Beyond the Boardroom: Illini Fire Equipment President Amy Lewis – Champaign/Urbana News-Gazette


amy lewis

Amy Lewis, president of Illini Fire Equipment, Inc., at her office in Urbana.

You may remember her as Amy Scharlau — the sweet-swinging St. Joseph-Ogden slugger who’d go on to be named 1991’s News-Gazette All-Area Softball Player of the Year and a first-team Academic All-American four years later at Northern Illinois.

These days, she goes by AMY LEWIS — president of a successful local business and St. Joseph mom with a passion for a new pastime.

“I took up golf because my husband played and I thought it would be something we could do together,” says the Urbana County Club member and former Stone Creek regular, who’s eager to see what becomes of the newly named Atkins Golf Club under UI ownership.

“I played college softball, so the transition from a softball swing to a golf swing took some time. But I’ve improved — my handicap is a 19. Still holding out for a golf career highlight — my goal is a hole-in-one.”

In between hitting the links and running Urbana-headquartered Illini Fire Equipment — a family business started by her grandfather (Walter Carlson) and passed down to her dad (Harold Scharlau) before becoming hers — Lewis took time out to to answer a few questions from Editor Jeff D’Alessio in the 73rd installment of our weekly speed read spotlighting leaders of organizations big and small.

I can’t live without my … time away — a round of golf with friends, a weekend getaway with my husband or a family vacation.

Whenever I feel I’m spread too thin, I know it’s time for a break. Usually, whatever I’m dealing with seems much easier to tackle afterward.

My one unbreakable rule of the workplace is … approach situations with integrity and honesty, and don’t be afraid to own your mistakes. People will respect that more than excuses.

The worst job I ever had was … remember Service Merchandise? I worked there during high school as a greeter and answering phones.

During the Christmas season, I’d get hundreds of phone calls every day asking if the store had any of the “it” item for that year.

The biggest business risk I ever took was … acquiring another business. I was approached by friendly competitors wanting to retire and sell their business. It was a big decision and I was pretty new to the industry, which made me apprehensive.

We decided to make the purchase and closed the deal two years ago. It doubled our size and expanded our service area and lines of business. The transition had its challenges, but now things are running smoothly and I can say it was a great decision.

My philosophy on meetings is … keep them productive. I can’t stand meetings that rehash the same items over and over.

Let’s chat a bit, discuss the issues, come up with solutions and a plan to implement them.

Amy and Gary Lewis

Amy and Gary Lewis at one of their favorite spots — the golf course.

When it comes to the last luxury in which I indulged … I’m getting ready to order a new 3-wood and putter. Hopefully, they will arrive before my husband reads this.

The hardest thing about being a leader is … encouraging people with widely different personalities, experiences and ideas to develop into a cohesive group working together.

The most beneficial college class I took was … Introduction to Financial Accounting at Northern Illinois University.

I knew I wanted to major in a business discipline, but prior to this class I was undecided on which one. This class made my decision, and set my career path.

I’m up and at ’em every day by … 5:30, but closer to 7 on the weekends. During the lockdown, I started exercising first thing in the mornings, and I’ve managed to keep up that routine for the last year.

It really helps to clear my head and put me in the right mindset to start the day.

amy lewis

Amy Lewis

As far as my exercise routine goes … most weeks, I’m walking on the treadmill or outside six days. When the weather is good, I’ll trade that for walking a round of golf.

On a 1-to-10 scale, the impact of the pandemic has been an … 8. When the lockdown first began, the biggest concern was the unknown. How long will it last? How will it affect my family, my business and the community?

After a very stressful month, things became clearer for the company. We were very fortunate that we did not shut down and were able to keep our full staff throughout. We realize how lucky we were, and are thankful for that.

With two kids in high school, and a husband in education, that was by far the most challenging part of the last year. Like everyone else, we’ve juggled schedules and adjusted calendars regularly.

Our school started full time in-person instruction recently, and honestly, it felt a little strange after the last year. I think the changes the pandemic has caused in how we look at being together will take some time to fade.

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