In the boardroom, Louis B. Lynn is a sage, seasoned, pragmatic voice from small town South Carolina who plays on big stages.
Lynn parlayed a “golden handshake” from his former employer, the Monsanto Co., into a $25 million, minority-owned landscape and construction firm in Columbia and Atlanta. Lynn, who turned 65 last month, also helps guide one of the largest universities in the state and one of the largest banks in the nation.
ENVIRO AgScience, which Lynn established in 1985, is the largest black-owned landscaping firm in the Palmetto State, even though landscaping now accounts for only about 10 percent of his total business. His firm’s far-reaching projects can be found from Columbia’s Main Street to the region’s military bases and the state’s schools and businesses.
A native of Lamar in the Pee Dee region, Lynn is an example of a person taking full advantage of what was available to him, then turning it into fortune, spurred by a single goal.
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“When Monsanto did their downsizing years ago, I told my wife, ‘I’m never going to get to where (some) body can fire me (again). I’ll never have a customer that can fire me, to where I can’t eat,’” Lynn said.
Monsanto didn’t technically fire Lynn when it let him go in the early 1980s. A middle manager with 15 years at the company, Monsanto offered him a package – one month’s pay for every year worked, which he had to accept or be fired.
Lynn took the payout and, in 1985, started his company, ENVIRO AgScience, with four employees. Today, it employs 65 to 100 people, depending on seasonal changes and the economy.
“When Monsanto (downsized me), I was worried about what I was going to do to eat,” Lynn said. “So, I said to my daughters, ‘Let’s build this business to where nobody can fire you.’”
‘A good friend’
Married for 42 years, Lynn has two daughters in the family business in Atlanta, and a son who has a landscaping background in the business in Columbia.
Lynn’s showcase landscaping projects are visible all around Columbia, including the Main Street streetscape from Gervais Street to Sylvan Jewelers, Five Points, the Colonial Life Arena and the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center.
In construction, Lynn has partnered in a mentor-type relationship with M.B. Kahn Construction Co., a major Columbia-based player in construction, to build schools throughout the Richland 1 and Richland 2 school districts, including Columbia High School and Forest Lake Elementary School.
Lynn’s other construction projects include the Hilton Columbia Center, Charleston Detention Center and the $150 million Johnson Controls Battery Recycling plant in Florence.
“During our many years of working together, we have successfully completed projects as wide-ranging as schools, jails, fitness facilities, from a manufacturing plant to water treatment plants and utility work,” said Bill Neely, M.B. Kahn Construction Co. president.
“We have even worked together on a mess hall in North Carolina. Dr. Lynn is a very smart, savvy businessman who exemplifies honesty, skill, hard work, and most of all integrity,” Neely said. “He is not only a great business partner, but a good friend.”
In the competitive landscaping and construction business, Lynn’s bread and butter has been projects where qualified minorities have been guaranteed a piece of the action.
For instance, Lynn has completed construction projects at the Savannah River Site, Parris Island and Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina; Forts Stewart and Benning in Georgia; and Camp LeJeune and Fort Bragg in North Carolina, where the U.S. government required minority participation.
“The military, their set-aside, has really made my firm grow,” Lynn says candidly.
‘Very good at what I do’
A member of the second freshman class to integrate Clemson University in 1964, Lynn received his bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in horticulture, and then earned his doctorate in horticulture from the University of Maryland.
Lynn spent his early career as a research scientist at Monsanto, where he helped develop Roundup, a product so well-known that its brand name is almost synonymous with weed control.
Lynn started his own business like many minority-owned firms – lacking access to capital or a professional network to assist with contacts.
His company is located off Interstate 20 and Crafts Farrow Road in a HUBZone and Empowerment Zone.
A HUBZone is a federal Small Business Administration program for small businesses that hire and function in areas deemed to be historically underutilized. The program stipulates that the business’ main office has to be in the zone, and 35 percent of the employees also must reside in the zone.
An empowerment zone is a federally declared high distress district that may be eligible for tax breaks, grants and other financial concessions to improve economic conditions in that region.
“I grew my business because Columbia embraced me,” Lynn said. “I’m a minority firm, but I didn’t accept handouts. If I get a contract, you’re not going to just pay me. I’m going to be very good at what I do.”
The set-aside programs – widely criticized by conservatives – that Lynn built his business around were a helping hand, not a handout, Lynn says.
A devout Christian, Lynn tells all listeners the mission statement for his business can be found in Proverbs 16:3, which states: “Commit thy works unto the Lord, and thy thoughts shall be established.”
“Every time we win a contract, my first thing after it is to say, ‘Thank you, Lord.’ But the next thing is: I can be a blessing to someone. I can give jobs. I can provide opportunities.
“I tend not to worry a lot about the payout because I figure if I take care of the other things, the part due me will take care of itself.”
Money isn’t everything, Lynn said. “I have a lot of rich friends that are unhappy.”
‘He bleeds orange’
Lynn’s love for his alma mater, Clemson, rates right behind faith and family in his priorities.
