An Iowa native and businessman with nearly 40 years of senior-level management experience in multiple industries, Robert “Lewy” Lewis is a numbers guy, not a marketing researcher. But in 2005 Lewis purchased Quester, a marketing research firm out of Des Moines, Iowa.
“In my years doing turnarounds I had 1,500 clients. And I was only really intrigued by two – one was Quester,” says Lewis, when asked how he got involved in the MR industry. “Man alive, I could see the potential for the numbers and the people to make something happen in a very different way in marketing research.”
In the years since joining Quester, Lewis has worked to be a positive influence on the company as well as everyone he meets. His positivity is infectious and may be the key to why at 66, despite the many challenges that have been sent his way, his life motto is, “Even when it’s tough, it’s still good.”
Work at Quester
When Lewis first began his work with Quester the firm was still doing traditional marketing research with some work in artificial intelligence. At the beginning of the Great Recession, Lewis took what he says was a “huge leap of faith” and had the company focus on artificial intelligence.
“When I told people of the capabilities in 2007 they pretty much rolled their eyes and said, ‘right,’” says Lewis.
The switch caused some fear internally as roles shifted and many were concerned their jobs would be taken away, but Lewis says the firm worked to give employees the opportunity to grow, learn and take on more responsibilities within the company. Today Quester works with Fortune 500 companies and continues to foster employee growth.
Lewis is a proponent for educating and mentoring his employees, making them each feel like an integral part of the company. He believes that investing in your employees is the way to keep them dedicated to your company. “Even the Millennials,” he says with a chuckle. His ultimate goal is to come into the office and be “surrounded by giants.”
“If you treat employees well and give them all this information and make them a part of the company, they will stay,” says Lewis. “We try to be unique in how we operate. We have all sorts of toys in the office for people. You can come and go as you want to. Some people work from home. […] We treat them like adults.”
Listening to Lewis, it is obvious that he holds great respect for his team and is committed to creating an environment built on trust. He hopes he has made an impact on employees as well as people outside the company. One of his goals is to get people to realize that they are capable of more than they think they are. He tells of a time a few years ago where he walked by a meeting going on in an office. “I don’t walk well,” he says, “and one of the individuals in the office [who saw me] said, ‘If he can do it, we can surely do it.’”
Life with chronic pain
Lewis’ health problems first began in high school. In June 1974, he had surgery and was diagnosed with Chiari malformation, a condition in which brain tissue extends into the spinal canal, causing cerebrospinal fluid leak, damaging his nerves.
“I was told I was going to most likely be a quadriplegic and blind. But I had such a positive attitude and I knew it was going to be OK. After about 40 days I was running again. I was able to overcome it,” says Lewis. “I’ve lived with chronic pain since I was 21. I’ve got arthritis in my spine.”
Chronic pain hasn’t stopped Lewis from pursuing his personal and professional goals. And even though he was given another life-altering challenge in 2006, shortly after purchasing Quester, when he contracted post-surgical meningitis – a rare complication after spinal lumbar surgery that is associated with high mortality rates – he persevered against the odds and made the decision to keep working part-time.
Today, Lewis sometimes uses a wheelchair to get around as he has lost the use of his hands, arms and half of one leg.
“I haven’t driven a car in 13 years. So I need someone with me 24/7. I have a couple hours a day alone, but not very long and not very often,” says Lewis. “I’ve opted to continue to work. I have great staff. They do fabulous work. Absolutely wonderful management team.”
Disability-Owned Business Enterprise
Earlier this year, Quester announced its new certification as a Disability-Owned Business Enterprise (DOBE) from Disability:IN – a national nonprofit that helps businesses drive performance by leveraging disability inclusion in the workplace.
“One of the things that people do not realize in this world is how much effort it takes to be disabled,” says Lewis. “I’ve been wanting to do it [DOBE] for several years. I wanted to first and foremost make people aware of the fact that just because you’re disabled doesn’t mean that you can’t work and have a company.”
Lewis says the certification is not going to gain them business. Instead, it is his hope that when companies work with Quester they will see an example of the quality of work that can be produced by a DOBE.
Capable of more
Lewis has a Winston Churchill quote written in calligraphy, a gift from his wife: “Never, never, never give up.” This message of finding the determination to continue on is something he feels everyone who is struggling should turn to.
“I have never given up,” says Lewis. “I always thought I did have the choice. I made a decision tree and decided that I wanted to live.”
Friends and family have also helped him tremendously in staying positive during the rough times.
Looking ahead, Lewis hopes to continue to surround himself with people that “do the work and get the job done” and to help others overcome their challenges through public speaking, writing articles and hopefully, publishing a book.
“I’ve got a book written in my head. I need to get it in print,” he says. “That’s my goal.”
And if Lewy puts his mind to it, it’s bound to happen.