Heart of the Entrepreneur: Lonnie Williams, L&J Building Maintenance Services
Photo by Rachel Lock
For young Lonnie Williams, new to Topeka, it was exciting. There was opportunity if you knew where to look and were willing to work.
Contractors were paving his streets, replacing the old brick-lined lanes. There was no application, no interview, just 10 cents for each brick moved and stacked. Lonnie didn’t ask questions. He quietly went to work and one brick at a time finished the job.
The next day, the construction company owner, flabbergasted by all the bricks neatly stacked by the side of the road, asked his crew who was responsible. Everyone pointed to the 12-yearold boy. Impressed, the businessman shook Lonnie’s hand and offered to take him and his mom to lunch.
This made an impression Lonnie would never forget—his first of many entrepreneurial experiences that would shape his life.
Today, Lonnie Williams, along with his family, owns L&J Building Maintenance Services, LLC, a Topeka-based company that provides building maintenance, mechanical construction and sanitation services across five states. In 2008, Lonnie was recognized as the U.S. Small Business Administration Minority Small Business Person of the Year, but few know about L&J or the entrepreneur behind its success.
Changing a Life
Lonnie’s mom, Rosetta, always told him that someday he would own his own business. It didn’t happen quickly. For 30 years, Lonnie worked for the State of Kansas for the Juvenile Justice System. Lonnie was good at his job, mentoring troubled youth and honing his management skills, both keys to his eventual success as a business owner.
If Lonnie didn’t think like an entrepreneur, he might still be working for the state. It was over a pizza and beer in 1986 with his good friend, local attorney Mike Unrein, that he seized the opportunity that would eventually change his life. Mike shared that he was looking for a janitorial service to clean his building. Lonnie didn’t hesitate, “I will be there tomorrow.”
It would be easier for Lonnie to take another bite of pizza and do nothing. He had a good job. He had never cleaned a commercial building. He had never started a business. He knew nothing about the regulations and taxes. But that didn’t stop him.
“I wanted to start a business that would provide jobs for my children and allow me to train and teach them a work ethic,” recalled Lonnie. “It was also an opportunity to make more money, but my main motivation was my family.”
Lonnie kept his job at the state and for the first two years worked alone cleaning Mike’s building. His kids were too young to help, and he knew that he needed to learn everything he could about the job before he could train others. With the help of his wife, Jill (who graduated with a Ph.D. in Social Welfare from the University of Kansas), he slowly began to add jobs, one building at a time, mostly legal and accounting offices.
“By doing the jobs myself, I figured out what it took to do it right,” Lonnie says. “When the business took off I was ready to train others and could communicate expectations because I had done the work myself.”
As the word got out and he added additional buildings, Lonnie’s passion for mentoring others became a cornerstone of the growing business. Lonnie and Jill’s children— Donovan, Daina, Kesha and Angie—each helped in the business once they became old enough, learning from their father the right way to do the job.
As the business outgrew him and his family, Lonnie encouraged friends to start their own cleaning businesses, and he, in turn, would subcontract the jobs. Through his guidance, he helped create four new businesses, and two lifelong friends have continued to provide the cleaning services that began through Lonnie’s mentorship.
“Most of the time that I have been able to grow my business has been a direct result of helping others grow,” Lonnie shares. “I sincerely believe that if you help people get what they want, you will get what you want in return.”
And this is where the story would probably end if not for Lonnie’s outlook and willingness to help others. Lonnie had accomplished his original goal, to build something and involve his family. Life was good.
Except, if you are an entrepreneur and you work hard, you never know when or where another opportunity is going to pop up. In 2000, Lonnie received a call from a fellow building service contractor, a friend who needed his help. He had the federal contract to maintain the U.S. Courthouse in Omaha, Neb. and was in danger of losing it. The operation was a mess, would Lonnie consider helping turn it around?
Was there any question? Lonnie took early retirement from the state and headed to Omaha. For six months he remained on-site and supervised the staff until they all knew how to do the work the right way. He helped save the contract and found himself initiated into the world of federal contracting.
Shortly thereafter, Lonnie moved on to the U.S. Courthouse in Wichita, another six months on site, another saved federal contract. By this time, Lonnie was on the radar of the U.S. General Service Administration. At a football game, he had a chance meeting with the District Manager for GSA. The man shook his hand, offered his card and asked Lonnie to call him.
At that moment, 14 years into his entrepreneurial venture, Lonnie seized opportunity for a third time. He made that call and was asked to bid on the Federal contract to maintain the Charles Evans Whitaker U.S. Courthouse in Kansas City, Mo.
Today, with 76 employees providing services across five states, almost everything L&J does is on federal contract. The company provides janitorial and building maintenance services to numerous U.S. Federal Courthouses in the Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri region (except, interestingly enough, not the one here in Topeka).
In 2004, Lonnie partnered with another service provider to provide mechanical construction services to Veteran Administration Medical Centers within the region, including the one in Topeka. In 2008, the company expanded into sanitation services at three United States Army Military Bases, including Fort Bragg in North Carolina.
A Family Business
Lonnie readily admits that none of his success would be possible without the help of his wife and children. Jill is the administrative manager, responsible for writing the federal contract bids. Donovan works the jobs. Daina is the general manager and supervises the project managers who provide onsite services. Angie oversees all of the accounting and financials, serving as the business manager.
Lonnie admits that one of the key challenges in a family-run business is communication. “It can be hard at times but try to always remember where you are at. Once you are off the job, leave the work conversations behind and focus on being a family,” recommends Lonnie.