Lynn, who has been on the Clemson board of directors for 26 years, is the school’s most senior trustee. When he joined the board in 1988, he was the youngest member and the only minority among a board of white men, and he was 13th in seniority.
Now, he displays ‘No. 2’ on his car tag, symbolizing his top board seniority. No. 1 is reserved for the board chairman, whose position is not tied to seniority.
“If you cut him, he bleeds orange,” said M.B Kahn’s Neely.
Until 2012, Lynn regularly gave the prayer at the Carolina-Clemson football game when the game was played at Death Valley.
Two years ago, however, the kibosh was put on that practice after the ACLU threatened to sue the university if Lynn prayed again because he is an official school representative.
Board members told Lynn to go ahead, and pray a real good prayer anyway.
Clemson’s legal counsel, however, advised the board that if Lynn led the prayer at the game, the university would be sued and lose the suit. The suit would cost the school $1 million, and the legal remedy would be no more public prayer at Clemson at all, the lawyers advised.
That ended Lynn’s practice of praying at games.
Later that same year, however, Lynn won the Minority Business Development Agency’s 2012 Ronald H. Brown Leadership Award from the U.S. Department of Commerce. Brown, who led the Commerce Department from 1993 to 1996 under President Bill Clinton, was the first African American to serve as its secretary.
After Lynn’s two-minute acceptance speech, the late secretary’s son thanked Lynn, saying, “Dr. Lynn, we don’t get much Jesus up here. We really needed that.”
Said Lynn, “I was thinking, ‘Look at the Lord. I didn’t get to pray in front of 80,000, but I got to pray in front of the 2,000 people that really needed it!’”
Though the Clemson board is a paid position, Lynn, like all the board members, declines the salary and operates on a volunteer basis, he said.
Lynn is the only African-American on the Clemson board and the only board member with a faculty appointment at the university.
But, he said, “I never try to own the minority issues, myself. I say, ‘Guys, it’s not a black issue – it’s our issue.’ Then, from a business perspective, I support what supports business.”
‘The right thing to do’
Still, Lynn is a staunch advocate for minority issues.
Having grown up in Lamar, Lynn said he still has family and friends who work in the tobacco fields, including some who depend on food stamps.
“I’m a ’60s kid, so I’ve seen it (the race issue) evolve,” Lynn said. “In the ’60s and ’70s, and when I first got on the board, folks felt it was the right thing to do to embrace equality.
“It’s changing a little more – maybe (because) we’re under (Barack) Obama as president – that it has to be, not just a good thing to do, but the right thing to do.
“I have to be careful that (what I advocate for) doesn’t come across as playing the race card. It has to be, this is the best qualified, this is right.”
Newly named Clemson president James P. Clements describes Lynn as a practical voice on the school’s board of trustees.
“Dr. Lynn is someone whose good opinion is valued and whose advice is sought on a range of issues important to Clemson, especially agriculture, research, economic development, diversity and educational policy,” Clements said in a statement. “He is viewed as a highly ethical person who cares very deeply about the entire university.”
‘From the ground up’
In 2012, Lynn was elevated from BB&T’s board of directors to its governing board. BB&T, the 10th largest bank in America and a Fortune 500 company, has three blacks on its board.
That board membership comes with a six-figure salary, which Lynn said he accepts.
“Louis has been an invaluable contributor to BB&T since joining the bank board in 2006 and the corporate board in 2013,” said Kelly King, BB&T’s chairman and chief executive. “His management skills, business expertise and private-sector experience has provided vital insights which have helped BB&T successfully navigate through one of the most difficult times in our industry.”
Headquartered in Winston-Salem, N.C., BB&T, which has assets totaling $182 billion, also has benefited from Lynn’s knowledge derived from his involvement on other boards and commissions relating to business leadership and higher education, King said.
One day, Lynn plans to retire. He expects his youngest daughter, company vice president Krystal Conner, eventually will lead ENVIRO AgScience.
Conner said her father is a highly respected, inspirational leader, appreciated by his employees for his kind and caring manner, which she said has created a comfortable work environment that encourages productivity and growth.
“He shares his many talents, knowledge, and experience not only as a community leader, but also as a teacher, advocate and mentor,” Conner said.
“As his daughter, working with my father has been a wonderful learning experience,” Conner said. “I have been able to operate under his tutelage and discover how he has successfully grown the business from the ground up.”
Clemson University trustee, BB&T board member and founder of ENVIRO AgScience, the largest black-owned landscaping firm in the Palmetto State
Work: Owner of ENVIRO AgScience, established in 1985, the largest black-owned landscaping firm in the Palmetto State; former manager at Monsanto, where he helped develop Roundup weed killer
Community service: Clemson board of directors since 1988; BB&T board of directors, 2006-2012; BB&T governing board, since 2012
Project highlights: Columbia’s Main Street and Five Points streetscaping; Richland County school landscaping; the $150 million Johnson Controls Battery Recycling plant in Florence and Savannah River Site in Aiken; projects on military installations – Parris Island and Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina, Fort Stewart and Fort Benning in Georgia, and Camp LeJeune and Fort Bragg in North Carolina