Lee Edwards, one of Hilton Head Island’s brightest young entrepreneurs, speaks of The Greenery’s success and his hopes for the future. The old adage, “The more things change, the more they stay the same,” resonates with Edwards, who today presides at the business his father began nearly four decades ago. He is now setting a fresh course for continued growth despite the turbulent economy.

His aspirations aren’t about being the biggest, although The Greenery is already the largest landscaping firm in the South Carolina and one of the top 50 in the nation, due largely to expanding the company’s territory north to Mount Pleasant, just beyond Charleston, and south to Richmond Hill on the far side of Savannah.

Edwards considers growth essential to keeping opportunities alive for the company’s scores of employees. “We like to say that The Greenery is a growing tradition—growing careers, growing people and growing business,” he said. yet for all its changes, the company remains true to its roots. Its original location, for example, is the same as it was in 1972. The old Bethlehem Baptist Church building (for which the Greenery received the Historical Preservation award in 1974) still stands. Today, however, it houses a boutique filled with antiques and decorative items.

The same can be said for many of the company’s dedicated employees. Alfred Simmons, the first person ever hired there, still works at The Greenery. Simmons’ affable smile and towering presence is a welcome fixture. Only today, he, like all full- time employees at The Greenery, is a part owner through the employee Stock Ownership Plan (eSOP).

“Implementing the eSOP accomplished several things,” Edwards said. “It not only provided a way for my father to retire, but it gave our valued employees a real stake in our vision. It helps keep good people.” The Greenery’s low employee turnover rate is a matter of pride for Edwards, who doesn’t believe in micro managing. “I believe you hire the best and let them do their job,” he said.

For Edwards hiring people with the right skills comes naturally. He has performed virtually every Greenery task at one time or another. as a youth, during school breaks, he worked with the crews by day and held down a second job at various island eateries at night to earn extra money. He credits the experience with teaching him a lot about cultural differences and developing self-discipline.

Surprisingly, working in the family business wasn’t always what edwards wanted. an avid sailor (he holds a 50 ton license and has raced to bermuda and back), he spent time exploring the Caribbean after graduating from Tulane university. “My parents told me I was off the payroll, but that I’d always have a place to stay,” he smiled as he recounted the journey.

Armed with that assurance and a good bit of pluck, he and a friend purchased the “ugliest boat you ever saw” and lived aboard while restoring it. With the sale of the boat for a handsome profit, he continued to travel, living for a time in Guatemala where he taught english (and learned fluent Spanish).

But, it was when he moved to Colorado and took over the management of a landscaping business that he realized his passion and reconsidered his father’s offer to return. “My dad was at a point where he needed to bring someone on; but I wanted to gain a bit more experience, so I finished the summer and took an internship with a leading landscaping firm in the Washington, D.C. area to learn how larger operations functioned,” he said.

Once back home, Edwards wasted no time putting his experience to use. “He’s always been a self-starter,” said his father, who promptly put his son in charge of the company’s construction division. When the chance to expand into the Charleston market presented itself, edwards was eager to tackle the challenge.

The Greenery of Charleston was formed, with Lee as president. He grew the operation into the largest firm of its kind in the area before returning again when his father retired. Despite the recent economic downturn, edwards has still found ways to be successful through careful spending and a sharp business plan. “We were hit hard, like most others in the construction industry,” he said, “but in 2010 we posted a 10 percent gain and look to similar growth for this year.”

Now here to stay, Edwards discovered Becca Dupps who had grown up virtually next door when he was a boy in Sea Pines. “I had gone hunting with her brothers as a teenager, but she was younger, and our paths really didn’t cross until I returned,” he said.

Today Becca and Lee are married and raising three little girls, all under the age of four. That responsibility, coupled with his business, has made edwards keenly aware of the need to keep Hilton Head a vital, sustainable community, not just for his own family’s welfare but also for his employees.

When he learned that Mayor Peeples was forming a task force to study the island’s future, it sparked his interest. although the task force was comprised of several older people whom edwards knew and respected, he was dismayed that none were under age 55. “I knew they were going to be making recommendations on the direction our town should take in the next 25 years,” he said, “and I wanted to be a part of that.”

Edwards decided to gather some young professionals whom he knew across the community to discuss their concerns for the island’s future. To his dismay, he discovered that many were unaware of the gradual decline of tourism, commercial values, and business revenues. “It was obvious to me that we needed to do a better job of educating residents about the state of our island,” said Edwards.

