2016 Laureate: Greg Boehling
The words “integrity,” “conscience” and “character” have always been central to the life of Greg Boehling. From his upbringing in Virginia through his career that took him to Texas, South Carolina, Illinois and Alabama, to his ownership of T E C Industrial Maintenance and Construction in Kingsport, Tenn., those concepts have guided his life’s course.
Born to Dick and Burnham Boehling in Richmond, Va., Greg was the third of six children, the first four of whom – Rich, Christie, Greg and Beth – arrived in three-and-a-half years’ time. Little brothers Jim and Frank followed. Greg’s father worked for Reynolds Metals in Richmond. Burnham was a homemaker. Both parents took their responsibility seriously teaching strong values to their children.
“My parents chose to invest in sending their kids to parochial school,” Boehling remembers. “So we all went to St. Edwards.” From there, Greg moved up to Benedictine College Prep, a military, all-male Catholic high school.
While attending schools that taught both academics and solid life principles, Boehling also found he had a hunger for competition. He was a lineman on Benedictine’s football squad. “Our mentality was that we were the ugly guys whose job it was to make the quarterbacks and running backs famous,” Boehling says. “They got all the glory and we got all the mud. But that’s the mentality of a lineman.”
Boehling considered several universities before attending North Carolina State to study Nuclear Engineering. It was during his time there that he got his first job in his chosen career. He caught on with Carolina Power and Light, supporting the nuclear licensing group. It was during this time he realized that the insides of atoms might not hold the key to his future. “The industry was shrinking. Few nuclear power plants were being built but I loved the science of it.” So, Boehling graduated in the field and took a job as a construction engineer with Fluor Corporation at the Comanche Peak nuclear plant in Texas.
Boehling began working at the plant for a construction manager who had a novel idea about how to best utilize Boehling’s talents. He said, “I’ve always wanted to take a kid straight out of college who doesn’t even know what he doesn’t know, put you in the field with craftsmen and have you watch what they do.” The company was having productivity issues, and the construction manager saw Boehling as someone who could bring fresh eyes to the problem.
After a couple of months in the field, Boehling reported back. Teams were blowing through inspection hold points, and then having to tear out uninspected work and redo it. Upon hearing Boehling’s report, the construction manager smiled and said, “Good work. Now go build a training class.” Boehling had diagnosed the problem. All he had left to do was fix it.
It was at Comanche Peak that Boehling first learned the value of networking. One of the corporate higher-ups at Fluor, Shep Wagner, visited the facility. “Everybody was like, ‘Oh gosh, Shep is coming. He’s going to fire a bunch of people,’” Boehling remembers. The job of giving Wagner the project rundown fell to Boehling. “I had been taught to be scared to death of him,” Boehling says, “So I was.”
But during Boehling’s presentation, Wagner saw Boehling’s last name on his hardhat and said, “I dated a girl named Boehling in Richmond, Virginia once. She lived on Hanover Avenue.” Boehling replied, “That was my dad’s house, sir. You dated my aunt.” From then on, Boehling’s colleagues teased him about his “Uncle Shep.” But when that job was ending, Boehling was tapped by Fluor for a marketing position in Greenville, S.C.
It proved a fortuitous move, because it was in Greenville that Boehling met the woman who would become his wife, Dana. They met, appropriately, at a sporting event. A group of their mutual friends invited each of them to a Greenville Braves game where they found they both played tennis. Their first date happened on the court. “She beat me in the first set,” Boehling remembers. “She thinks she beat me in the second set. I don’t remember being beaten.”
Boehling’s career kept him moving. After a brief stint in Chicago, he moved on to Birmingham, Ala. to take a position in the maintenance services group with Rust Engineering. Dana followed Boehling there. “She decided she wanted to find out if this was going to work or not,” Boehling says. “After she did that, I thought, ‘Hmm. She seems to be pretty committed to this.’ We got engaged while in Birmingham and married in Greensboro, the area where she was from. That was in 1994. We’re in our 22nd year now and still love each other as we did then.”
It was during his time in Birmingham that Boehling got to know another individual who would play a key role in his development, Bob Jordan. The two had both been at Fluor at the same time, but had only been passing acquaintances. But when Jordan arrived at Rust, Boehling let him know he’d wanted to work for him in the engineering and construction side of the business. Jordan replied simply, “I can make that happen.” He did. It was there that he became responsible for calling on a company called Eastman Chemical.
