Keeping the Legacy Going
Intergenerational grading company focuses on family and future
While other boys played with toy tractors, as a child Floyd S. Lee, Jr. drove the real ones on his dad’s job sites.
Based in Forest Park, Ga., the corporation known today as Floyd S. Lee Grading, Inc. has been a family affair since its inception in 1961, when Lee’s father, grandfather and uncles joined together to start the grading company.
Lee worked on projects for schools and subdivisions in Clayton County and watched as the business grew from two tractors to a dozen in the course of 10 years. His dad started with old trucks, cable scrapers, D7 dozers and 955 front-end loaders. Lee ran every piece of equipment each summer.
“I was driving dump trucks and running heavy equipment at 12 years old—on site, of course. I couldn’t drive out on the open road,” says Lee. By 13, he was driving a lowboy semi-trailer.
Until he turned 20, Lee thought he would end up working with his dad, but after attending college for a couple of years he decided he wanted his freedom. So, he left the family business for about four years.
During that time, Lee started out as a line mechanic for Chevrolet and worked his way up to become a service manager. “At 26, I was Chevrolet’s youngest service manager in the southeastern United States in 1976,” recalls Lee. Satisfied with his success, he was ready to -- home.
Rejoining the Family
“When I came back to grading, I was still young and full of energy and ready to try to tackle the family business,” says Lee. Unfortunately, he discovered that there was virtually no business activity at his family’s company. This shocked him, as the economic slump of the early ‘70s hadn’t affected the car dealership in the same way it had his family’s construction business. “I did not expect it to be as bad as I found it when I rejoined my dad’s business,” recounts Lee.
Back working alongside his dad in 1976, Lee could still run the equipment, but he knew nothing about things like project bidding and customer service. Sadly, he only had a short time to learn from his dad, who passed away from a heart attack a mere month later.
Lee and his mom took over the business. Later, he bought his mom out and ran the company by himself for over 40 years until his son Johnwilliam (John) joined him about four years ago.
A Memorable Milestone
“I remember that during those first few years the biggest job I had was a 60,000-cubic-yard dirt job,” reminisces Lee. But, he aspired to handle larger, more noteworthy jobs.
Opportunity eventually came knocking. In the early 1980s, a friend who had grown up in the pipe business invited him to join him in bidding on Phase I of a commercial industrial warehouse project in Gwinnett County. The job consisted of clearing 75 acres and moving a half-million cubic yards of dirt, plus it had a lot of pipe on it for his friend to take care of. The two faced off against larger grading contractors who also bid on the job. “We bid the job and we got it. I think I had two cable scrapers and an old V8 at the time. Going from my biggest job to date of 60,000 cubic yards to 500,000 cubic yards was a major jump,” Lee marvels. By the end of the project, Lee had added about a half dozen scrapers, a couple of V8s and an A15 to his fleet.
The customer awarded the firm Phase II as well. “Phase II consisted of three-quarters of a million yards and 100 acres. After two more years on this project, we were up to 50 to 60 pieces of equipment. We worked primarily in Gwinnett County for the next 10 years,” says Lee.
Smaller and More Comprehensive
Today, Floyd S. Lee Grading is capable of handling a variety of site development needs for general contractors, commercial owners and residential developers. Areas of expertise include storm water management, mass grading, sanitary sewer systems, fire and water distribution, erosion control, demolition and more. “I haven’t done any paving yet, but maybe somewhere down the road my son, John, might want to do that,” muses Lee. John represents the fourth generation of Lees to join the company and is the first in the family to equip himself with a business degree.
During peak times of business, Lee’s company has had up to 125 employees, a fleet of around 110 pieces of equipment, and has worked sites as large as 200 acres. Nowadays, the corporation concentrates on smaller sites—between five and six acres—and eventually may build up to working 10-acre sites. The firm has 25 employees and about 25 tractors. Lee tries to keep the crews to somewhere in the range of 12 to 18 according to job size. “We grow as we want to grow,” says Lee. “I don’t need 100 tractors. We feel like we have a special niche in our market and our size and it’s a comfortable niche to be in. Everything is much more controlled than it would be if we were bigger. I’ve been there and done that. I choose not to go back there.”
Bringing on the Next Generation
Lee also chose not to have John work as a young boy like he did. “I let my son work a few summers to get a taste of what was going on, but I really wouldn’t let him during school. I wanted him to get his college degree,” says Lee. Even in college, John continued working at Floyd S. Lee Grading, mostly during summers. After graduation, he came on board full time.
“It has been a pleasure to work this closely with his son, to watch him learn and educate himself in our field. He dreams of building the business and doing noteworthy work much like I did at his age and it’s nice to see again. A lot of guys at my stage of life don’t have that dream anymore. We’re more interested in surviving,” says Lee. Lee believes survival hinges on restoring equipment rather than buying new. “I let John learn how to do repairs and maintenance and mentored him on how to get the fleet up and running every day,” says Lee.
Lee looks at long-term debt as something he’d rather not have on his shoulders, particularly at times when the marketplace is rebounding from a slump. Now that John works with him, Lee sees his successor as someone who is ready to move the business forward on a more educated level. He’ll let John decide if long-term debt is warranted to grow the business.
Lee concludes: “It’s not how much business you do or how much money you make. It’s how much money you keep and how long you keep your relationships with your customers. For us, it’s also about keeping the business in the family.”