So with the help of friends and acquaintances, edwards formed HHI25. “We are hoping to live here for the next 25 years, so we decided to come up with some recommendations of our own to improve the economy and protect our quality of life.”

A position paper drafted by that group ultimately was included in the task force’s report. “Without Lee, HHI25 wouldn’t have come to pass,” said Peter Keber, a former Hargray advertising executive and business consultant. “Lee has a way of getting things done, and if he hadn’t led it, it would have fallen by the wayside.”

Today that grass roots initiative is turning its attention to informing more young people and getting them involved in the island’s future. “We have over 200 on our mailing list and we are revitalizing a Facebook page and setting an agenda for the year ahead,” said Keber.

Edwards encourages younger islanders throughout the area to get involved. “Many of the concerns faced by Hilton Head 20 years ago when development was rampant no longer apply,” he said. “We need to encourage quality redevelopment and augment our tourist-driven economy. In business, as in anything else, you can’t stay static. If you’re not dynamic, you aren’t going to be the best, and that’s what I want for my family, my company, and our island.”


The Greenery, Inc. – Thursday, March 10, 2011

Going Really Green

By Dominique Peridans, March 15, 2011

The Greenery, a landscaping company located in Hilton Head, S.C., proudly boasts of having no illegal workers. Its president and CEO, Lee Edwards, was recently elected a Town Councilman (Ward 3), and during his campaign he spoke clearly of his opposition to illegal immigration. His political stance is one that he applies to the company founded by his family in 1973. His employee-owned company of over 400 workers (one of the largest employers in Beaufort County) is vigilant when it comes to the legality of its workforce: “I’ve turned down plenty of people because their documents were suspect or didn’t check out…Have we hired some illegal immigrants unknowingly? Possibly. But we followed the letter and spirit of the law.”

Edwards explains that his concern for such legality precedes the passing of a South Carolina law in 2008 requiring all state employers to use E-Verify or to accept as identification only secure driver’s licenses (issued in 26 states). For Edwards, the law has clearly served to promote even better business practices. The Greenery was audited in 2009 by Beaufort County, which has its own regulations against illegal hiring, and last year by the state’s Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, and found to be in full compliance with its Illegal Immigration Reform Act. In the past, it was rumored that the Greenery hired illegal workers. Edwards contests the claim, stating that there have been no legitimate accusations, and has publicly invited the anonymous bloggers who have accused The Greenery of illegal hiring to visit his company to witness first-hand the thoroughness with which they screen job applicants.

How has such compliance with immigration laws affected business? Understandably, especially in these early stages, hiring has been somewhat more difficult – but not impossible. “We have to work harder”, says Edwards, “and we’ve had to be creative.” The Greenery held its first job fair. There was a need to fill 40 positions. Over 160 people attended the fair, attesting to the reality that, in this market, finding legal workers, in the end, is not as difficult as some may surmise. There has been, however, as Edwards explains, a dramatic shift in job applicants. The Greenery is not seeing, as in the past, daily applicants originally from Mexico or other Central American countries. And most of those who do apply for positions, when told that the company uses E-Verify, do not return to finish the application process.

What about costs and competition and the community? All of these practices have led to a slight increase in operational costs, but nothing that Edwards considers adverse. He does not know if any of his competitors are benefiting from the resulting available illegal laborers, but presumes that there may be a few. The broader community has been favorable, albeit quiet, regarding these practices. Edwards admits that there is little patience in South Carolina for immigrants who have not followed the legal pathway, and so perhaps The Greenery’s actions are simply to be expected and consequently merit no specific praise from the community.

Edwards is convinced that the laws that are in place regarding the hire of illegal works are extremely effective, perhaps the most effective laws in dealing with illegal aliens. His experience supports the claim that the removal of the poles of attraction for illegal immigrants results in an attrition of the population. “Illegal immigrants are coming because jobs are available to them,” he says. “It is as simple as that.” Edwards has witnessed a marked decrease in the population of persons in the state illegally, which he attributes to mandatory E-verify and auditing of employers (and not to the current lethargy of the construction industry, as some have claimed). As Town Councilman, Edwards is open to some of the other immigration legislation being debated in South Carolina (some patterned after Arizona’s immigration laws) but is unsure of their necessity, given the effectiveness of workplace enforcement. “We have other fish to fry,” he says.

Has The Greenery gone really green? It all depends, of course, on how we define “green”. If “green” means “environmentally sound”, and legal hiring creates a more respectful, more harmonious work (and civic) environment, then perhaps it has gone really green. Those supportive of such business practices cannot but wish such companies continued growth. Go green!