For the past three decades, Bill Lee has built a family business into a Middle Tennessee brand.
Now the chairman and former CEO of Franklin-based Lee Co. will look to run on that career — and a life story forever altered by family tragedy — in a Republican bid for Tennessee governor.
"My life's circumstances and my life's experiences have led me to this," Lee said in an exclusive interview with the USA TODAY NETWORK-Tennessee during which he announced a gubernatorial run that had been widely anticipated.
Lee, 57, of Williamson County, enters a wide-open GOP primary with no government experience and a campaign platform of jobs, education and public safety.
He's the latest candidate to formally enter the race, joining former Tennessee Economic and Development Commissioner Randy Boyd, another millionaire from the business sector whom Lee will need to distinguish himself from.
Rather than political service, Lee, who still lives on the cattle farm in Fernvale where he was raised, will lean on his lifelong career at Lee Co., a full-service home services, facilities and construction company founded by his grandfather in 1944, which Lee later purchased from his father and became president in 1992.
Today, the company — which has offices in Huntsville, Ala.; Cookeville, Tenn.; and Bowling Green, Ky., in addition to its main office in Franklin — employs 1,150 people, mostly plumbers, pipe-fitters and welders, and generates about $225 million in annual revenue.
"When I came to that company, I had a vision for it and we've accomplished that vision," Lee said. "Those experiences in life have really caused me to have a vision for Tennessee, so I've decided to pursue this endeavor."
How personal tragedy shaped his views
He'll also seek to tell his personal story.
A significant turning point for Lee — one likely to be told on the campaign trail — occurred in 2000 when his wife of 16 years was killed in a horse-riding accident on the family's farm.
Heartbroken, Lee said he turned to God more than ever. He calls the experience "as close to hopelessness as I've known."
But Lee said the experience changed his life — from how he viewed his work to inspiring him to volunteer.
"While that was a really painful and difficult season for me, it was also really transformational," Lee said.
Through a YMCA program aimed at helping at-risk youth, Lee said he met a Nashville high school student, Adam, whom Lee withdrew from a traditional public school and enrolled in a charter school, a decision that he said changed the boy's life. He also cites mentor experiences at Men of Valor, a re-entry program for ex-offenders, as the reasons why he ended up being part of the state’s Higher Education Commission and Gov. Bill Haslam’s Task Force on Sentencing and Recidivism.
Those experiences helped form his views on education, public safety and correction. He said he developed "a vision for something bigger" and found himself wondering whether he could expand his influence.
"What if I could make my life better for six and a half million people? That was a compelling thought to me," he said. "That is really what drove me to consider running for governor."
Lee could find traction with faith voters
Though he figures to attract pro-business Republicans, Lee, a self-described social conservative and former chairman of the Tennessee Prayer Breakfast, could find traction with faith voters. He said faith would influence his decisions as governor, but insisted he is not running for office to focus on social issues.
John Geer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University, called Lee a top-tier Republican candidate who is not a politician in a traditional sense.
"He can and will credibly argue that he is running for office to make a difference," Geer said. "Lee has all the ingredients to be a very successful candidate."
But Geer said it remains to be seen whether Lee's personal skills will be able to translate into a campaign that connects with voters.
Lee, who had been weighing a run for the past year, intends to appoint Fred Decosimo, a principal at a Chattanooga accounting firm, as his treasurer on Monday. His campaign team also consists of veteran GOP operatives Chris Walker, who is serving as communications adviser; pollster Whit Ayres; media consultant Fred Davis; and Blake Harris and Jordan Gehrke, who are general consultants.
In a race most believe will be Tennessee's most expensive political primary ever, Lee is among multiple candidates, including Boyd, who are expected to be in a position to self-finance a portion of their campaigns.
Lee's home turf, affluent Williamson County, is long a GOP donor hotbed, and it will likely help Lee in amassing his campaign war chest. Stuart McWhorter, co-founder and chairman of Clayton Associates and former CEO of the Nashville Entrepreneur Center, is Lee's campaign finance chairman. Anna McDonald, former finance director of the Tennessee Republican Party, is the campaign's finance director.
“I certainly will have skin in the game,” Lee said, declining to say how much he would personally contribute. “Between what I’ll be putting in and what we believe that others will be contributing we’ll have enough to win.”
Lee's entrance into the race comes as other Republicans, including U.S. Rep. Diane Black, House Speaker Beth Harwell, Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, Sen. Mae Beavers and former state lawmaker Joe Carr, are considering entering. There's also an outside possibility that U.S. Sen. Bob Corker will join the fray.
On the Democratic side, former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean also has entered the race, and House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh has said he's leaning on entering as well.
Lee's campaign will formally kick off on Monday when Lee plans to roll out a recently purchased RV that he plans to travel to the state's 95 counties in 95 days with his wife, Maria, whom he married eight years ago.
With the state's legislative session nearing an end, next year's governor's race, still 15 months away, is expected to begin to take shape as others announce their decisions.
Lee said he likes his starting point.
"No one will outwork me and I will run the most aggressive campaign in Tennessee history," he said. "We may not have as much pocket change as everyone else, but we'll burn more shoe leather than anybody."
About Bill Lee
Occupation: Chairman and former CEO of Franklin-based Lee Co.
Hometown: Fernvale in Williamson County
Education: Auburn University, Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering
Family: Wife Maria, four children and two grandchildren
Religion: Christian, attends Grace Chapel Church in Leiper's Fork
Memberships and associations: Tennessee Higher Education Commission, board of trustees for Belmont University, Tennesseans for Economic Growth, YMCA of Middle Tennessee, Associated Builders and Contractors, Hope Clinic for Women, Men of Valor Prison Ministry, Fellowship of Christian Athletics, Operation Andrew