Eye of the tiger

Eye of the tiger

She’s been knocked down, but never out. Thrill of the fight and dream of the win makes this feisty startup contractor a true contender

Lisa Coates never wanted to be a real estate agent. She became one, in Boston, in 2001 only because her dying mother asked her to. That worked out nicely enough financially—until it didn’t. In 2008, she found herself almost sucked into the deadly undertow that followed the financial tidal wave that followed the great American real estate collapse. So she moved back to Canada and rebuilt her house-selling career here. That worked out too, but then, in 2015, smacking up against a bad professional/ business experience reminded her again just how much she hated being a real estate agent and how much she wanted to…

What did she want to do?

“I wanted to build things,” she tells me today. “I wanted to buy machines— trucks, CATs, machines, all that stuff— and build things.” Building things may have been in her Cape Breton DNA, but it wasn’t in her lived experience. And lenders wanted to see more than crazy dreams. They wanted financials and business plans. Those she didn’t have.

Then one day, “the guy who thinks he’s my boyfriend” told her she needed to stop not doing what she believed would make her happy. “Just do it,” he said.

She decided she would.

She contacted CEED, the Centre for Entrepreneurship, Education and Development, a Nova Scotia resource centre for would-be entrepreneurs, to find out what help they could offer, and she asked the lawyer to whom she’d been shoveling her property transaction real estate legal business to draw up incorporation papers for a new company.

Before she could travel too far down those entrepreneurial trails, a former real estate client called her looking for advice on a renovation project he was considering at his newly purchased home.

“I can do that,” Coates told him confidently.

She couldn’t. Not really. Not then. At the time, she didn’t have a single employee, or even know where or how to hire one. But she didn’t let that daunt her.

“I’ve learned that you just can’t keep planning,” she says today. “You can’t say, ‘I’ll start my business after I build my website,’ or ‘I’ll start my business after I produce these flyers…’ Just do it. Once you have that first cheque in your hand, you can always hire someone to build your website, or design your flyers.”

Lisa Coates was in the building business. But her own business education had just begun.

LISA COATES WAS BORN in Los Angeles in 1964, the only child of a white, Scottish Cape Breton mother (the real estate agent) and a black musician and music teacher father who’d ended up in the United States via the British West Indies. “I’m ‘high yellow,’” she says when she describes herself today. “Blacks think I’m too white and white people think I’m not white enough.” She says she encountered her share of “what we would call bullying now. Fighting back is what made me the person I am today. I learned to rely on myself and my Spidey sense.”

By the time she was five, her parents had split (“The last time I talked to my father? Nineteen eighty-six…”), and Lisa moved back to Cape Breton with her mother to live with her grandparents.

Her maternal grandfather owned and operated A. M. MacKinnon General Construction and Excavation, a successful local contracting business. “In 1980,” Lisa explains, “he ‘sold’ it—for a dollar or whatever—to his son, Danny.” Danny is Lisa’s mother’s brother. Ten years later, Danny passed along the business to the next generation. This time, there were three children who could have been in line to take over: Lisa and her cousins, Karen and Paul. “Guess who got the business?” The business, she says cryptically, “didn’t work out so well under Paul.”

Real estate, on the other hand, had worked out spectacularly well for Lisa’s mother. By 1977, she’d landed a position as an agent for John F. Stevens Real Estate in Halifax. She did well enough in the house selling business that, three years later, when Lisa was just 16, “she bought me Sneaky Pete’s Teen Disco,” a popular hang-out for young people in Halifax’s west end. Two years after that, she bought Lisa her own burnt-orange, two-door BMW 320. (“My mother drove a Black 5 series, four-door,” Lisa explains.)

By then, they’d moved to Boston. “I hung around with the guys,” she remembers of her time at Waltham High School just west of the city. “The girls were interested in guys. The guys were interested in cars, in building things, breaking things. I liked that, so I was interested in the guys.”

What she wasn’t especially interested in was school. After high school, she dabbled in the world of work through various Kelly Temp jobs until her mother eventually encouraged her to go to Burdett’s Business School to at least get a certificate that might lead to a meaningful career.

