Kenosha Area Business Alliance recognizes two business leaders
By Kay Falk, for SBT
Bob Lee Jr. and W. Craig Deaton are described as hardworking, honest and humble, balancing business acumen with family life and community involvement — traits that earned them this year’s designation as Business Leader of the Year and Community Business Leader of the Year by the Kenosha Area Business Alliance (KABA). Lee runs Lee Plumbing while Deaton owns Gateway Mortgage Corp.
Bob Lee leads by example
"The way Bob Lee balances the heavy responsibilities of leading a growing company and his family life is really impressive," says Craig Rebro, the head of the heating and cooling division of Lee Plumbing Mechanical Contractors Inc., and the person who nominated Lee for the award. "He portrays the humble confidence of a good leader, keeping a clear and level head in all circumstances."
Lee, in fact, is so humble that he didn’t even tell his father about the award – his dad and company founder had to read about it in the KABA newsletter.
"How do you tell people you’re receiving such a honor? I didn’t tell anyone about it," he says. "In fact, when I got the message from KABA, I thought it was a joke. Calling back and finding out it was for real, I felt very humbled. All I can attribute it to is that my word is my bond and I believe in treating people well, whether they’re just having a faucet installed or asking about a big building project."
Among criteria on which KABA bases its business leader award is business growth/longevity/stability. Lee Plumbing fits the bill. When Bob Lee Jr. and his brother Mike took over their father’s plumbing business in 1983, they were the sole employees of the company, with Bob Sr. shifting focus to owning the Kenosha Twins Class A baseball team. Today, the company has 90 employees.
The firm does site utility, process piping, residential heating and cooling service, and plumbing. One recent project was with the $600 million Chrysler expansion.
"We were involved for more than two years, from site utilities to the final hookups," Lee recalls. "We’ve also worked on many projects in southeastern Wisconsin. We prefer direct bids to the state and project owners, and work with several good general contractors. Then business is based on our reputation and a relationship we’ve developed over time. We know if we do a good job for people, we’ll work with them again."
To keep track of the business facets, two internal divisions focus on plumbing/mechanical and heating/cooling in separate facilities. The heating and cooling division was launched in 1999 and has had substantial success.
Outside Kenosha, Mike Lee handles a Burlington office and also does residential plumbing for custom homes.
And there’s a Fox Lake, Ill., office used as a base for service plumbing.
"The bulk of our work is industrial and commercial," Lee says. "We cover from Kenosha south to the Great Lakes Naval Base, east to Whitewater in Walworth County and north to the south side of Milwaukee."
Company growth averages about 5% per year. "We believe in controlled growth that’s consistent and manageable," he notes. "The bulk of the growth comes from acquiring small plumbing companies that complement our business and are a good fit."
Lee enjoys having his own business. "I like the amount and variety of people we deal with, and watching our employees (we call them team members) develop as the business grows," he says. "Our services aren’t rocket science; it’s all about treating people the way you want to be treated, being fair, and managing people to get their input. I surround myself with good, smart people. With their help, there are no limits to what we can do."
Along with developing employee skills, Lee participates in the Kenosha Area Business Development mentoring program with high school-age youth, and he’s willing to help community groups by sharing his organizational skills.
Lee’s primary focus, however, is keeping family and business in balance. He admits it takes a lot of hard work to keep a business going, with no set hours, so he tries to see that neither his business nor his family suffer neglect. "My children range from 14 to 8 years old. Although I have a vision or dream to pursue, I’m aware of the costs — kids are only young once, and they’re worth making sacrifices for," he comments. "My outside activities center around the children: hunting and fishing with my eldest, horseback riding with Emma and sports with the younger son."
Box: Bob Lee Jr.
Craig Deaton gives back to the community
The KABA Community Business Leader this year also got started in his own business in 1983, after stints in teaching and real estate. With slow steady growth, his firm, Gateway Mortgage Corp., a privately held mortgage banker (not broker), enlarged from two to 20 employees and did $175 million in business last year.
One of the people who nominated Deaton is Tashe Bozinovski, a partner in Landmark Title. His reasons? "We got started in business about the same time, and I watched Craig develop as a person and businessman," he recalls. "His employees love him, his family admires him and he’s always willing to offer a helping hand."
Bozinovski adds, "This past year, the low interest rates made our businesses very hectic. It’s hard to stay cool and on an even keel, but Craig did and balanced business and community activities remarkably well. I’ve always admired the way he lives and does business."
Deaton was surprised to win the award. "There are several people I know who do a lot for our community. I don’t think I’m anything special. I do think it’s important to give back, however. What I’ve been able to achieve relates to what people have given me and the opportunities I’ve received."
In addition to providing (through his business) low-cost, low-down-payment mortgages to low-income families and helping many become homeowners, Deaton gives back to the college that educated him. He’s run two golf outings for the Carthage College athletic and baseball department for the past 15 years. More recently, he’s served on the Carthage board of directors. "In the past 10 years under a dynamic president, Carthage has grown from 800 to 900 students to its capacity of 2,000 students," he says. "It’s been a pleasure to watch and participate in that growth, including two new buildings just completed."
Deaton supports the Kenosha Achievement Center by serving as its treasurer, handling nearly $8 million in assets used to provide jobs for physically and mentally disabled people in the area. "A visit to the center really enlightens you as your watch people overcome challenges they had no part in creating. They’re so happy to come to work everyday and have something to contribute," he says. "This is a fantastic service to the community that many don’t know exists.
Deaton also serves on the board of directors of Johnson Bank.
When it comes to business, Deaton humbly attributes much of his success to his staff. "Most have been with me for 12 to 15 years," he comments. "They offer a great nucleus of knowledge, and that’s important because there are changes all the time. All mortgage companies work in the same secondary financial market, so we offer knowledge and good service to stay competitive."
While Gateway Mortgage has a broad customer base in Kenosha, Racine and Walworth counties, dealing with the ups and downs of the bond market/interest rates can be a challenge. "It’s the hardest part of the business, but I’ve learned it does no good to get excited," Deaton notes. "Even when business was overwhelmingly busy, we had the system and technology in place to handle it so we could complete the process in less than 30 days. It takes a great staff to do that."
His philosophy for business and community work is: "It’s better to be a giver than a receiver in this people world," Deaton says. "It’s about treating people like you want to be treated. I don’t do these activities for gain, but I certainly get internal rewards and like knowing I can contribute to society."
Box: W. Craig Deaton
Oct. 31, 2003 Small Business Times, Milwaukee