But Jordan eventually moved on to Houston, while Boehling, having already worked in Texas once, decided to stay where he was. “I’m a Southeast boy,” Boehling says. Boehling ultimately took a position with Day & Zimmermann back in Greenville.
Day & Zimmermann was doing a good deal of engineering work for Eastman in Kingsport at the time, and Boehling was, in his own words, “constantly up here.” Boehling became enamored of the area, taking time off to go fly fishing when he could, and playing golf as often as possible. “We were engineering high voltage electrical projects that Tennessee Electric was constructing,” Boehling says, “so I ended up getting to know John Miller, who owned the company. Every so often he and Eastman’s Jerry Repass would call and invite me to play with them at The Olde Farm. Naturally, I said, ‘Absolutely.’”
The casual business relationship Boehling and Miller started on the golf course became much more serious the day Miller called Boehling in Greenville and asked if he might be interested in buying Tennessee Electric. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity for Boehling, but it did not come without risk.
Boehling’s wife had already moved from place to place to place, following Boehling’s career. “Dana went through all those moves with me and was a trooper about it,” Boehling remembers. “But I knew it was never easy. Her world got rocked whenever I moved. I had a good job. I had a nice career going. You have to weigh all these things and be real careful in making a decision to buy a company.” Also by that time, the Boehlings had a 7 year-old and a 5 year-old at home. Elizabeth had been born in 1999 and Ross had come along two years later.
In the end, Boehling decided the potential rewards outweighed the risk. Six months later he and Miller were in final negotiations.
Boehling knew he would need capital, so he called his old friend Bob Jordan. “When you buy a company, you can’t just go to the bank. I needed a business partner to do the deal, so I called my former mentor Bob and asked if he would be willing to be my partner in this…we are. The partnership works because both Bob and I subscribe to the same values. It’s no different than a marriage. It only works because you choose to make it work. You have to compromise, work together and communicate,” says Boehling.
The company has grown from 150 employees to around 600. Rather than set growth goals at some percentage rate per year, T E C Industrial has been able to grow at a manageable pace by keeping to three constant guiding principles: The company must safely deliver quality services for its customers. It must keep its price points in a competitive range within the market. It must strive to maintain customer relationships.
Specific strategies for growth have included expanding services based on customer demand, geographic footprint expansion and a disciplined approach to taking only certain contracts.
The company’s revenues had been based on electrical and instrumentation work, with growth coming by selling those services to more customers. But more and more customers started linking their electrical contracts with mechanical and piping work. So the company, which already had several executives with experience in those fields, expanded its focus.
Just so, the opportunities for growth in the Southeast haven’t gone unnoticed by
T E C Industrial. “Two years ago we opened an office in South Carolina. We needed an expanded footprint,” says Boehling.
But that growth has consistently been informed by a disciplined approach. The company stays focused on serving only needs of customers in the process and industrial marketplace. That discipline is so consistent that the company did not take part in the construction of its own headquarters in Kingsport. T E C Industrial hired J. A. Street & Associates to build that facility. “We knew we had to get it built, but our focus had to be on our customers,” Boehling says. “I didn’t want us to need electricians for our own internal project at the same time our customers would need them. The Street folks did a great job for us.”
Boehling hopes observers of the company will understand that its discipline reflects a willingness to stick to its guns in matters of integrity. “Something my dad used to say to us: ‘Whatever you do, remember, if a job is worth doing, it is worth doing right. Be responsible. Work hard. Operate with integrity.’”
If the respected trade publication Engineering News Record is any indication, that approach is working. The publication’s annual rankings of the Top 600 Specialty Contractors in the United States shows the company moving up. If one peels away to compare just the companies that do the overwhelming majority of their work in the industrial sector, T E C Industrial is in the Top 15 in the nation.
It’s clearly a source of pride for Boehling to say, “We’ve grown into this,” but like the old offensive lineman he is, he diverts the credit to his team. “It’s the people in the organization who have taken to what we’ve put in place and delivered on it. They’re the ones who matter.”
“At the end of the day, our best salesman is the customer who says, ‘You did really good work – safe, professional, good quality, you responded on time, and you got through problems the right way.’”
When one listens to Boehling talk about his philosophy of business, the Golden Rule keeps coming to the fore. That too, is something his parents taught him to use as a guide in life. “Success in business doesn’t define us,” he says. “What defines us is our character. It’s who we are and how we treat people.”