To her mother’s chagrin, however, the career Lisa chose after business school was bartending. “I was an amazing bartender,” she tells me proudly. For the next 17 years, her mixology skills—and the dual citizenship that came with her LA birth—allowed her to work all over: Alaska, Los Angeles, New York City, Miami, Boston, Halifax, Montreal… “I loved people and I loved drinking,” she jokes now. “I don’t mean I loved getting drunk, but I loved having fun. People had fun where I worked. That was the lesson I learned from that. If it’s not fun, don’t do it.”

It was an important life lesson, but one she would only finally come to understand later.

In 2000, when her mother became terminally ill, she asked Lisa to give up her peripatetic life style and become a real estate agent instead. Like her. “After she retired, my mom would nag me about being a bartender,” Lisa remembers today. “She wanted her only daughter to have a career, not a job.” While real estate wasn’t something Lisa had ever aspired to, “she was my mother and it was her dying wish.”

Lisa’s Massachusetts’ real estate licence arrived in the mail on September 11, 2001, the day of the attacks on the twin towers in New York, the day Amer-ican life changed forever.

It was not an auspicious introduction to the real estate business. “My first sale,” she says, “was a mobile home.” But she persevered, quickly climbing up the neighbourhood socio-economic scales to Massachusetts’ multi-million-dollar home market during the artifi-cially inflated real estate bubble of the 2000s.

By the time that bubble burst in 2008, she recalls with a rueful smile, “I was living way beyond my means.” She nested in a $3,000-a-month pad “26 miles from the city,” drove a luxury G3 Infiniti, “shopped on Newbury Street like there was no tomorrow” and regularly took high-flying potential house-buying clients out for $500-a-meal dinners.

She also “wasn’t sleeping at night” from the stress, a situation only exacer-bated when the market collapsed.

Luckily, she’d already begun providing international professional development training for the real estate company, coaching other agents, including one back in Halifax. “I looked at what was happening here and I could see right away that, with a commission on a million-dollar sale, you could live a lot better” in Nova Scotia than in Massa-chusetts.

On April 26, 2011, she moved back to Nova Scotia. As in Boston, she quickly clambered up the price and neighbourhood ladder again, playing upwardly mobile hopscotch through a number of local realty companies. But then, early in 2015, she and a fellow agent had a professional falling out, which led to personal animosity, which led the realty company to decide to terminate its contract with her. “You make people uncomfortable,” she says she was told.

“I was crushed,” she remembers. “I hid for about two days.” Though she was quickly scooped up by another realtor, the experience only served to remind her she’d never really wanted to be a real estate agent in the first place. Which is when she began to reconsider her future, and to cast a new tomorrow shaped by a suddenly remembered past: her family’s roots in the contracting and construction business, for example, and a 2010 entry she’d written in her journal about her desire to start her own contracting company, not to forget—never forget— her own bartender’s admonition from a previous lifetime. “If it’s not fun, don’t do it.”

IT WOULD BE PRETZEL-TWISTING a point to describe Lisa Coates first two-and-a-half years as the founder and president of Level Ten Landworks as all “fun,” but she says she has no regrets—even about the many mistakes she is the first to acknowledge she’s made.

“Boy, do I have stories,” she wrote when Atlantic Business Magazine put out a call for startup business owners willing to share their early entrepreneurial experiences. Lisa Coates does have stories, plenty of them, and she’s willing to share. We are having breakfast at a popular Halifax diner. It is the last day of 2017, a traditional time for taking stock.

“Everything that’s happened,” she tells me proudly, “I learned a new lesson from it.”

Beginning with the nature of her business itself. When she was a real estate agent, she says she remembers being struck by the number of houses with structural problems—water issues, retaining walls, foundations—and by the lack of outdoor patios and other living amenities. Those outdoor spaces that did exist, she adds, “tended to be shite.”

That was her starting point. Figuring she would need to specialize to carve out a niche for herself in the highly competitive Halifax contracting world, she decided to focus on what is known as hardscaping—providing built structures (the free-standing pathways, patios, fire pits, fountains, driveways, etc.) homeowners use to create their own living, liveable lifescapes.

