can visit communities as they are developed and witness the American Dream.”
—Tim White, VP & General Counsel
After graduating from law school in 1985, White developed a successful practice with a Phoenix law firm, which he comanaged for more than a decade. From there, he moved his practice to the large international firm Greenberg Traurig in order to better serve the needs of his rapidly expanding client base. It was in 2005 that he was lured to the public sector by Meritage.
However, his involvement with the company actually started back in 1991, when it was still known as Monterey Homes. (A portion of Meritage that builds luxury homes still operates as Monterey in Arizona and Texas.) At the time, the two young entrepreneurs who started the business had already built a couple of communities, and seeking help with legal matters, they brought White in to consult.
In 1995, White joined Monterey Homes’ board of directors shortly before its acquisition of another large homebuilder, Legacy Homes; the merger coincided with the company going public. A need for a new name emerged, and the winemaking term “Meritage” was chosen. According to White, it means “a fine blend of ingredients.” White has been involved in Meritage’s legal dealings ever since, but he stepped down from the board when he became the company’s general counsel and executive vice president—a move meant to balance the board’s independence.
And though becoming a bigger part of Meritage seemed like the natural next step, having dealt with the company for so many years, White still had adjustments to make transitioning from his outside counsel position. “As an outside lawyer, it is difficult to appreciate the emotional intellect it takes to navigate the myriad of internal and external interactions and relationships that are necessary to make a business run smoothly.” White says. ”Many lawyers are accustomed to striving for perfection in everything they do, and when they go in-house with a company, they must quickly come to grips with the reality that perfect processes, solutions, and execution cannot always be achieved and that expectations may need to be adjusted.”
White perceives many lawyers to be results-driven to a fault. “Your focus is to get things done and to succeed, sometimes at the expense of others,” he says. To counter this, he suggests that lawyers “focus on developing relational skills, which are just as important as any legal skills.”
White points out that there are a lot of moving parts in the homebuilding business and that outside subcontractors, suppliers, and consultants are as integral as a company’s in-house employees. It’s a lesson that White has taken to heart at Meritage because the number of such subcontractors, suppliers, and consultants is more than double the number of Meritage employees. Coordinating and cooperating with, understanding, appreciating, and respecting everyone involved in the homebuilding process is critical.
A major portion of White’s job is to provide perspective and direction to lawyers and professionals on his legal and risk-management staffs as well as to outside lawyers and consultants. This involves creating the strategies and plans that get jobs from point to point. As general counsel, White is in charge of everything legal, including management of the legal team, risk management, and land acquisition. In addition to the general counsel role, White is an executive vice president and a member of Meritage’s senior management team, and he works alongside the CEO, the CFO, and the COO to set corporate strategy and keep the company running smoothly.
Ultimately, White has enjoyed the transition from general legal practice to the upper reaches of the corporate world, particularly at a firm that shares his passions. “The homebuilding business is tangible,” he says. “You can see a piece of dirt in whatever part of the country you’re in and envision a first-class vibrant community there. It is extremely rewarding to later visit those communities as they are developed and witness the fact that the company has provided customers a part of the American Dream of homeownership.”
And, White’s work for Meritage has only made the company better. “Without a doubt, the accomplishment I am most proud of is having attracted and retained the best legal talent in the homebuilding industry,” he says. “Meritage Homes has the elite legal team in the industry.” Half of White’s legal team worked on his prior legal team from when he was in private practice. “Surround yourself with people with high levels of competency, commitment, and integrity,” he says, “and your life will be easier and more fulfilling.”