VOL. 129 | NO. 116 | Monday, June 16, 2014
SMALL BUSINESS SPOTLIGHT
Brought to you by
Lehman-Roberts’ Longevity Paved by Family Ownership
By Andy Meek
Lehman-Roberts Co. is a highway paving contractor that president Patrick Nelson regards with the kind of pride that might at first seem out of place for work that involves asphalt and roadwork.
But it’s not hard to see where his pride comes from. His company – 75 years old this year and in its fourth generation of family ownership – is somewhat unique among businesses in Memphis in that almost everyone in the city interacts with his company’s handiwork.
Lehman-Roberts Co.’s executives are, from left, Michael Ellis, Jobe Madison, Patrick Nelson (president), Richard Moore III and John Paul Finerson.
(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)
“Providentially, I ended up in one of the greatest industries I think I could imagine,” Nelson said. “Because whether I’m going to church or taking my kids to school or just running down the street to Kroger, I can’t drive anywhere in the city of Memphis without going across something we built. And I have a lot of pride in that. Memphis is a better place because Lehman-Roberts has been here for 75 years.
“We may not have been the last contractor that touched or initially built it, but at some point in 75 years, I’d say there’s probably not a lot of roads that we haven’t touched at some point. That’s a neat story to be able to tell folks.”
The company makes asphalt and related products, in addition to maintaining its own fleet of grading and paving equipment. It operates two asphalt plants in Shelby County and six in Mississippi, and it currently employs around 350 people.
Lehman-Roberts acquired a sister company, Memphis Stone & Gravel Co., in 1972, and it owns six sand and gravel mines in similar areas. The 350 employees are spread between both companies.
Nelson joined the company in 1993, working his way up through the business from working on a drill crew to operations to surveying to administration. His father-in-law, Rick Moore, the third generation in the business, is chairman of the company.
Besides Nelson and Moore, three other members of his family currently work at the company.
“We’re one of those rare family companies that have had generations that went before us that had a vision for succession in the business and they worked very, very hard – you have to be very intentional to pass any family business down through generations,” Nelson said. “They made a plan and stuck with it in good times and bad times.”
The company does work mostly in West Tennessee, but also a little in Eastern Arkansas as well as in North Mississippi. Asphalt is a perishable product with limited shelf life, so it has to be used near an existing plant, and Lehman-Roberts serves both the commercial and public asphalt markets in those areas.
The work ranges from new construction to total rehabilitation, and examples of its projects include the asphalt paving happening now on Interstate 240 between Poplar Avenue and Walnut Grove Road.
It might seem like Nelson’s industry is recession-proof, but it should be noted that the company’s industry “changed drastically” in 2008 for two reasons.
“The global recession just changed everybody’s business, and we’ve not been immune to that,” he said. “Liquid asphalt, which is the black liquid that goes in with all the rocks to make hot mix asphalt, it’s a petroleum-based product, and in 2008 the price of that product nearly tripled.
“The highest cost in what we do is materials, and it’s the most expensive material we consume. And while liquid asphalt went up in price like that, the public entities that make up the biggest volume of our work, they have not increased their budgets accordingly.”
For additional context, he points to the 18.3 cents from every gallon of gas purchased that goes into the U.S. Highway Trust Fund. That amount has not changed, he said, since 1993, so “all these folks have fewer dollars to be spending on infrastructure.”
One way Lehman-Roberts gets around that is by competing on the basis of a strong safety record – in fact, one of the best in the industry, Nelson says – and the goodwill built up over 75 years thanks to the longevity and the continuity of family ownership.
“We’ve been doing this for a long time, so obviously we have a lot of goodwill with engineering firms, architecture firms, the city of Memphis, places like that,” he said. “The goodwill we’ve built up over that period certainly helps us in a lot of situations. And we’re good at what we do. Our mission is to help communities thrive, and I really believe we do that.”