She’s Small Business Person of the Year – and an Inspiring West Virginian
Action Facilities Management – or AFM – overlooks I-79 near Morgantown and employs more than 300 people in nine states.
“In Fairmont we work for the West Virginia High Technology Consortium Foundation and we do the security, maintenance and janitorial for all these facilities here,” said founder, president and CEO Diane Lewis. “It’s one of our commercial clients.”
AFM provides building, maintenance and grounds services for numerous government agencies as well, including Homeland Security, the FBI, the U.S. Dept. of Defense, the National Energy Technology Laboratory, the GSA, FAA, FEMA, CDC, and the U.S. Navy, among many others.
It’s an impressive array of customers given that Lewis started the company in her basement a little more than 10 years ago, with her then teenage son as her only employee.
“I told my son, I said, ‘you’re going to have to be my secretary,’ and he’s like, ‘I don’t want to be a secretary!’” “And I said, ‘yes, you are!’”
“So we started slowly, and I actually got our first contract in 2004,” said Lewis, West Virginia’s 2013 Small Business Person of the Year.
Lewis grew up in Clarksburg and graduated from Fairmont State College with a degree in accounting and another in banking.
“From there I started working, and I haven’t stopped,” said Lewis.
In the 1990s she worked for a company in Morgantown owned by Kenny Jackson. In 2001, when Jackson was winding down his company, he encouraged Lewis to start her own.
Today Lewis’ son, Don Hill, manages the company’s Washington, DC offices and her daughter, Stephanie, works for the FBI.
After Lewis raised her kids on her own, she married Jackson, the man who years before had encouraged her to start her own business. Today Jackson is a consultant for AFM.
This successful businesswoman comes from humble, hardworking roots. She was the youngest of 7 children raised in a 3-bedroom home.
“I didn’t even realize how poor we were at the time,” said Lewis. “It was really crowded. I slept at the bottom of my parents’ bed for the first 7 or 8 years that I can remember.”
Lewis’ dad was quite bright, skipping a grade in elementary school, but ultimately dropped out to help support his younger siblings. Her mother was born in Gilmer County, one of 16 children.
Lewis describes Clarksburg as a booming town during the years of her childhood. A glass factory close to her home employed between 200-300 people.
“There were filling stations, bakeries, barbershops,” she said. “There were all kinds of businesses around that area. There was a playground and everybody looked out for you.”
Lewis’ dad, who had a wooden leg, worked for Union Carbide for 33 years and obviously had a huge impact on Lewis’ life.
“He always taught me never to be late. You always tell the truth, no matter what – good or bad – you tell the truth and you have integrity about what you do.”
Today Lewis and her husband run a non-profit organization called Members of Diversity, helping youth from minority groups develop the skills needed to find jobs.
As an African American, she knows from experience the hurdles that must be overcome to make it in business, or anything else.
“I’ve been on walk-throughs where I actually had a gentleman, a white gentleman say to me, ‘Well take good notes for your boss, I’m sure he’ll need ‘em,’” recalled Lewis.
“He automatically assumed I could not own the company. And then after I won, he called me up and asked if he could do anything to help me?”
“It happens,” she said. “But I don’t know if it’s a disadvantage sometimes, or more of an advantage, because they underestimate me a lot of times.”
Lewis is a director of Teaming to Win, one of the largest and most successful events in the state for small businesses. She also serves on the Board of Governors of West Virginia University.
“She’s an amazing leader and entrepreneur,” said James Clements, President of West Virginia University. “I can’t think of many people who are as inspiring as Diane.”
“She’s one of those good, quiet people just making a difference every day.”
Diane Lewis is featured along with others in the documentary Inspiring West Virginians, produced by Jean Snedegar with Senior Producer Suzanne Higgins.