Lee Robinson didn’t have a lot of time to talk.
Tomorrow, he’d be flying to Peoria, Ill., to design the home of the president of the Caterpillar tractor company.
This is the company Robinson keeps. His clientele ranges beyond the best neighborhoods of Louisville, to Palm Beach, Greenwich, Manhattan; the Hamptons.
It all seems serene on the surface. Lee and Babs smiling for the camera at the Speed Ball. But like the duck on the pond, Robinson’s feet are paddling furiously. Always have been.
After an economics management degree from Centre College and 14 years in banking, Robinson retired at 35 “to begin the rest of my life.”
Doing what, exactly? “I had no clue. All I knew was that I had a passion.”
He moved to New York to learn about his and Babs’ families’ collections of paintings, silver, jewelry and fine art, studying for a summer at Christie’s and at Parson’s School of Design. That fall, a phone call provided his rest-of-my-life answer.
“There was a message on my answering machine from Sarah McNeal Few, saying, ‘I hear you need to buy my company.’ I called her back and ended up buying the assets of her firm.”
Those were big shoes. Sarah Few was a design leader and trend-setter in the Louisville community and a committed, active supporter of the arts. The shoes fit Robinson comfortably.
He also had a vision at that time. In building his own house, he had had such a difficult time dealing with the contractor, and builder, and decorator. “Each of them had a different agenda and different budgets. I said, ‘There has to be an easier way!’ ”
The easier way, he decided after buying Few’s company, was to put everything under one roof. One party to deal with. One agenda. One budget.
“So I bought Andy Denzinger’s company, which did both renovation and interior design. That now gave me the ability to get into construction and design.”
Eventually, he acquired the assets of Scott Tichenor’s design company, and of Ellen Spalding Tate’s design company.
Before long, he was Entrepreneur of the Year on this list, one of the 50 Fastest-Growing Companies on another list, had the largest interior design firm in Louisville on someone else’s list.
Despite his growth, those duck feet were paddling harder than ever.
“I was almost always stressed, working nights, never saying no. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that you can’t be all things to all people.”
However, he likes that which he can be. “I think we have a unique holistic approach that differentiates us. Also, I have this banking background that helps me stay on budget. It gives people a good bit of confidence in dealing with us.”
In 2007, he moved the company to its current location at 211 Clover Lane in St. Matthews. The following year, the recession hit. “We got through it, but it wasn’t easy. You really had to check your sub-contractors to make sure they were paying their bills, and getting their lien releases.”
He also benefited from the diversity of his offerings.
“If people weren’t spending big money on renovations and remodeling, they’d spend a smaller amount on interior design. So we poured our focus into interior design, and we stayed busy during a time when people weren’t spending $200,000 and $300,000 on a major renovation.”
He also started his proprietary lines of paints and room fragrances. And he modernized into the 21st century by putting a lifestyle test on his web site so people could decide which of the three lifestyles they preferred. “Almost do-it-yourself decorating,” he says. Almost.
He hired a New York publicist and agent, and started doing high-end, high-profile show houses for magazines and getting involved in a lot of Manhattan’s charitable events.
“Going into markets with über high-end clients spread our diversification even further, and into new markets.”
All that, he says, “kept us going through the recession. I think a lot of that was attributable to having a business background.”
Many other local design firms, which had been around forever, didn’t survive.
He’s so busy now, post-recession, that he’s forming a separate company – Lee W. Robinson Construction Co. LLC – to handle that growing part of his business. And he’s gearing up for a new growth spurt.
His newest endeavor is bringing in his oldest son, Rodes, who had studied at the New York School of Interior Design and Parsons, “and really wants to start a streetwear company. He trained with Christian Siriano.
“But I said that before he did something like that, it would be good to have some business knowledge. So I told him to come back here and work with us, and learn that.”
Maybe, Robinson mused, his company might have a Thruston Rodes Robinson collection of streetwear to offer as their lifestyle brand evolves.
“You just never know,” says a man who has tried it all.