Baylor Alumnus Revolutionizes Fence Industry as President of Guier FenceOct. 19, 2010
By Neely Guthrie
At 29 years old, Baylor alumnus Lea Bailes is the president of an established company, an entrepreneur, a husband and a father of two. Bailes recently took over as the president of Guier Fence in 2009 after being presented with the opportunity to buy the 30-year-old company from his father-in-law Kelly Guier. Armed with an established, successful business model, Bailes has been able to reshape the company to achieve a new level of success. However, the process has not been easy, and Bailes reflects on how Baylor and his work experience have prepared him for this challenge.
Bailes began at Baylor in 1999 in the Accounting program, which he completed in three and half years and graduated cum laude in December 2002. Shortly after, in February, he started his law degree at Baylor Law School and graduated cum laude, once again, in February 2006.
Looking back on his degrees, Bailes recognizes the importance of accounting, which provided a basis for the financial aspect of business, but he wishes he had pursued an entrepreneurship major as well.
"If I could do it all over again, I would get both," Bailes said. "Accounting gives you that good foundational information as well as that professional skill, and the entrepreneur degree would add that extra level to allow you to do some of the things that I've been working on a little bit easier."
The Family Business
Bailes started working at Guier Fence shortly after graduating from law school. He was there for several years before he began practicing corporate law and business law full-time. Because of his knowledge of the business, his father-in-law approached him in February of 2009 about buying the company.
Established in 1979 from Kelly Guier's basement in Kansas City, Guier Fence has grown to be one of the leading fence companies in the nation. Over the years it has evolved into a company known for quality in commercial and residential fencing, and this reputation for quality was recognized by the Kansas City A-List, which voted Guier Fence "Best Fencing Company" in 2009. However, by this time, Kelly Guier was ready to sell.
"We sat down and ate lunch and he started alluding to the fact that he was going to sell the business, and I felt as though he was alluding to the fact that he would like me to buy it. Once I was presented with the opportunity, it was one that I jumped on because I understood the business, and I understood the potential that it had," Bailes said. "I also knew what needed to be changed to make it even more successful than it had been in the past."
New President, New Ideas
It took until May to figure out the logistics, but Bailes said the decision to buy the company was an easy one. However, that did not foreshadow more easy decisions ahead. Bailes knew large portions of the business were unprofitable and needed to be restructured, which meant losing a lot of people and a lot of jobs.
He also said some of the company's problems were related to the economy, but most had to do with shifts in the market because Guier Fence was a little behind the curve- meaning he had to play catch up over the course of the next six months.
"It was really, really tough... I knew it was going to be tough going into it, but it was tougher than I imagined because... it was tough to keep hold of the culture and keep everyone moving in the same direction and keep spirits up when all they saw was carnage," Bailes said.
His strategy was to make all changes as quickly and as painlessly as possible, but they still encountered fallout from the changes. He tried to remain as enthusiastic as possible, but with the good days were plenty of bad ones.
"In December  we had our company meeting, and I actually had to sit down on a pile of wood because I was no longer able to stand I was so physically and emotionally exhausted," Bailes said. "It all hit me at one time... it was an interesting year, lots of ups and downs."
Despite the emotional stress of modifying the company, and financial stress of improving the company, Bailes continued to uphold his values of ethics, empathy and quality throughout the hard decisions despite employee morale.
"I try to run everything as uprightly as I can, [but] people's perspectives on what you do change. So even though your motives and your character and everything is pure, as pure as you can get it, everybody else looks at what you do differently," Bailes said. "So you just have to be very steadfast in what you do."
Much of Bailes's restructuring efforts were poured into addressing the issue of a very fragmented industry and therefore he sought to franchise Guier Fence as the first fence franchise in the country. He said the task was an underground effort because he didn't want everyone to know exactly what was going on. When they did launch the franchise option, people were shocked. But the launch was a success and Bailes said he expects to have six to 10 locations operating by the end of 2010 and 20 by 2011.
During his time at Baylor, Bailes was involved in Kappa Sigma and many other extracurricular activities. He said it was those relationships he formed that continue to influence him today and provide a network of support. Every few months, Bailes visits one of his fraternity brothers, who also owns a business, in Nashville to hang out and talk about things.
"It was really the character building that took place through the people I knew at Baylor that helped me get to the point where I am now," Bailes said. "Baylor is just full of great people, the professors are great, the people that go there are great, the alumni are great."