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Four lessons learned from Lee-Smith after 75 years of business

Lee-Smith, a local supplier of commercial transportation products and services, is celebrating 75 years in business.

The company’s original building was on West Main Street. At that time, it was called Clift-Smith. (Photo: Contributed)

The company, which started in 1939, has seen three generations, and the current president-Less Lee-said the story of how his father came to run the business is a tale of hard work and perseverance.

His father, Bud Lee, began working at the business after fighting in World War II. He started small and eventually worked his way up and bought the entire company.

“It really is the American dream-for a farm boy to go to the military, get a job in the [business’] service department and end up owning the whole company,” he said.

The company, which has about 170 employees, sells, services and repairs heavy-duty commercial trucks, such as the brand called International.

It evolved from a store that sold and serviced farm tractors and equipment, as well as International trucks.

Moving forward, the company is poised for more growth, longtime employee and Vice President Dayton Shepard said.

There might be potential in clean diesel trucks and electric-powered vehicles.

Lee; his daughter, Taylor Vinson; and Shepard spoke to Nooga.com about the company and what attributes have allowed the business to last for decades.

People are important.
The business is like a family, leaders said. Many of the employees are best friends, and many have been there for decades.

The company has five active employees who have been there for more than 40 years. There are about a dozen who have been there more than 20 years, Lee said.

Lee-Smith had a customer appreciation event this week. (Photo: Staff)

“We try to run the company as a family atmosphere,” he said. 

And the company’s leaders said they have a solid base of loyal customers who have helped the business thrive.

“The thing I come back and stress is it’s truly our people who have made us what we are,” Lee said.

More products can mean more customers. 
The company has always sold International trucks, but in the ’80s, leaders added Ford products.

Later, they added Isuzu.

Adding new product lines helped the company diversify and increase customers.

“It has expanded our customer base,” Lee said.

It’s important to evolve with the times.
Changing with the times has been important, leaders said.

“Our business from a technical standpoint is very much more complex today than it was even five years ago,” Shepard said.

This is what the company’s main building looks like today. It’s located at 2600 Eighth Ave. (Photo: Contributed)

Ten years ago, a truck had maybe 10 computers, he said.

Now, some have more than 60.

The computers have an array of functions. For example, some allow for adaptive cruise control that helps them keep pace with the vehicles around them.

Other features include safety measures, such as making a horn alert someone who hasn’t put the emergency brake on.

“The other thing we’ve done with technology comes into our repairs,” Lee said. “In the past couple of years, we’ve invested in an all-new body shop that is state-of-the-art.”

The body shop includes an 80-foot-long paint booth.

People can fall in love with Chattanooga. Shepard, who has been with the company for almost 20 years, said he came to work at Lee-Smith and fell in love with Chattanooga and the people here.

And leaders said that people whom they bring from out of town easily learn to love the Scenic City.

The city’s location near main interstates is also beneficial, leaders said.

“The customers here have evolved and changed,” Lee said. “[And our employees have] been able to adapt and react to meet customers needs.”

Article was first published on Nooga.com by Chloe Morrison on October 16, 2014.