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Tom Lee
Lee & Cates Glass CEO Tommy Lee has guided his family business back from the depths of the Great Recession.
June 28, 2017

Tommy Lee wrestled with those dead-of-night worries. It was, he recalls, “when everything went south.”

The third-generation president and CEO of Jacksonville-based Lee & Cates Glass Inc. was guiding the company through the Great Recession and a 2009 state investigation into fraud charges of overbilling insurance claims.

“Your prayer life increases dramatically. The problem is, it increases at 2 and 3 o’clock in the morning when you’re trying to figure everything out,” he said.

“It’s a lot of soul-searching.”

The 2007-09 recession led to a 40 percent drop in revenue, necessitating cost-cutting, taking on debt, diversification and cutting 150 people from a staff of 300.

The company worked through the legal issues and met the court’s conditions, including making full restitution. It cut five staff members and tightened controls and oversight.

“You find out a lot of things about people and yourself, and that’s the difficult task, but that’s how you get through things, and so you have to tough it out,” Lee said.

If a recession and legal issues weren’t enough to deal with, his father died in September 2009.

Recovery, re-investment

That was almost a decade ago, and the family-owned company has grown to almost 190 employees.

It operates 12 retail locations in Northeast Florida and South Georgia and continues its focus on its Northwest Jacksonville manufacturing plant, Flat Glass Distributors.

As a privately held company, Lee does not divulge revenue but said it is near its pre-recession level.

Lee is best known as Tommy, but also goes by Tom. He became president and CEO in 1993, taking over from his father, Thomas D. Lee Jr.

Lee & Cates began 91 years ago to serve the emerging automobile market, its founders figuring windshields were a growth industry.

Over time, it expanded to install and fabricate commercial, residential and decorative glass.

It launched Glass Distributors Inc. in 1957 to distribute auto glass and plate glass. Through strategic changes and rebranding, that division became Flat Glass Distributors, and the company decided during the strong economy of 2006 to invest heavily into the manufacturing side of the business.

It operates an 80,000-square-foot state-of-the-art manufacturing plant at 5355 Shawland Road, and it does well.

A professional path

Lee, 64, joined Lee & Cates full time in 1975, and is a visible leader as the company spokesman on TV commercials.

He grew up in the business, working during the summers in its retail locations and installing auto, residential and storefront glass.

Although he toyed with other ideas, such as radio sports announcing, Lee said he always knew he wanted to give the family business a try.

“As I tell my wife, the next thing I knew, I was sitting in my station wagon driving to the beach to her parents’ house, and a wife, and two kids in the back seat. I said, ‘I better stick with what I got and what I know,’” he said.

Trends and competition have reshaped the business.

For example, when he took over as CEO in 1993, about 75 percent of its business was auto glass. Today it’s just 25 percent, with the majority being flat glass for houses and commercial buildings.

In the housing market, Lee & Cates focuses on replacement and repair rather than new construction, although it does work for custom homes.

The company wants to grow its auto glass business, considering it was created in that niche.

Finding a niche

Lee’s grandfather, Thomas D. Lee Sr., and Raymond H. Cates founded the company in 1926.

They moved their families from Georgia to Florida and opened the original Lee & Cates store on Adams Street in Downtown Jacksonville.

“At the time, the car was the big deal, so they started to think, ‘everybody’s going to want one of those.’ They saw that as an opportunity,” Lee said.

They started with buying and installing flat glass for the early cars but adapted to curved glass as windshields evolved.

They faced tough times — such as the Great Depression — but also opportunities.

One story Lee heard was that just before World War II, the men agreed with another company to buy a truckload of flat glass. When it arrived, the other man pulled out of the deal.

“They went out on a limb, paid for it all themselves, kept it all themselves,” he said.

Then war broke out.

“They were able to get through a time where they could take advantage of the situation and had glass when others did not have as much,” he said.

Lee & Cates Glass was founded Downtown and it retains a retail operation along Houston Street. Its headquarters office is at its Northwest Jacksonville manufacturing plant.

All in the family

Lee describes his leadership style as one that expects people to perform their duties, and he isn’t a micro manager.