But Coates had barely begun that new business venture when the first snows started to fly. Winter, she admits, was not the best time to have been hanging out her hardscaping shingle.

Which is when Coates did what she does: she improvised. She offered snow removal services. How? “I knew from my time in real estate how to get new business,” she tells me. “You knock on doors. I don’t mean you print off flyers and stick them into one of those valuepacks for someone else to drop off,” she adds. “I mean you knock on doors, talk to people.” She also called every Halifax property management company listed in the Yellow Pages to offer her services. In January? In what was already the middle of the snow-clearing season? “They may already have had people in place to do their snow removal,” she tells me, “but contractors sometimes screw up and need to be replaced, or they need back-ups for big storms, or… So you call.”

Getting contracts turned out to be easy—or at least easier than getting the work done. Lisa’s own key role in her company is business development. “I’m good at that.”

But, thanks to some unreliable employees, she remembers finding herself alone at 4 a.m. one stormy morning outside a south-end Halifax home she’d won the contract to clear, staring at two industrial snow-blowers she didn’t know how to turn on. Luckily, another contractor happened by and showed her how the machines worked.

Eventually, she signed up for CEED’s “Blast Off to Business,” an intensive three-day workshop to help her develop her business plan—and her business. Although listening to close to a dozen “great guest speakers” during the workshop helped “streamline” her own business development process, Coates admits CEED evaluators “gave me a hard time” when she finally presented her own business plan.

She discovered much of what she’d already done—and was doing—was wrong. For starters, there was her company’s name. She’d chosen Level Ten to highlight her intended marketing boast. “On a scale of one to 10,” Level Ten’s service would rank at the top level. But she hadn’t researched or registered the name. There were already lots of contractors in other places calling themselves Level 10. “So we spelled the number out,” she explains, and then added the tagline Landworks “as a fancy name for excavation, hardscaping, landscaping, snow-removal” in order to distinguish her Level Ten from those other Level 10s. Since then, however, she confides, “we’ve kind of dropped it unofficially and just use Level Ten in our marketing.” For other business-related reasons we’ll also come to.

And then too, there were prickly business-plan queries about the photos she’d chosen to use on her website. A CEED evaluator told her they’d been plagiarized. What?! She’d taken the photos herself. It turned out she’d simply neglected to change a photo credit on her website template. A minor blip, but another blow to her beginner’s self-confidence.

And then, of course, there was that question on her business plan questionnaire. What are your company’s labour challenges, the survey asked? “None,” she replied.

She laughs. “That was before the alcoholic mason!”

Coates hired some of her first employees through START, a Nova Scotia government program that provided financial incentives for employers to hire unemployed but “ready-to-work Nova Scotians… resulting in ongoing employment and/ or gained work experience… for the benefit of both the employer and the employee…” And blah blah blah.

The problem wasn’t just the tedious, form-filling government bureaucracy the program required. There was also the fact Coates seemed unable to learn important details about her would-be employees’ previous work history until it was too late. “I had to fire one guy,” she recalls, “and it was only later that I learned he’d been terminated at his previous three jobs as well.”

The alcoholic mason? He built an $11,000 outdoor fireplace and patio for one of Coates’ early clients. But soon after the job was done, the homeowner called to complain the fireplace was spewing smoke everywhere. Coates had to hire someone else to re-check the mason’s work. It turned out he had not only installed the wrong-sized chimney flue but he also hadn’t made the chimney stack high enough either. By the time the problems were corrected, “it cost me more to fix than I made on the job.” (Perhaps not surprisingly, when a friend recently told her about another government program that offered to help cover the costs of hiring new employees for two years, she said thanks, but no thanks. “I learned another lesson there,” she tells me. “Don’t take free money, because it’s never free.”)

By the time she’d stumbled through her first full season as an entrepreneur, Lisa had lost $20,000—thanks in part to the labour issues she didn’t think she had.

Perhaps surprisingly, however, she was undaunted. (Remember what she said about “fighting back,” and about learning from her mistakes?)