“I would love for my legacy to be that I was a person who had character and tried to hand that down, both as a dad and in my company,” Boehling says. “That’s what’s important to me.”
2016 Laureate: Lewis Wexler, Jr.
If you ever visit the Yee-Haw Brewing Company in Johnson City, you’ll know you’re in the building where Hall of Fame Laureate Lewis Wexler Jr., got his start in business, though it had absolutely nothing to do with beer. That Buffalo Street building was once the home of Free Service Tire & Auto Company’s warehouse where young Lewis was starting in the family business, unloading trucks full of tires.
The Wexler name has been synonymous with the tire business in East Tennessee for decades.
In 1919, Wexler’s grandfather Dan, whom Wexler remembers as a larger-than-life figure, started Free Service Tire and Automotive Repair. In those days, cars didn’t have gas gauges. They had dipsticks. Needless to say, motorists were constantly running out of gas. They would walk to the nearest phone and call Free Service, which operated a fleet of motorcycles equipped with sidecars. The company would send a motorcyclist to ferry gasoline to the stranded car. The company charged for the gas, but not the service, hence its name. The company also repaired tires free of charge.
When Lewis Jr. was born in Nashville in 1960, his father, Lewis Sr., was working for the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. Two years later, Dan brought Lewis Sr. back into the Free Service fold and Lewis Sr. and Martha moved back to the Tri-Cities where Lewis Sr. managed a Free Service retail store in Kingsport. In 1965 Lewis Sr. moved the family to the Johnson City corporate office to take an even bigger role at Free Service Tire Company.
Young Lewis attended North Side Elementary School, University School and Science Hill High School in Johnson City. At Science Hill, he came into contact with a most remarkable business education program. You may have heard of it.
“I vividly remember my Junior Achievement (JA) experience and the guiding principles it taught me during high school,” Wexler says. “Fifteen or so of us formed a small business called OMEGA and made bookends as our product. We went to neighbors and friends to discuss our new venture and encourage them to purchase our stock. JA was a fun and lasting experience that not only provided me with some of my first business building blocks but also with confidence to make presentations. I distinctly remember using these skills late in my senior year during a church fundraiser. I boldly gave a sales pitch in front of the entire congregation plugging the wonderful commemorative plates the youth were selling and how every home needed a set. I don’t know that I could have done that without my JA test run.”
Wexler attended the University of Tennessee, earning a degree in business administration and finance. During the summer of his sophomore year at UT, Wexler took a job at a Goodyear Tire store in Memphis while living with his maternal grandparents, Tom and Lillian Patton. Wexler worked in the shop mounting tires and changing oil. There was no air conditioning, and Memphis in the summer was like an oven. It made Wexler appreciate education.
Upon graduation from UT, Wexler celebrated by taking his mother to Disney World before embarking on what he had planned to be a career in banking. But life has its interruptions and his father pulled him aside and told him that if he wanted an interview with Goodyear it could happen. The senior Wexler cautioned that this was not a guarantee of a job, only an interview.
So Wexler went to Atlanta to meet with a regional manager for Goodyear. Wexler was offered a minimum wage sales position in Columbus, Ga. On Wexler’s first day on the job, the store broke the region record for tire sales, holding a parking lot sale. But Wexler also learned an important lesson. He spent the day sending customers from the parking lot inside for the manager to write up their orders. The manager spent the day pocketing the sales incentive money from writing those orders. “It was,” Wexler says, “a learning experience.”
Within two years, Wexler had earned his first store management position, in Lafollette, Tenn. It was while Wexler was in Lafollette that his father asked him to leave the Goodyear-company owned store and return to Free Service to manage its underperforming Chapman Highway location in Knoxville. Wexler agreed, and turned the store’s performance around. “We did really well,” Wexler remembers. “We made more money than any other store in our chain at the time.”
After another brief store management role Wexler was made a store supervisor, overseeing half of the company’s locations. He also moved back to Johnson City. When he arrived, he had been accustomed to working long hours with little social life. It had been part of the price of success. That lifestyle did not sit well with Wexler’s mother, Martha, who suggested Wexler ask the daughter of one of her close friends (Shirlene Booth) to show him around town. It had been a while since he lived in Johnson City, she said. The two mothers were clearly playing matchmaker, but neither Wexler, nor the young lady in question, Nora Jane, minded once they got to know each other.
