Richard Ahrens

Passing the business baton

Since Richard Ahrens (BSBA ’69) graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in marketing, he’s only ever worked at one company. The only person who’s ever been his boss was his father. In fact, over the span of almost 50 years, Ahrens has worked in every department at his family’s West Palm Beach-based architectural and construction company, Ahrens Companies.

“When I first went to work with my dad (in 1970), he had me do everything from going out to build, to learning how to draw plans,” he said. “My father wanted me to understand the business process from the beginning to the end. I appreciated him doing that because, when all was said and done, I got to understand all aspects of the business.”

Ahrens continued to learn from his father even after his first few years at the company. For 20 years the two worked together, continuing to grow the family business from its humble beginnings in 1902.

“Three years after I started at the company, my father retired, and I took over the business,” he said. “Two years later, though, my father came back. My mother had given him an ultimatum – either go back to work or she would divorce him – ha! So, he came back to the business, but he made sure that I stayed the President. He and I were very close. He was my best friend and my boulder.”

Ahrens continues to serve as the President and CEO of Ahrens Companies, where he’s able to put his experience in different departments to use as he oversees everything from the design and construction of all projects, to closings, sales pitches and project costs. Another important lesson he learned from his family, though, is that he can’t do it all by himself.

“I have a lot of really talented people who make me look good,” he said with a laugh. “My grandfather told me this, ‘You don’t have to be the smartest person in the room, just surround yourself with smart people.’”

He continued, “About 80 percent of our work is repeat business. Like the service industry, if you don’t perform well, then people won’t come back. All of the talented people I work with understand that we have an obligation to serve our clients.”

Ahrens learned the importance of dedication and teamwork even before he started at Ahrens Companies, though. As a member of the University of Florida swim team all four years of college, he gained valuable experiences he would be able to use throughout his time at the Warrington College of Business and in his career.

“Swimming gave me the ground to succeed in school,” he said. “It taught me how to utilize my time well, how to deal with situations where you didn’t expect a particular outcome and it gave me a competitive drive. There were things that I didn’t always like doing while in school, but you have to learn and persevere – that’s what makes you better.”

With years of experience and powerful life and business lessons under his belt, Ahrens has returned to Gainesville numerous times to share his wisdom as a judge at the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Center’s Big Idea Competition.

“It’s fun to give advice to the students,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for 48 years now, so it’s fun to share my experiences and trials and tribulations with the young people now. Hopefully, it eliminates some of the issues they’ll have down the road.”

He added, “To see the young people that are in the [Big Idea] Competition, and to see their presentations – it’s so rewarding. I go up there, and I’m pumped up!”

Ahrens said he has two main pieces of advice for students now. First, find a good mentor.

“I’m so thankful for the University of Florida giving me an opportunity, and [former UF swimming coach] Bill Harlan was a great mentor for me. He was demanding, yet fair and understanding.”

Second, don’t pursue something you don’t enjoy.

“My grandfather told me this when I was 10, ‘In life, only do something you enjoy. If you don’t enjoy it, then look for something else.’ I think that’s good advice. You go to college perceiving to do one thing, but then you end up doing something else, and that’s ok. I started out in engineering, but then moved to accounting, then to marketing. It’s a winding road.”