Incentivizing: Sean Sullivan

Dec 18, 2022

President of Living Stone (Black Mountain, NC), a design-build firm that has been crafting luxury, award-winning custom homes for more than 25 years.

By Liisa Andreassen

Sean has been leading his team for more than 25 years. He started out as a remodeler and subcontractor with numerous small projects and slowly transformed Living Stone into the award-winning company it is today.

Sean’s currently responsible for general management and guiding clients throughout the design and build process and is one of a very few Accredited Master Builders in North Carolina. He’s also a certified Energy Star partner and nationally recognized Green Builder. With a proven process and strategic partnerships with architects, designers, and realtors, the company has delivered dream-worthy homes to families seeking a happier, healthier life in the North Carolina mountains.

All Living Stone homes are green by design and he works closely with his wife and business partner, Laura Sullivan of ID.ology Interiors & Design, Living Stone’s design partner. For the Sullivans, green is not just a trend or upgrade, it’s a way of life.

While Living Stone is currently based in Black Mountain, it’s in the process of moving all operations to Asheville, North Carolina – just about 20 minutes away from its current locale and closer to its third business, Atelier Maison – a healthy home furnishings store.

All three of these businesses work together to meet their seven levels of services:

  • Partner by design
  • Priced by design
  • Age by design
  • Green by design
  • Interior by design
  • Build by design
  • Furnishing by design

“We build green, energy efficient homes and have brought the ‘whole living’ philosophy together with the addition of this business,” Sean says.

Incentivizing – not regulating. Sean’s primary focus is ensuring that clients have a smooth design-build experience at Living Stone. He says there are three different types of clients to shepherd though the process.

“About a third of the people will absolutely love and embrace it; another third will cruise through it; and the last group will struggle with it,” he says. “It’s the first thing we try to do when working with a client – identify which group they fall into and then pair them up with the project leader who is the best fit. We want their needs and wants to match their investment.”

And when clients are well matched, a sense of trust begins to emerge. Living Stone is built on an organizational structure of trust and runs like an open book. This transparency flows into all parts of its culture – including client relationships. In fact, the company started to use a software system called CoConstruct where clients can see online when a change is made. Clients get an alert and are trained to sign off on the change as needed so there are no communication issues or surprises when it comes to changes, billing, or fees.

Sean admits that while Living Stone has a great team and system in place, labor is a key concern. He says the problem isn’t new – it’s been around for about 15 years now.

“It pretty much started for us during the Great Recession,” he says. “People went to other industries and didn’t come back. A generation has also retired.”

To combat this shortage, the company does a great deal with local colleges and universities. It has several established internship programs and puts an emphasis on training during their stay. They’re also hiring younger people and putting them into assistant roles so they can learn the ropes on the job and then move into more project management types of roles.

Creating a culture where people want to work is also part of the plan. That’s one of the reasons why Living Stone is a certified “Just Economics” employer. Just Economics works to educate, advocate, and organize for a just and sustainable local economy that works for all in Western North Carolina.

“It’s no secret that culture impacts recruitment and retention,” Sean says. “But, we really do live and breathe it here. We provide great benefits and invest heavily in that part of the business. We call it organizational health. We check in with staff and ensure we all have the right expectations.”

The company also has a volunteer project every first Friday of the month where staff get to spend time working with local community groups such as Western Carolina Rescue Ministries; Bounty & Soul; and Black Mountain Home for Children Youth and Families. Living Stone also offers profit-sharing, a 401(k), and other full benefits to staff.

Its philosophy for building is much like its philosophy for running the business.

“The green building industry is all about regulating,” he says. “We prefer to incentivize, not regulate.”

In an effort to meet that end, Sean works with a business consultant that helps Living Stone with the organizational health efforts and to build a stronger overall culture. Sean is also a member of The National Association of Home Builders 20 Club. This is a place where peers and colleagues can share problems, help each other, and compare financials and strategies to see how they are doing.

One of the things Sean has learned from talking to others and from personal experience is to not take things personally.

“If a client isn’t happy for some reason I need to know why,” he says. “Over the years I’ve developed a philosophy – no regrets. With each failure, you learn how to make improvements.”

Currently, Living Stone primarily works in the residential arena and Sean says one of his favorite projects has been a recent one – one that’s won numerous awards – the Sennett residence in Asheville, North Carolina. The main goal for this home was to incorporate aging in place principles while keeping an elegant, bright, contemporary aesthetic on a mountain lot. Warmth and comfort were a focus of the homeowner while incorporating stylish, rich finishes and merchandising.

Sean shares that this was also one of the more challenging projects they’ve worked on to date. The above road lot took eight months and $600,000 to carve out and create a retaining wall. They then cut for the house and added a pool on the far side.

“We jackhammered for months,” he says.

Sean adds that while designing beautiful age-in-place residences is one of the company’s key focuses, they’re working in other markets as well – for example hospitality, healthcare, and gated communities.

When asked how he would describe his number one job responsibility, he says “CRO, or chief reminding officer.”

“I’m always reminding everyone of our core values and why we’re doing something the way we’re doing it.”  

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