The little engine that did

Jane Leazer sits on a forklift at Forklifts Unlimited in York on Thursday. The business, which Leazer started out of her garage in Rock Hill, celebrated its 20th anniversary on Saturday.
Jane Leazer sits on a forklift at Forklifts Unlimited in York on Thursday. The business, which Leazer started out of her garage in Rock Hill, celebrated its 20th anniversary on Saturday.

YORK -- Perched atop a worn filing cabinet, a black and red model choo-choo train engine overlooks Jane Leazer's bustling business at Forklifts Unlimited.

It was a gift from Leazer's husband, Bob, when she started the sales and service company out of the couple's garage.

"Just like the Little Engine That Could saying, 'I think I can, I think I can,' he told me, 'You can do it, you can do it,'" Leazer said last week.

But she's not just thinking about doing it anymore. Leazer has done it. And then some. In a field dominated by men, Leazer has successfully chiseled her name in the list of profitable businesswoman.

What started with a living room for an office and a two-car garage doubling as a service bay in 1988 is now the area's leading forklift service, rental and sales business with clients ranging from Comporium and American Eagle Wheel Co., to the Contractor's Yard and local school districts.

On Friday, Leazer and her staff, many who have been with her from the beginning, will host a barbecue for customers to celebrate 20 years since launching the business at 7:30 a.m. on March 1, 1988, from that tiny garage in Rock Hill.

"That morning I thought, 'How am I ever gonna make payroll?'" Leazer said, showing, as always, her concern for the men and women who have helped her carry the load. "But we did."

'I like to get dirty'

Leazer, a Gaffney native, is no stranger to the sweat equity required to start a business. As a young girl, she and her siblings worked alongside her father on Saturdays pouring concrete.

She later married Bob Leazer, whose job in grocery store management moved the couple to Charlotte and eventually Rock Hill, where for years he managed the then-Harris Teeter store on Cherry Road.

Leazer began her career in the forklift business as a clerk for Coleman Co. in Fort Mill in 1971. For 17 years, she moved up the ladder until she was the operations manager, and Coleman was ready to close its Fort Mill operations.

But the five-and-a-half-foot lady with a smile wasn't ready to quit. Co-workers asked her to start her own business. They only wanted to work for her, they said. So she did.

"People told me to get a job at a bank," Leazer said. "I said, 'I don't wanna be a bank teller. You know I like to get dirty.'"

That was the attitude that convinced the greasy servicemen to get on board with the little lady with big dreams.

"We had the option to go work for another company," said Dave McManus, an original employee and the parts manager at Forklifts Unlimited, "But we wanted to stay together."

And he never batted an eye at taking orders about machine parts and how to fix them from a soft-spoken woman in a business suit and peach-colored blouse.

"She's always treated us fair," he said. "It's been quite an experience."

Service manager Roy Wells, who joins four others that came from Coleman still working with Leazer, said the camaraderie and experience they share are the reasons the company got off the ground.

"Folks said, 'Y'all will never make it.' But we showed 'em," he said last week, still wiping the grease off the palms that have fixed forklifts for more than 30 years. "We hand-picked the people that came with us. If we didn't have the experience, we wouldn't have made it out of the first year."

An uncommon business move

With her forte in sales, Leazer partnered with her sister-in-law Marilyn Lipscomb, a finance expert, to start the company. Leazer eventually bought out her partner but insists she wouldn't have made it out of the gate without her help.

"We had our share of tough times at the beginning. I stayed here till two or three in the morning lots of nights trying to figure out how to make it work," Leazer said. "I knew sales, but Marilyn had to teach me how to run the business."

Two women starting a business wasn't common in South Carolina 20 years ago, or today. In 2006, only about 27 percent of privately-owned businesses in South Carolina were owned by women, according to the nonprofit Center for Women's Business Research. In Forklifts Unlimited's early days, fewer than one in four companies in the state were owned by women, the center reports.

"That means a lot to me," Leazer said.

She recalled a time early on when her male employees were unable to land a big contract in town. Determined to make a deal, she scheduled a meeting with the man who owned the business.

"He said, 'I'll give you five minutes to tell me why you think you're better than everyone else.' I told him I wasn't better than anyone, but I just wanted to explain what my company could do for him," she said with a smile. "We got the contract."

'No intention of leaving'

Leazer continues to embody that attitude today. Despite being the owner, she shares an office with her accountant and sales staff. The parts counter is 10 feet from her office door, and she makes her way into the service area every day, even helping drive forklifts around the shop on occasion.

"Hard work and loyal employees," she said, "That's how we've done it."

Leazer refuses to share her age but promises she isn't looking at retirement anytime soon. From behind her metal office desk, she still sees that model train and knows there are more hills she wants to climb.

"I have no intention of leaving," she said. "I love my customers. I love my employees. I love being the boss."