By Clifford Davis, Contributing Writer
Lee Arsenault didn’t have long-term friends as a boy.
He spent his childhood bouncing around Central and South American countries with his father, Paul Arsenault, who worked with the U.S. Department of State.
“About every two or three years we’d move again, so all those friendships you make during that time of your life evaporate,” Arsenault said. “As a kid, it tears you up and your friendships become very shallow.”
Finally, when he moved to Jacksonville in 1981, he was able to begin building lasting friendships.
The 64-year-old CEO of New Leaf Construction and New Leaf Homes will be installed Jan. 18 as president of the Northeast Florida Builders Association.
Arsenault was born in Maracaibo, Venezuela. He had siblings born in San Salvador and Massachusetts, Paraguay and Washington, D.C. He became fluent in Spanish, a skill he still uses.
By the early 1960s the family had moved to Argentina, a country the Committee to Combat Terrorism characterized at the time as having “the most virulent terrorism in Latin America,” according to the Department of State.
The perilous nature of his father’s profession hit home for Arsenault after an American, one of his dad’s colleagues, was assassinated by terrorists.
Soon after, Arsenault recalled finding a .38-caliber revolver under the seat of his father’s car.
His parents divorced in 1967 and Arsenault moved to the Florida Keys with his mother to help take care of the youngest four of his siblings. His teenage years were filled with jet skiing and fishing until graduation, as the Vietnam War loomed.
Arsenault had a low draft number, which he knew meant likely being assigned to the infantry.
“I’d heard stories about the infantry in Vietnam and I really didn’t want that,” he said.
Instead, Arsenault voluntarily enlisted in the Army as an aircraft ordnance repairman. In other words, he’d be fixing rocket launchers, grenade launchers and machine guns on Army aircraft, and not slogging out foot patrols.
Though the designation kept him out of foot patrols, it didn’t keep him out of Vietnam.
After basic training in 1972, Arsenault was assigned to F Troop, 9th Cavalry Regiment. He flew with the maintenance helicopter that assisted malfunctioning helicopters from his unit in the field.
“On the way to and from the field, I was the door gunner on the right-hand side,” he said. “But once we got out there, I had a foot locker full of gear to fix rocket launchers, components or unjam a mini-gun.”
The unit was tasked with reconnoitering and attacking the North Vietnamese Army’s advance on its neighbor to the south.
Arsenault left Vietnam not long before the rest of American combat troops were pulled out in 1973.
He returned to the United States as many veterans did, with few job prospects and fellow citizens who were deeply divided over the war they’d fought.
The redhead who changed his life
Arsenault worked what construction jobs he could find around Miami and the Keys until his sister, who was going to school at the University of Florida, asked him to pick up her best friend from school who was flying in to Miami to visit.
He was already going to the airport to pick up his uncle, so he agreed to go a little early.
“Then this gorgeous redhead — who was entirely too young for me — gets off the plane,” he said.
Months later, Arsenault would leave South Florida for a job in Gainesville. After flying back from a job interview in New Orleans, the pair was making their way back to Gainesville when Arsenault had an idea.
“I thought I was going to get the job, so I pulled the car over on Interstate 295 in Jacksonville,” he said. “I walked around the car, got down on my knee and asked her to marry me.”
Lee and Diane Arsenault have been married for 35 years. They have two children, a son and a daughter who now both work for New Leaf, as well as recently welcoming their first grandchild, Benjamin.
The couple started out in a small home in Arlington, while he took night classes at the University of North Florida. Arsenault worked odd jobs like painting and concrete, until a company building an addition to the berthing wharf at Naval Station Mayport offered him a shot at building forms for concrete.
“All of the sudden, I was making $11 an hour,” he said.
As Arsenault took on responsibility, more was given to him. By the end of the project, he was scheduling concrete trucks and working as a supervisor.
By 1986, he had gutted out enough classes to earn his contractor’s license and started his first company: Arsenault Construction.
For nine years, the mom-and-pop company was building 10 to 12 houses a year.
“I was the superintendent, the estimator, the purchaser, the one who met with clients, did the sketches and Diane did the books,” he said.
Arsenault went on to work in supervisory roles for several other construction companies until the bottom fell out of the housing market in the Great Recession.
“I’d been helping a buddy of mine grow his construction business in the mid-2000s,” he said. “Then in 2009 I helped him close it because the market never recovered.”
“So after being on the couch for a few months,” he said, “I decided to start New Leaf Construction.”
Start of a successful new business venture
The first years weren’t easy.
“I’d cut my pay, cut my pay and I was making less than what I needed to live on,” he said. “I had to use up my 401(k), we were almost at the point where we were going to lose our house.”
Soon, a small, but growing group of loyal clients began to turn his fortunes.
The company started out doing smaller jobs for friends and family and began to get repeat customers.
Then, he interviewed for his business to build Old San Jose on the River.
“Getting that job in February 2012 was really a transformative moment for our company,” Arsenault said. “Our purchasing manager was actually out nailing baseboards when I called him and said, ‘Get back to the office. We have a lot of work to do.’”
The company is now headquartered at a glistening office building on Southpoint Boulevard. It is set to begin a new slate of nine homes in Queens Harbor, with other projects in the works.
In Jacksonville, not only has Arsenault found professional redemption, but personal redemption, as well.
The group at New Leaf Construction is a tight-knit lot who gather every Tuesday for a book club meeting and a good bourbon — though, as Arsenault says with a mischievous grin, there are no books involved.
Along with his friends at work, his church family at Deer Meadows Baptist Church has provided the lifelong friendships he never knew as a child.
“When I go down through my whole life and look back at all of these things, I’m just really appreciative,” he said.
From Venezuela to Argentina to Vietnam to the Great Recession to New Leaf, Arsenault sees a purpose to each experience.
“I believe that whatever God lets us go through, good and bad, it’s to help us grow or to help someone around us grow,” he said.