Local home builder Isaac Lidsky sees life, business through different lens

Isaac Lidsky of Saved By the Bell was the first blind U.S. Supreme Court law clerk. He is now CEO of ODC Construction.

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times

Isaac Lidsky of Saved By the Bell was the first blind U.S. Supreme Court law clerk. He is now CEO of ODC Construction.

At his most desperate, Isaac Lidsky packed his family into their Chevy Suburban and sped south, through the pre-dawn darkness, toward his last chance at making it right.

His year-old triplets slept in pajamas in the backseat. His wife, Dorothy, drove as he sat silently, listening to lullabies. Their aim was a Florida Turnpike rest stop, two hours away from home.

Waiting there was Isaac's mother, just in from Miami and hefting a bulky purse. Inside she hid a lifetime of savings: $360,000 in stacks of $100s. She blew kisses to the babies, handed it over and waved goodbye. "I know you're going to fix this," she said.

By his early 30s, Lidsky had known storybook success. A child TV star, he had left Hollywood for Harvard, founding a dot-com firm and working in a prized role with justices of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Yet on that October morning in 2011, Lidsky felt like a failure. He had invested everything in a home-building firm, believing a coming recovery would set his family up for life. Instead, it was falling apart.

"I meant it when I said I put every penny I had in this business," said Lidsky, now 34. "Pretty much everyone, friends, family, thought I was absolutely nuts. A lot of people still do."

The purse of $100 bills marked perhaps his only shot at redemption. And it worked. This year, Lidsky's ODC Construction is on track to start more than 3,000 Florida homes and pull in $65 million in revenue, three times as much as 2011. In October, Inc. Magazine called the firm, having grown from 150 workers to 500, one of the top construction-job creators in the country.

One recent morning, Lidsky and his driver wandered through one of their big new projects, a winding Oldsmar subdivision where ODC crews were nailing up the frames of $400,000 homes.

There were no lullabies this time, and Isaac wasn't silent. He asked what it all looked like. Because for 20 years, it has been the one part of all the success he has missed out on.

Isaac Lidsky is blind.

• • •

When Lidsky was 16 months old, the Miami native of Jewish parents, who as children fled Castro's Cuba, filmed his first of dozens of TV commercials, gurgling for the Southern Diaper Service. At 13, he landed his biggest role as the bumbling brainiac of '90s teen sitcom Saved by the Bell: The New Class, Barton "Weasel" Wyzell.

That year, Lidsky and two of his three older sisters learned they had retinitis pigmentosa, a rare blinding disease passed on by their parents, who unknowingly were both carriers. There was, and is, no cure. The vision in Isaac's brown eyes, like light in a dimming bulb, would slowly disappear.

His father, Carlos, told the Miami Herald shortly after that he "felt helpless, like a building had fallen down on top of me." But Isaac proved quickly he was far from a lost cause. Speeding through advanced classes on a college fast track, Lidsky enrolled at Harvard at age 15.

When he graduated, with degrees in computer science and applied mathematics, Lidsky and his brother-in-law founded an Internet marketing startup, Poindexter Systems, now called [x+1]. But two years after its creation, he grew bored and quit for a new term at Harvard Law. Even with his vision severely faded, he worked for the prestigious Harvard Law Review.

Where others read, Lidsky listened to a computer program that read aloud the words on his screen. To quickly scan through text, he dialed up the voice to near-unintelligible speeds. It was tough, but it kept him working. By his mid-20s, he had founded Hope for Vision, a nonprofit that would raise millions of dollars for blinding-disease research.

In 2004, three days after graduating, Lidsky strode down the aisle with Dorothy, eschewing his 56-inch walking cane. In 2007, to promote Hope for Vision, he took to the mound of a Chicago Cubs-Florida Marlins game for the ceremonial first pitch. He had practiced neurotically with Dorothy, grasping the ball, counting out 60 paces and winging it toward her voice.

He drilled a strike.

The next year, after arguing a dozen cases as an attorney for the U.S. Justice Department, Lidsky walked the halls of the Supreme Court. He had earned the rare honor of working a year as a law clerk for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. The job was a daunting swirl of petitions and decisions, a challenge for even someone with sight.

"I always like to be underestimated," he said later. "It was a dream come true."

