Debbie Lawson Davis Talks about Keeping the Family Business Going
Communication is key, especially in these times
Debbie Lawson Davis is the owner and chief financial officer of Lawson Air Conditioning and Plumbing Inc. in Gainesville, Georgia. Her father, L.D. Lawson, started the business in 1946. Davis was the youngest of four children with a 14-year difference between her and her next youngest sibling. She never intended to enter the family business, getting a degree in journalism instead. After working in several communication positions, Davis joined her father to fill in as an office manager. That turned into a permanent positon, and she’s still there 35 years later. She even married a co-worker, Vince Davis, and the two have seen the company continue and thrive as co-owners.
Lawson offers heating, air conditioning, and plumbing services to both residential and commercial clients, doing both light and heavy commercial work. It is the oldest Carrier dealer in the state of Georgia.
ACHR NEWS: How was your business before the coronavirus outbreak?
Davis: We’re about 50 miles north of Atlanta. We’re in a well-diversified area. The general business climate in a lot of north Georgia is very healthy. We’re just far away enough from Atlanta that we don’t have to put up with the tremendous traffic and we’re just close enough to the Blue Ridge Mountains to make a wonderful destination for businesses to locate and for people to live. We’re the county seat and really the nine-county north Georgia region really centers around us for both medical and government services.
We have not really seen much of a slowdown. Just prior to the coronavirus outbreak, our business had just about doubled over a 12-month period. We have a large medical community here and we’re heavily involved with that. There have been many opportunities with the outbreak. We work with Northeast Georgia Medical Center and they are doing a lot of expansion right now. We’ve been lucky enough to be the recipient of several major projects.
Some of our residential sales were compromised a little at the beginning of the outbreak because people were still uneasy about having someone in their homes. Now, as the humidity kicks in, they trust us, a lot of them are repeat customers, and they would rather be comfortable than concerned.
ACHR NEWS: How have you kept you staff positive during this time?
Davis: It was really important for them to see our concern for their health, especially at the beginning. There was so much unknown. Our top priority was their safety. Keeping open a line of communication helped. We use group texts and messaging software. We tried to arm them with all the information we had from the CDC and regional trade organizations. Some of the general contractors we work with had their own guidelines. We were one of the first to put out our own policies and procedures. Like anything, communication is the key.
ACHR NEWS: During normal times, what do you do to keep you staff happy at work?
Davis: We do a lot of training. We have a lot of weekly toolbox talks. Quarterly, we try to get together for a large informational session on topics such as insurance and retirement planning. We offer training during that, as well. We also try to have an annual cookout.
We have 70 employees right now across all our divisions. Each department has their own annual event, usually at the end of the summer. It might be skeet shooting or fishing or even a spa day.
ACHR NEWS: What sort of marketing do you do?
Davis: My daughter-in-law, Ashley, handles most of the marketing. She does a great job of keeping social media posts fresh and active. We also advertise on four different local radio stations. Being in business for 74 years, our logo is so recognizable. All our vehicles properly display our logos.
We have partnerships with two local active senior communities. We sponsor special events for them. Our marketing is tied to our area.
ACHR NEWS: Do you expect to pass the firm to a third generation?
Davis: I have two sons who work here: Ashley’s husband, Travis, and Taylor. Travis is in our commercial division and Taylor is in our residential department. My husband and I have made a great team over the years. That’s worked out well for us and I can see Travis and Ashley following in our footsteps.
ACHR NEWS: How have you handled the labor shortage facing almost all HVAC contractors?
Davis: It has been challenging trying to find experienced people. We work with our local Department of Labor and put out the word at the supply houses. But we’ve recognized in the past twelve months or so that we’ve really started drawing attention to the trades as a career path for students. We have really tried to grow out own talent.
We created what we call The Lawson Academy. It was really starting to develop before the outbreak. Now schools are suspended. There’s nothing we can do about that.
We worked with local trade associations to create the program. Students would come out of it with an EPA certification. They would learn by doing. That always seems best. We are dedicated to doing that again in the fall depending on how everything is at that point.
ACHR NEWS: What was it like having a non-technical background and leading an HVAC firm?
Davis: As with so many things, if you can surround yourself with good, talented people that you trust and who understand your leadership style and respect you, you can accomplish so much. You don’t have to have all the knowledge yourself. Knowing how to communicate has always been an asset.
ACHR NEWS: What opportunities do you see going forward?
Davis: We have such a diversified business climate here that we still have a lot of opportunities to pursue business relationships. We’re doing all the HVAC and plumbing work for Fox Industries, a company that just relocated to Georgia from California. I expect to see more commercial growth in our area. We work closely with our Chamber of Commerce to understanding the vision for our community in the next decade.
What are you most proud of?
Davis: We are a five-time President’s Award winner from Carrier. Less than 10 percent of Carrier dealers nationwide have achieved that designation. To have received it five years in a row is quite an accomplishment. I’m really proud of all our staff working hard to make that happen.
My father was named to the Carrier Hall of Fame three years ago. I was so thankful to be able to accept that award in his honor. That just gives me further affirmation that we are carrying on his intent for this company to serve this area: to do what’s right by our employees and to provide quality advice and installation for our customers.