Relay Electric earns Small Business honor

Published 10:06 pm Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Shannon Lee likes to say she gave birth to two babies 14 years ago — delivering her daughter Claire and, along with her husband Carey Lee, a new business in Relay Electric LLC.

The company, which began modestly out of their home, is now a full-fledged company sticking to what it does best — full service professional lighting and electrical maintenance and design for clients in Southside and on the Peninsula. It has operated out of its Holland Road location since 2014.

By staying focused on its electrical work, and on satisfying its customers and taking care of its staff, Relay Electric has earned the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce’s 2019 Suffolk Small Business of the Year.

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Last year was as good a year as the company has had in terms of how it was positioned financially, Shannon Lee said, so to receive the honor was especially pleasing.

“It has been a long, hard road,” Shannon Lee said. “This is very rewarding. It’s a nice reward. We see the fruits of our labor. We know what we’ve accomplished and we know what has been there, but it’s nice for somebody else to say, ‘Hey, you did something right.’”

That long, hard road really began when Carey Lee began performing electrical work about 30 years ago, following in his uncle’s footsteps from the time he was 17. Shannon Lee performs administrative duties for the business, having worked on that side of things for an architect, civil engineer and a developer/contractor. They were able to pool their contacts to get the business going, and as Carey Lee described, things have snowballed and progressively gotten bigger.

“We basically started out, whatever I could do by myself, we worked out of the living room at the house,” Carey Lee said. “We basically started with whatever we could scrounge up,” Carey Lee said.

Fourteen years later, Relay Electric, which counts 14 employees on its payroll, performs work for clients such as developers, general contractors, electrical and HVAC contractors, property managers and residential property owners, homeowner’s associations, commercial property owners, as well as local, state and federal agencies and pool designers.

They describe their biggest challenges as people and money.

“(It’s) making sure we’re giving as good benefits as we can, and staying on top of collections and we are doing right by everything that we can,” Shannon Lee said. “Trades are a dying breed, but I tell our kids all the time, dad’s a master electrician, and I have a master’s in business, and dad can get a job quicker than I can, so there’s value in that.”

Carey Lee said the work has essentially stayed the same, but it’s making sure the company has enough work to survive any economic downturns and keep their employees busy.

“It still gets back to trying to find employees,” Carey Lee said. “It’s a struggle to find younger people who really want to get into this type of work. They come few and far between, so when we do get some of those guys, we try to keep them and let them learn, and get them to a point where they can do it on their own.”

But unlike some businesses, Relay Electric will hire people with no electrical experience. For the Lees, a strong work ethic matters most.

“Momma should have taught that, and we can’t teach that, but we can teach them electrical skills,” Shannon Lee said.

The company has hired homeless people in the past, and has had four work for them for more than a year.

The Lees said their clients have been loyal to them, and they return that loyalty to their clients. For them, it’s about giving people a good product that lasts longer, because for them, it’s putting their reputation on the line. They admit to making mistakes in running a business, but as they have grown, so has the business.

“To make it last 14 years and still be going pretty strong, if not stronger than ever, it’s pretty good to make it this long,” Carey Lee said.

The two enjoy working together and complement each other’s skill sets. The business is a way of life for the two of them, their son Jack, 12, and Claire 14, who all have in-depth knowledge of the business. Claire was born in February 2005, and the business was incorporated in April of that year.

“We have raised our three children — Relay, Claire and Jack,” Shannon Lee said. “Claire and Relay may just as well be twins.”

The Small Business of the Year Awards will be presented at a luncheon May 2, where the overall winner will be announced. Relay Electric is competing against six other businesses for the regional honor.