“The best thing to do is have people that do everything better than you,” he said. “We have a lot of great people, and I try to let them do their job and not get in their way.”

Of course, there are times he steps in to take care of situations, although he remains aware of the reality.

“When you’ve got a family business, sometimes you can’t say everything you really want to say because it is family and you may or may not get invited to Thanksgiving dinner if you say the wrong thing,” he said.

Plus, he said, his wife, NeeCee, does payroll, “so I really have to be careful with that.”

The next generation

Defying the odds, Lee & Cates is heading into its fourth generation of family leadership. Lee’s son, Thomas, and his son-in-law are in the business, as are children of other executives, “so they’re coming along.”

Thomas Lee IV, 35, is general manager.

Lee also talks about increasing their visibility. “I’m the one on TV, but it’s about time to get somebody younger and better-looking on there, so we’ll see how that works.”

JSA Advising in Minnesota reports that 30 percent of family-owned businesses survive into the second generation and only 12 percent make it into the third generation.

That drops to 3 percent of all family businesses operating in the fourth generation and beyond. “Therefore, making it to the 4th generation is very rare,” it says.

Lee knows that.

“They say the third generation usually blows it or sells it, so we’ve probably come close to doing both, but haven’t done either of those, so it’s down in the single-digit percentages,” Lee said.

To make it work, he said, the key is “being true to the business, and never taking too much out of the business.”

Like other industries, though, there’s a challenge in finding a workforce, “getting people to come into the business and want to put in the hours and the time it takes to do what we do and to learn that trade.”

“We’ve got to figure out a way to show them a path, show them how they can make a good living in a trade,” he said.

Reflecting for the future

Lee said Lee & Cates continues to persevere. “We are here for the long haul,” he said.

He wasn’t so sure back in November 2009. “Things were really, really bad. I get a daily devotional and at the bottom of that, the title of the devotional was, ‘You’re Not Going Under.’

“At that time, I was not sure of that,” he said.

Lee relied on his faith for strength. “I strongly believe in my God, so I had to turn it over to him and get through that. My father taught me that, his father taught him that, and so we live that,” he said.

He and the company survived, going through what he calls “a funnel of perseverance.”

“You’re changed, you’re transformed, and you’ve learned a lot, and you have to keep battling and be assured the next day is going to better in some form or fashion.”

After that, he said, “you take your little victories and move on.”

Thomas D. Lee III

AGE: 64

POSITION: President, Lee & Cates Glass Inc.

HOMETOWN: Born and raised in Jacksonville

EDUCATION: Three years at Florida State University and the University of North Florida

CAREER PATH: Lee & Cates Glass is the only full-time job I have had beginning in 1975. It’s been 42 years.

HOBBIES: Golf, tennis, reading spy/action novels, grandchildren

FAMILY: Wife, Denise (NeeCee) Thomason Lee, married 40 years; son Thomas and his wife, Lauren, and their children Kate, 4, Ben, 3, and Charlotte, 1; daughter Stacy Lasonde and her husband, Matt, and their children Liam, 7, Perrin, 5, and Kenna, 1.

COMMUNITY: Salvation Army Advisory Board (past chairman); Fellowship of Christian Athletes and JAX Chamber, past board member; National Glass Association and Glass Association of Florida (past chairman of each)

BEST ADVICE: Personal: Accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior — My parents.

Business: Cash ain’t cash until it’s cash and never run out of cash — Red Scott.

BIGGEST SURPRISE: That my father didn’t fire me when I was young and then later actually let me run the company.

WISDOM FOR YOUNG PEOPLE: “There is nothing good that God brings into your life by way of transformation that He doesn’t bring through the funnel of perseverance. If God can get that one characteristic into your life, He can truly make you what He wants you to be.” — James MacDonald

A DECISION I WOULD TAKE BACK: There are plenty of things I wish I had not done or done differently in my life. I won’t say them because my Mama might read this article. To change any major decision would mean that my whole life could have changed. That could mean I would not have NeeCee in my life, my children or grandchildren. The thought of that is not something I even want to entertain.

ONE DECISION I WISH I WOULD HAVE MADE: I would have bought that Microsoft stock way back when a friend told me about the company. I thought an operating system was something going on in a hospital.