Executive Profile: John Lamb
John Lamb's ability to pinch hit as manager of Environment Control of Wisconsin, Inc. (EC) in 1978 may not be as dramatic as Brett Favre's 1992 introduction to the football world after Packer quarterback Don Majkowski went down, but for EC, Lamb's arrival could be just as significant. An unknown at the time, Lamb was working in Madison for Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship when a co-worker's husband (and EC owner) was called away from his duties for personal reasons. With no experience, 24-year old Lamb offered to step in as manager.
Unlike Favre, Lamb stayed on with his winning team, and the CEO now sits atop a $7 million cleaning company and has visions of a $12 million statewide dream. Still, he remains humble. "My position is no more important than any of my employees'," he said. But growing a $36,000 commercial cleaning business with five employees and eight buildings into one servicing 150 buildings, and employing nearly 400, bears noting.
As a teenager in Brookfield, Wis., Lamb was undersized for his age, and didn't experience his growth spurt until after high school. A sports nut with no hope of making the football or basketball teams, he tried out for cross country, which had a profound and lasting effect. "Cross country was a lifesaver for me," Lamb admitted. "It taught me to persevere. There are so many failures," he explained, comparing the sport to business, "but you must keep going. You're at the far end of the course. It's windy and rainy, but you have to keep pushing yourself."
From a family of academecians, Lamb, who enrolled in engineering at UW-Madison but never graduated, was admittedly "the black sheep of the family," and being hired to manage EC was unlike anything he'd ever done. "I didn't know what I was getting into," he recalled. "I had no business training, and my mom kept wondering – as moms do – if I would ever return to college. But I saw opportunity here." For five years, he wore all the EC hats Ã managing, cleaning, and soliciting business.
By 1980, Lamb was one of the company's five partners, and owned 20% of the franchise. One by one, he bought each of them out until one day in 1992, when the company became solely his. "The last 20% cost me more than the 80% prior," he mused.
Since then, EC's growth has been slow and steady, which Lamb credits to the company's mantra of peace, honesty, quality of work, and a solid history of employee – and client – retention. "We were always very careful to make sure the drain wasn't open, that we were not losing customers down the drain. We can turn the faucet on higher, but don't want to lose our customers."
Spoken like a true maintenance company executive.
EC's client list, which started years ago with Madison Medical, Great Lakes Higher Education, and even some government buildings, has expanded to include, among so many others, Madison Gas & Electric, Alliant Energy, and Rayovac.
Amazingly, Environment Control has recorded just two "down" years, and actually experienced growth over the past two (5% and 9%, respectively). There were cutbacks, Lamb said, but no jobs were lost specifically because of this economy.
An avid golfer, Lamb, 56, still runs. He and his wife, Susie, have two children, ages 16 and 19, who keep them busy. "That's the phase we're in," he said. "I'm kind of a late bloomer."
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