The two began attending the same Sunday School class, which led to courtship, leading to a beautiful wedding with a reception on the farm of JA Hall of Fame Laureate Jim Powell and his wife Sandy. That reception, Wexler says, was a wonderful example of how full of life the newly minted Nora Jane Wexler was, and is to this day. “We arrived at the reception in an antique Bentley, but we left in a hot air balloon,” Wexler says. “I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t married such a unique, uplifting, spiritual person.”
When he got back from the honeymoon, though, Wexler had some hard work ahead of him.
In the mid-1980s, the Free Service chain had included 19 stores, many in small towns like Rogersville, Newport, Athens and Erwin. The problem was that if you took the appliances, TVs, and furniture out of the sales equation and focused on tires and automotive service, there wasn’t enough business to keep those small market stores going. Credit options for consumers were broadening rapidly, which meant the business model of a tire store that made money by offering in-store credit on sales of these other retail items would not be sustainable.
Wexler saw the need to shift the paradigm. “It was getting hard to recruit someone who could sell a side-by-side refrigerator/freezer and at the same time explain why a customer needed to replace the oxygen sensor on their car,” he says. In addition, the rise of the big box stores was beginning. Wexler knew the time for action had come. “I had the task of moving those appliances out of the mix.”
It was a painful process. “In Rogersville, we had 69 percent of the market at the time, but 69 percent was still not enough to sustain a facility to the level that we desired,” he says. “We wanted to have a full-service automotive repair facility and focus on that.”
Between 1992 and 2002, the chain went from 19 stores to 10, moving stores to follow the demographics and dollars in the cities where it stayed. In Johnson City and Kingsport, downtown locations were closed while new locations opened closer to the shifting consumer base. The Knoxville locations moved west.
But it wasn’t just that Free Service needed to refocus on automotive service and get out of smaller, less profitable markets. It also needed to become more competitive in the automotive area as larger chains offered tires and service at lower prices.
At the time, Free Service only sold Goodyear tires. “I asked the guy at Goodyear how we could be more competitive,” Wexler remembers. “Other retailers were selling those tires at lower prices than we could. The Goodyear guy told me those other retailers were buying a lot more tires than we were, so they were getting a better price from Goodyear.”
Free Service was selling just about all the Goodyear tires it could to consumers, Wexler says, “but I figured out if I bought 1,000 more tires I could get a better buying price and could be a little more competitive, plus I could get some advertising co-op dollars to help promote the product. I could probably use 500 of those tires, but I still needed to sell the other 500.”
Wexler knew many other dealers by that time, so he began informally wholesaling those extra tires to them. It worked. Wexler eventually had to bring in someone to oversee his new wholesale division. He opened a distribution center in Asheville. Then he opened another distribution center in Johnson City. Then another in Knoxville. Then another in Roanoke. What had been a way to get a little more competitive price had turned into an entire business division with a massive co-op ad budget to support the retail side as a bonus.
Today, the wholesale side of Free Service follows the philosophy the company held in 1919 when it sold tires, but provided the service free of charge. The company not only sells tires to its wholesale clients. It also provides training and marketing help to those same clients. “We’ve even gotten so close with some of our wholesale customers that they’ve told us, ‘I need a day off, can you send over someone to work a Saturday?’ and we’ve done it,” Wexler says.
And while Wexler has been growing that side of the business, his brother Harrison, executive vice president, has been growing the commercial side, which had been retreading tires since the 1940s. “We’ve been green for 75 years,” Wexler says.
Lewis and Harrison’s younger sister Susan also is involved in the family business, as is Lewis Sr., who maintains the title of Chairman and CEO, while Lewis is president.
“Maintaining a family business can be both stressful and rewarding,” Wexler says. “We are together a lot. I truly can’t remember a time when we all didn’t agree about changes that needed to happen to move our company forward. In everyday life’s decisions and activities we all possess different opinions and interests; but, when it comes to Free Service (after all of us being forever immersed in the tire life) we totally agree on the principles of how to run it.
Knowing each other so well, Wexler says, makes each member of the family predictable, a word that is synonymous with dependable.
“So far,” he adds (letting it go unsaid that ‘so far’ encompasses almost a century of doing business), “it’s working.”
