Women in Landscaping: Kim Lewey
North Carolina native Kim Lewey always wanted to be on a fast track. Willing to do the work, she wanted to know that if she had the ability—and she knew she did—she could move up in the business world.
While attending Wake Forest University, she worked in parks and recreation in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Lewey graduated in 1980 with a bachelor’s degree in physical education and continued working in parks and recreation. That same year, she married Mike Lewey.
“I wanted to advance my career faster than my employer did, so I left,” she says. Through a family friend, she got a job as a commercial loan clerk at First Citizens Bank in rural Hall, North Carolina. Two years later, Lewey was promoted, and the couple moved to raleigh.
She spent 18 years at the bank and worked her way up to chief credit standards officer, when she felt the need for a change. Lewey was ready to move on.
She began to think about starting her own business; the entrepreneurial juices were flowing. In 2001, while investigating a business opportunity, her husband Mike came home to announce that after 16 years as a grounds maintenance supervisor for a raleigh real estate developer, he had been laid off. The good news was that he had already been offered another job.
An idea popped into kim Lewey’s head. This could be an opportunity not only to start a new business, but one where she and her husband could work together. She asked him, “Which would you rather do— take this job or start a business?” To kim, it was a no-brainer. With the contacts they both had, she was willing to bet on the two of them.
Without her push, Lewey Landscaping and Lawn Care, Inc., probably wouldn’t have happened.
“Mike is the kind of guy who would have been happy to keep working for somebody else. I was the one who always wanted my own business.”
Kim and Mike divide the labor. She handles customer relations, talks to new and prospective customers, and helps plan the initial work. She also manages the company finances, including invoices, marketing and strategizing.
This allows Mike do what he loves: being out there doing the actual landscape work and talking to clients. Meanwhile, her focus on the back office doesn’t keep her from getting her hands dirty once in awhile.
However, Kim Lewey didn’t think she’d end up in the landscape business. But then, she likes to change things up every now and then.
Lewey Landscaping and Lawn Care is a full-service landscape company, working in the commercial as well as the residential areas.
Their scope of business includes design/build, irrigation installation and repair, as well as low-voltage landscape lighting and maintenance. In addition, they have a pesticide license.
It’s a true equal partnership for the couple. While kim handles the business end of the business, that doesn’t mean she doesn’t ever get to work outdoors. “I’ve gotten a lot of operational experience, especially in the last two-and-a-half years. When we’re shorthanded, I’ll run a crew myself. I can pick up pruning shears and spread some mulch, but I’m probably not going to touch the commercial mower.” Lewey likes the challenge, saying, “I’m all about learning.”
What stands out most to Lewey as a woman in a male-dominated field? “At first, I worried about going to pick up materials. Am I gonna be able to get out of the dump truck and throw the burlap over it? I don’t know if this is true for men, but I’ve found that there’s always someone around who’s willing to help. The vendors are willing to go that extra mile for me.”
She also finds that “women are more comfortable talking to women, even if it is about landscaping. That’s also helped us to grow our business.”
As a woman, there were some personnel issues. Lewey said that in the beginning, there was a bit of an issue with the Latino workers fully accepting her when she got out from behind her desk and into the field.
“I think it was a cultural thing. They just hadn’t seen a woman doing this type of work before. Someone would see me pushing a wheelbarrow and run over and grab it away from me, saying, “No, no, no!” They were used to seeing me sign the checks, but not doing landscape work right next to them. These guys have worked for us a long time, and they always joked around with my husband, but not with me. But in the past year, something changed, and now they joke around with me, too.”
It probably helped that Lewey learned to laugh at herself. “When I drive our dump truck, I have to move the seat way up to reach the floor. They’re all much taller than I am, so when they get back in the truck, their knees are in their chests—so that’s kind of comical. We also laugh when I make a mistake and shift the gears wrong.
They’ll look at me, and I say, ‘Oops! Sorry about that!’” Their business doubled over the past four-and-a-half years, going from two three-man crews to four. However, with growth and headcount come new challenges. Lately, Mike and kim have had a hard time maintaining good crew chiefs, as well as finding drivers with clean enough records behind the wheel to satisfy their company’s business liability insurance carrier.
With the paucity of crew chiefs, Kim finds herself out of the office and out at the jobsite more often than in years past. “I’ll take care of anything out in the field that’s appropriate,” she says. “Mike will handle the more complex landscape estimates. He’s the one who knows all about drainage issues and how many zones there should be for an irrigation installation. But I can handle anything that requires measuring square footage—I can run a wheel as well as anybody.”
Lewey likes being out there with her husband. “It gives us a chance to catch up, both on our marriage and on the business. This way, we can keep each other in the loop.”
Each year brings something new, which suits Lewey just fine. recently, she has been involved in the design and redesign of her company’s website. She credits that website with helping to spur growth, but admits that it took a while to get it right.
“We didn’t even have a website for the first eight years,” she recalls. “And the first version we put up wasn’t that good. People weren’t finding us.”
A 2010 redesign by a new designer, more savvy in SEO (search engine optimization) brought better page rankings right away. “In the first three months, we noticed that we were getting a lot more calls.” Lewey can’t stress enough the importance of a strong web presence. “In today’s society, having a good website with SEO is vital, because the under 40 generation does everything by email or Google. We’re getting more calls than we can handle, so we prefer to grow the business by quality rather than by quantity.”
She has also reaped business benefits through networking. For the past five years, Lewey has been a member of NAWBO, the National Association of Women Business Owners, Greater raleigh chapter. In the last four as a member of the Board of Directors (of which she was just named president-elect).
The NAWBO has been very helpful, she reports. “you’re meeting with women who have owned businesses for several years. you’re combining all of their past experiences, as well as your own, to come up with solutions. you’ll talk to someone who’s already been there, whether it’s an employee issue, or whether or not you need to be involved in social media, to legal matters—we have several members who are lawyers. It’s a real sisterhood, in a professional sense. Like most organizations, whether you’re part of a Chamber of Commerce or whatever, you get as much out of it as you put into it. Plus, it allows people to remember you, to get to know who you are. That all helps your business.”
For Lewey, the most enjoyable part of the last eleven years has been “watching us expand and being able to share and talk about it with each other. That is, to understand what one another is talking about. In so many marriages, your spouse doesn’t know what you do all day and doesn’t care.”
Rounding out this family affair, their daughter Jordan, a recent college graduate, has been doing bookkeeping part-time, as well as learning real-world skills. Lewey plans to use her daughter’s talents as a photographer to document projects for the website.
Not one to sit still, Lewey is beginning to think of other avenues of expanding the family business. Whatever lies ahead for Kim Lewey, it’s sure to be interesting. “I’m not the type of person who likes to do the same thing over and over, year in and year out,” she says. “I like change.” As a successful woman in the landscape business, she’s sure to get plenty of it.