The Lee Group has been changing lives for the better for 50 years.

While President Walt Graham and Principal Eric Kean didn’t start the business back in 1971 — credit Margarite Burns and her daughter, Michelle Jacobs, for establishing the foundation of the company — they elevated a small family business into the leading provider of staffing services in the Eastern Virginia area.

Graham was a partner in a CPA firm at the time he started at The Lee Group as its chief financial officer in 1998.

“I grew tired of doing people’s taxes,” he said. “I saw myself going to work for a small company and being a part of their management team and making a difference all year.”

Kean came aboard the following year. The alumnus of Christopher Newport University romanticized “blazing a path to Florida” after graduation, discouraged by pouring over classified ads in the state only to find opportunities in cemetery services.

After a stint managing a Newport News ski shop, he contacted a fraternity brother who had been a longtime advocate of what The Lee Group could offer.

He went from using the company’s placement services — Kean was placed into a sales job in manufacturing — to a recruiting role with The Lee Group in executive search.

Initially, “I hated it,” he said.

But as he became better at it, Kean grew to embrace the idea of what he calls win, win, win. Once he learned what he calls “the art of a deal,” he realized he wasn’t just a conduit of information. He could be an influencer who could positively impact people’s lives.

Lee Group Search and The Lee Group advance people professionally — candidates and employers align for the benefit of both, which, in turn, benefits the company.

Win, win, win.

That’s what drove Kean and Graham to buy the company in 2007.

Sometimes The Lee Group makes a match that improves a candidate’s pay or creates a better geographical fit. Sometimes it means finding the precise fit an employer seeks to further its own growth.

It always means making a difference.

Graham’s focus was on the staffing side; Kean stayed with executive search. They acquired the company right before the Great Recession of 2008 — hardly the time to be mounting debt.

Graham and Kean didn’t take home paychecks for the first four months.

“But there was no Plan B,” Kean said. “There was only Plan A. We had to make this work.”

Not only has The Lee Group worked, it’s thrived. The Lee Group now includes an office in Chesterfield and Chesapeake in addition to its Newport News headquarters.

The company has remained at the forefront of the industry, providing staffing solutions and permanent talent acquisition.

Graham and Kean both bought into prioritizing people. What’s rhetoric for many companies is at the heart of The Lee Group mission. When they first took over the business, they understood that paying their own employees both well and on time was non-negotiable.

“We put people first,” Graham said. “We give the opportunity for people to advance their careers and their lives,” he said. “I meet so many people today who tell me they got their first job through The Lee Group, and they’re successful today. That’s what keeps us going.”

Graham and Kean are leaders in living the core values they eventually put down on a whiteboard and finally, the company website. In a nutshell, The Lee Group touts having approachable employees who are straight shooters, authentic people who aren’t afraid to have difficult conversations when they’re needed.

It’s not a company that identifies as a vendor. The Lee Group collaborates with employers as a human resources partner.

The Lee Group gets it and gets it right.

Lee Group Chesapeake office. Walt Graham President

“We didn’t think of our core values as a marketing tactic,” Graham said. “Your core values are your core values. You are who you are; your company has a core. Our core values really come from our core people who worked here and the traits we saw in them that allowed them to be successful.”

The company has survived recessions, wars and effectively weathered the repercussions of COVID-19. The Lee Group remained open during the pandemic and has not had to lay any of its employees off.

Today the company has achieved maturity with Walt’s daughter, Sarah Fulton, Vice President of Operations and Wes Ashworth, Vice President, Executive Search, helping to position it for a viable future.

It was never Graham’s intention to sell the company. The idea was always to continue growing so the next generation could take the reins and continue running.

“Hopefully we’ll be around for another 50 years,” Graham said.

Kean remains committed to being “the e-Harmony of employment.” He could be a manager. He’s prefers to be a team player.

“I still get back to my roots,” he said. “And it’s still fun and rewarding.”

Fifty years and counting.

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