Wexler says neither of his children has yet to show any interest in someday going into the tire business, but adds, “neither did I till I graduated college.” 20-year-old daughter Savannah is in the honors engineering program at UT -Chattanooga and 16-year old son Luke is at University School.
It has all added up to a growing company. When Wexler first started working in the warehouse as a teenager, the company stocked about 40 different kinds of tires. Now Free Service stocks 3,800 SKUs for retail, wholesale and commercial sale. Still, with cars always needing service, Wexler says the future is bright so long as the company holds true to the ideals on which Free Service was founded. “If you come to a fork in the road, you generally know which way is the right choice,” he says. “Just do a lot of praying, call on your experience, and you will know the right answer.”
Wexler’s confidence in the idea that Free Service will continue doing the right thing into its second century is born of the conscious business decision to choose commitment to service over being a slave to price, and the conscious personal decision to choose commitment to faith over being a slave to worry.
An honor and a privilege
By Ken Maness
Junior Achievement plays a tremendously important role in our community, and it has been my pleasure to work with JA in various roles over the years. This year it was my distinct honor and privilege to serve as master of ceremonies for the Hall of Fame gala.
May 10 was a very special evening as we awarded the Junior Achievement Business Hall of Fame award to two new Laureates. Greg Boehling and Lewis Wexler, Jr., two very deserving honorees, were recognized for their achievements as community leaders, high achieving business leaders and men of high integrity and character.
The lives that Greg and Lewis have lived and the role model each has displayed make us all proud to be a part of America’s free enterprise system, and remind us again of how great an impact business leaders like Greg and Lewis have on our region.
I wish to express sincere thanks to Greg and Lewis for allowing us to share their remarkable stories, to the Hall of Fame Committee, the Junior Achievement Boards of Directors, the JA staff, and the many business and community leaders who share their experiences by volunteering in the classrooms. They provide the inspiration for the students of our region to succeed in business and in life. It is so important for Junior Achievement to be the liaison for the business community and our students to continually perpetuate the free enterprise system. Thanks also to The Business Journal and Charter Spectrum for the roles they play sharing these remarkable stories. I join the business and community leaders who congratulate Greg and Lewis on their recognition and thank you for your generous support for Junior Achievement.
As we enter our 50th year as JA in Tri-Cities, it is as important as ever for students to see the examples of individuals like Greg and Lewis, to understand the vital importance of free enterprise, and to have the experiences JA brings to prepare those students for the future. We thank you for your continued support.
Staying the Course
By Cathy Salley
We are honored to have inducted this year two outstanding businessmen, Greg Boehling and Lewis Wexler, Jr. into the Junior Achievement of Tri-Cities TN/VA Business Hall of Fame. They deservingly join alongside our past inductees, a Who’s Who of our region’s business leaders and entrepreneurs.
Greg and Lewis’ life story and business story are much different. Greg continued proving himself, especially as a leader, as he and his family moved from place to place across the country. On the other hand, Lewis stayed in the state of Tennessee except for a short stint in Columbus, GA. Greg worked for several different companies gaining a wealth of experience before having the opportunity to buy Tennessee Electric Company, now known as T E C Industrial. Under Greg’s ownership and leadership, T E C Industrial has had tremendous growth and success. Lewis’ business, Free Service Tire Company, is a 97-year family-owned three generation business started by his grandfather, Dan Wexler. Today, Lewis, Sr., brother Harrison, and sister Susan work alongside Lewis, Jr. The longevity of the company speaks volumes of its leadership and success. Lewis, Jr. continues to take the company to new heights. Both Greg and Lewis took many risks but stayed the course to make the right choices and right decisions throughout their life and business career. Junior Achievement is fortunate to have Greg, Lewis and our past laureates as role models for our youth and future leaders.
I extend my heartfelt thanks to the sponsors of the JA Business Hall of Fame event, our contributors, volunteers, school teachers, boards of directors and staff. I extend a special thank you to the Hall of Fame committee and to Ken Maness for the amazing job he did as our chair. It takes all of you to make Junior Achievement successful and to have the ability and privilege to have a part in shaping the future of our students in the region. It is imperative we continue to educate them about the free enterprise system, the opportunities we have and the importance of their education.
If you are not already involved with Junior Achievement, I encourage you to do so as a classroom volunteer or working with one of our special events. Not only is it fun working with our students, it is an inspiration.
Congratulations to Greg and Lewis! Again, many thanks to each of you!
2016 Hall of Fame Gala