• • •

In 2011, Lidsky and Zac Merriman, a friend from his Harvard social club, proposed a radical idea.

Lidsky had spent the last two years logging 90-hour weeks at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, a "ginormous" Manhattan law firm. Then his wife gave birth, at 29 weeks, to triplets, the smallest of whom weighed 1.5 pounds. During 100 days in the neonatal intensive care unit, Lidsky couldn't escape his work. He spent hours camped out with his laptop in a hospital family room.

Before, he was just overwhelmed, disillusioned and exhausted. Now, he had a family. It was time to make a change.

Lidsky and Merriman, a 36-year-old investment analyst, brainstormed about "how fun it would be to buy a company together," where they could set their own hours, ensure job security and control their destiny.

But they weren't looking for just any company. They wanted something undervalued by the recession that they could buy cheaply, retool and raise from the ground up.

That summer, they partnered up to buy a home-foundation contractor, called Orlando Decorative Concrete, for an undisclosed amount. Lidsky had no experience with construction; he didn't even own a home. No matter. He went all in.

"People couldn't believe it. Our friends couldn't believe it," Dorothy Lidsky said. "Where we went to school, people became lawyers, became doctors, became finance guys, you know, lots of things. People certainly don't own some construction company in Central Florida."

Lidsky knew the firm, which had been devastated by the housing bust, had its share of shortcomings. But he wasn't prepared for just how toxic the company had become. Their accounting was in such shambles, the partners said, that each project cost them more money than they earned.

In late 2011, the market was still tanked and ODC was hemorrhaging cash. In the rental home in the Orlando suburbs where he'd moved his family, Lidsky was crippled with self-doubt, struggling just to leave the house. Had he sacrificed his career, his family's livelihood, for the worst gamble of his life?

"I threw away a … no, not threw away. I put on hold a very promising legal career. I put all of my own money, every penny I had, and a lot of my buddy's money, and three months later I'm saying to myself, 'Are you surprised it's a catastrophic failure? It was a terrible idea, right?' '' he said. "There were many times where I just wanted to curl up in a corner and sleep for a few months."

• • •

Isaac's mother, Betti, had called him tatala, Yiddish for "little boy," when she offered up her 40 years of savings two nights earlier on the phone. Now it was in his hands, as his wife, Dorothy, drove north, and as Isaac hitched a taxi to his attorney's office to deposit the cash into the corporate fund.

Lidsky had rarely felt so embarrassed, and he agonized over whether this was just more good cash after bad. But the money helped staunch the bleeding, meet payroll and keep the lights on. The rest was up to them.

It took several months of strenuous legwork to revamp their books and rekindle relationships with builders. Tony Hartsgrove, a former ODC consultant who partnered with Lidsky and Merriman, said a typical day lasted from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m.

But with the help of a reviving housing market, they began investing in new projects. Branching out into wood framing, alongside pouring concrete and laying cinder blocks, nearly doubled their take from each home overnight.

They shook hands with homebuilders, needing help with swelling demand, and began expanding to new cities across the state. ODC tradesmen now work on home sites in Orlando, Lakeland, Melbourne and Jacksonville. In Tampa alone, the workforce is bigger than the entire company when Lidsky took over.

Being a blind ex-attorney in a industry more attuned to gruff workmen has posed its own challenges. One client refused to believe Lidsky could write his own emails. But Lidsky, who said he has never wanted a pass just because of his vision, has developed a keen sense of pleasure at proving the skeptics wrong. "I view myself as a guy who just so happens to be blind."

Triplets Thaddeus, Phineas and Lily Louise are 3 now, and they're learning more about their father every day. "They say, 'Daddy's eyes are broken,' " Dorothy said. "But when they say, 'Daddy, look at this,' they're putting it in his hand, because they know that's how he looks at things. He feels it." Though they have yet to be tested, the chances the triplets could share the same eye disease, Lidsky said, are "infinitesimally small."

Of course, none of this could pay off. The market for new-home construction is notoriously fickle. And even if it fully recovers, as Lidsky expects, his firm will still need to win over enough projects to survive.

But Lidsky, as one might expect, says he's not backing down from the challenge. He still needs to pay back his mom.

 

Local home builder Isaac Lidsky sees life, business through different lens 12/04/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 11, 2014 9:52am]

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