Lisa credits her CEED-begun business plan with helping fine-tune her business idea. She eventually realized, for example, the Halifax market was too small to focus exclusively on hardscaping. While real estate was “never my thing,” Coates says, it had offered her “great insight” into the strengths and weaknesses of other aspects of local building construction as well. Some contractors, she says, “were known to build quality homes with average finishes: a $600,000 home with a $50 bathtub, a beautiful kitchen with maple cabinets, poorly done trim work…” She decided to expand Level Ten’s offerings from hardscaping to include general renovations. And do it better.

Her brief experience with CEED also helped her make key business connections and allowed her to tap into various networks of helpful people.

One of her “fellow CEEDlings,” for example, was an accountant. Although he later decided “being an entrepreneur wasn’t for him” (he now works for the provincial health authority), he served for a time as Level Ten’s bookkeeper and developed its key three-year financial forecast.

At the same time, Lisa met Rodger Smith, a former banker who works for the Black Business Initiative, an organization that promotes and assists black businesses in the province. Smith helped edit Lisa’s business plan, then introduced her to Bryan Richard, a commercial account officer at Credit Union Atlantic.

Within 36 hours of presenting her business plan to CUA, Lisa had her first business loan. Nova Scotia Business Inc. then guaranteed a $25,000 loan and provided her with a $5,000 line of credit. In June 2016 after a Dragon’s Den-style event, CEED agreed to come on board with another $20,000 loan.

Business boomed. Customers were satisfied. Trusted Pros, a web site that ranks local contractors, scored Level Ten a 4.9 out of 5, based on 10 reviews. “Lisa and her team were amazing to deal with!” gushed one satisfied customer, who’d hired Level Ten to do a “full interior reno.” “First time dealing with Level Ten,” added a business client, “and won’t be the last… Most importantly, they went the extra mile to address our need for extra cleanliness in a laboratory environment—job well done.”

To make her prospects even more promising, Lisa finally found a depend-able carpenter to head up her construc-tion crew. “He was quiet, moody,” Coates remembers, “but he knew his stuff.” He quickly fixed the trail of “deficiencies” previous employees had left in their wake. “He did everything I needed, and he didn’t bail on me.”

But then, in July 2017, he died unex-pectedly, not only leaving a personal, emotional void for Lisa and the rest of her crew, but also forcing her to scramble to replace him. “It was like speed dating for a while,” she allows. Her most recent hire, she confides, has turned out to be an excellent carpenter but a poor crew leader. “We went through five labourers in eight weeks. No one wanted to work with him.” She has now hired yet another foreman, who will begin work next week. “He has experience managing up to 15 people,” she says, more wary now. “We’ll see.”

DESPITE ALL THE didn’t-see-that-one-coming crises and the far too many, wish-I’d-known-that-before lessons learned, Lisa Coates boasts that the business itself is on track. She doubled her revenues from year one to year two. And she expects to do the same again this year. The financials for the first half of 2017 are “positive,” she adds, and she thinks she’ll have ended the year the same way.

That will pave the way for an even better 2018. “My goal for 2018 is to have three reliable crews working all the time,” she tells me, “and to be able to report a 20 per cent profit when I close the books on this year.” If those projec-tions hold, she tells me, she’ll be able to use the profits to pay back the losses in her first two years.

And then…

Lisa Coates is living her dream. And having fun. If it’s not fun, she says, then don’t do it.

3 Comments to “Eye of the tiger”

  1. Congratulations Lisa, your perseverance has paid off. It seems that you are a good manager in business and you may want to take your expertise a step further. Form a management team and hire “smart smaller contractors” and form a team. I have been in business for over 40 years and there is a need for this type of business. Your job description might change to Project Manager but it sounds like you are capable.

  2. Congratulations Lisa, I have always admired your bold spirit and never give up attitude. Reading your story, I felt so inspired and even more determined to push myself and business further.
    Continued success and good luck.

  3. I am inspired by your ability to be willing to learn on the fly – an essential for a successful business owner. Mental toughness is also a trait that will service you well. You’re no quitter.

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