For Michael Neal, a happy workplace is a successful workplace. And by any standard, his workplace has been a successful one.
Neal, 62, is CEO of KAST Construction, which has grown from a $30 million company in 2011 to one valued at more than $500 million by the end of 2017. During that time it has branched out from a single office in West Palm Beach to Tampa and Miami, and holds licenses in Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina in addition to Florida.
KAST was recently named by Fortune magazine as one of the best places to work, adding to similar honors from the South Florida Business Journal, Tampa Business Journal and Florida Trend magazine. Customer satisfaction is reflected in the fact that 80 percent of his orders come from repeat customers.
“My leadership style is very focused on building teams, building morale, building culture, having respect for people and creating a feeling,” said Neal, who lives in Ocean Ridge.
“So much of life is based on how you feel, and how you make people feel. I really don’t think many people get that because they’re always focused on numbers, numbers and numbers.
“Our turnover rate is under 5 percent in an industry where it’s 15-20 percent. We try to hire really smart people and say, ‘Hey, do your job, man.’ We don’t tell them what to do, we let them do it. And they typically do it better than when you tell them what to do.”
KAST projects involve two of the tallest buildings in the state. The One St. Petersburg condominium is the tallest in southwest Florida, and 100 Las Olas is the tallest in Fort Lauderdale. Both are 42 stories.
Outside of work, Neal enjoys bike riding. “I get up at 5 a.m. several days a week and ride my bike from Ocean Ridge to Boca or to Palm Beach. So if you see flashing red lights on Ocean Avenue early in the morning, please don’t hit me!”
— Brian Biggane
Q: Where did you grow up and go to school? How do you think that has influenced you?
A: I grew up in Hollywood. I attended Hollywood Hills High School. The biggest influence was that Hollywood was a great small town, small community and I was lucky to stay in one place through my childhood all the way through high school. I had a small but very close group of friends that I grew up with and we remain best friends today. This strong sense of community and closeness with my best friends and their families reinforced my sense of values regarding community and family.
Q: What professions have you worked in? What professional accomplishments are you most proud of?
A: I have spent my entire career in the construction industry. After graduating from the University of Florida in 1979, I went to work in the construction industry in Miami. After three years I was recruited to a national company based in Charlotte, N.C. I spent more than 22 years with this company living in multiple cities and states across the country, building large commercial projects and/or leading regional offices for this same firm.
I am most proud of raising a great family who were my “road warriors,” my beautiful wife of 35 years, Deidre, who raised our kids on the road as we moved from Florida to California, then on to Charlotte, Richmond, Orlando and finally back to Florida. Without the support of a great family my career would not have been what it has been.
Professionally I’m very proud of the companies and teams that I have been fortunate to lead.
Q: What advice do you have for a young person seeking a career today?
A: Stay curious. Explore our world and see the big picture. Question things. Dream big. Most people fail to see their potential and because of that don’t realize their dreams. Read, read, read. Knowledge is the new currency! Get involved in your community and give back to your community.
What I look for in young people who are looking to join our firm is attitude. In fact, our philosophy is “hire for attitude and train for skills.” Skills are much easier to train. Overcoming a difficult or negative attitude is difficult.
Q: How did you choose to make your home in Ocean Ridge?
A: In 2011, I was trying to commute from Miami to West Palm Beach every day. I’ve always been a Dade/Broward county guy. The commute started getting very old and my wife and I decided to relocate to make my commute and quality of life a bit better. Deidre and I looked at homes further north. We met local Realtor Val Coz (who is our neighbor in Ocean Ridge) and she showed us a few homes in the Ocean Ridge area and we instantly fell in love with the “small town feel,” being near the beach, proximity to Delray, and other cool spots which are so accessible to this great town. We love it here and don’t see ever leaving.
Q: What is your favorite part about living in Ocean Ridge?
A: There is a long list, but the sense of community that we feel here that we’ve never experienced anywhere else. The Ocean Ridge police are awesome, they stop to say hello and there is a tremendous sense of security knowing that there are professionals protecting the community. We are definitely water people and boaters, so being so close to the Boynton Inlet is a treat.
We can be off our dock and in the Atlantic Ocean in less than 10 minutes!
Q: What book are you reading now?
A: I am reading RFK: His Words for Our Times. I’ve always been a big fan of John F. Kennedy, and I knew who Bobby was, but I learned that he was into writing his own speeches and that intrigued me.
The book talks about him at different times in his life and has excerpts or even actual copies of his speeches. I get inspired by people who are able through their words to communicate an idea or passion and reach you at an emotional level. RFK was able to do that.
Q: What music do you listen to when you need inspiration? When you want to relax?
A: I am all over the map on music. I love the blues, jazz, classic rock and some country. Deidre and I love seeing live shows at the Arts Garage and the Funky Biscuit, two of our favorite local live music venues.
Q: Do you have a favorite quote that inspires your decisions?
A: This quote from the late John F. Kennedy is one that I refer to from time to time mostly as I reflect on my attitude in business: “The American, by nature, is optimistic. He is experimental, an inventor, and a builder who builds best when called upon to build greatly.”
Q: Have you had mentors in your life? Individuals who have inspired your life decisions?
A: I’ve had a few amazing people who shaped my life. My dad worked in the construction industry and spent his whole career working with his hands as a journeyman electrician. He was all about working hard and never giving up. I worked many summer vacations with him on job sites across South Florida and I’m pretty sure I got his work ethic ingrained in my DNA.
My mom was an amazingly strong woman who was the heart of our family and gave me my love for books and family.
I had the privilege of working for an amazing CEO named Bob Street who owned the firm that I spent a huge part of my career with and where I learned a lot of great lessons on how to treat, motivate and lead people and teams. He was a big believer in creating a great and dynamic culture which embraced people and treated them with respect and dignity. This firm became one of the largest construction firms in the county under his leadership. I have applied the principals I learned from Bob in every company I have led, and these lessons have certainly contributed to the success of my companies.
Q: If your life story were made into a movie, who would play you?
A: Wow, this is a really tough one. I love the tough “old guys” so I’d pick someone like Paul Newman [if he were still alive].