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Friday, July 12, 2024
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The Inspiring Tale of Byron J. Lewis, His Resilience and Leadership, from Grassroots to Legal and Real Estate Mastery

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By Roberto Hugo González

In Houston, Texas, a story of resilience, wisdom, and leadership began with the birth of Byron J. Lewis in 1960. Born to Robert C. Lewis and Hazel Harrell Lewis, who had relocated from Moultrie, Georgia, in pursuit of a brighter future, Byron represented the light of hope for his family. Overcoming fertility challenges, his parents welcomed him as an unexpected joy, not knowing he would grow to leave a significant mark in the fields of real estate and law.

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Byron’s academic journey was as impressive as his professional one. He pursued an undergraduate degree in Business Administration from the prestigious University of Texas. His thirst for knowledge and a drive to excel propelled him to further his education at the University of Houston College of Law, where he graduated with a law degree in 1986.

His commitment to his field is evident through his extensive qualifications. He is Board Certified by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization in both commercial and residential real estate law.

On April 4, 2014, Byron achieved a significant milestone by passing a challenging examination to become a Certified Title Insurance Professional (CTIP), accredited by the Texas Land Title Association. This achievement certifies his expertise and dedication to his profession.

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Byron’s professional affiliations are a roll call of prestigious organizations. He is an active member of the State Bar of Texas, the American Bar Association, the Hidalgo County Bar Association, and the College of the State Bar of Texas. His commitment to his profession is further demonstrated by his life fellowship with the Texas Bar Foundation and his involvement with the Texas Land Title Association. Previously, he has been an integral part of the Texas Association of Bank Counsel and the Texas City Attorney’s Association.

In his illustrious career, Byron has also held significant positions in the banking sector. He has served as an Advisory Director and Executive Officer of a bank. Currently, he holds the distinguished and well-earned position of President/CEO of Edwards Abstract and Title Company His expertise extends to various facets of law, including title insurance, real estate law, loan documentation, lien perfection, debt collections, and banking legal matters.

Byron’s excellence in law is recognized by Martindale Hubbell, a nationwide rating service for lawyers, which has awarded him an AV rating. This prestigious accolade signifies the highest peer review rating in legal ability and ethical standards, underscoring his reputation as a lawyer of exceptional caliber.

Byron Lewis points at his friend Kirk Clark, RIP. Images by Roberto Hugo González
Byron Lewis points at his friend Kirk Clark, RIP. Images by Roberto Hugo González

Byron’s extensive community involvement has included serving as president of the Rotary Club of Edinburg, president of the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce while overseeing the renovation of the old Edinburg Depot, playing a key role in the building of the Legacy Center for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Edinburg, and overseeing the Edinburg Foundation which generously helped several local non-profits including Palm Valley Animal Society in the building of their Andrews Center. His passion for helping lost and abandoned animals echoes his passion for assisting others who need a helping hand. 

On the personal front, Byron’s life is enriched by his family. He is married to Keely Anthony Lewis and together they are proud parents to Elizabeth, Mark, and his wife Jordan. They have one grandson, Robby, with another on the way this spring. 

His journey, marked by professional accomplishments and a strong family foundation, continues to inspire many in the legal and real estate sectors.

In a detailed conversation, Byron shared valuable insights into his profession and the title insurance industry. When asked about his occupation, Byron summarized, “I am a real estate attorney, board certified in commercial and residential real estate. What I do for a living now is I’m the president and CEO of Edwards Abstract and Title Company.”

Since October 1st, 2001, Byron has been at the top of Edwards Abstract and Title Company, a firm with a rich history and an independent status in the title business. Explaining the nature of the company, Byron emphasized, “We are an independent agent. Historically, the title business was made up of independent agents. They were abstract companies that, before title insurance policies, prepared abstracts to verify titles for property purchases.”

Byron explained the evolution of the industry, noting the shift from attorney opinions to title insurance around the 1920s and 1930s. This change was due to the realization that attorney opinions needed more substantial backing. “Title insurance emerged as a contract of indemnity, assuring buyers against any undisclosed liens or encumbrances,” Byron explained. He described how the industry adapted, with underwriters establishing reserves and formal policies, leading to a preference for title insurance over attorney opinions among lenders and sophisticated buyers.

Discussing the company’s operation, Byron revealed, “Edwards is an agent for multiple large underwriters, including Fidelity, First American, and Stewart Title. We are one of the few agents with such a level of underwriting support.” He also addressed the industry’s dynamics, where larger underwriters sometimes acquire smaller independent agents, emphasizing Edwards Abstract and Title Company’s commitment to maintaining its independence.

Reflecting on the appeal of the title industry, Byron remarked, “It’s not the most glamorous business, so many coming out of business or law school don’t initially consider it. However, it’s crucial, especially for succession planning and maintaining independence among agents.”

Byron also touched on the significant legislative changes affecting the industry. He discussed the efforts to deregulate title insurance rates in Texas and how these efforts were communicated and eventually stalled. “The industry spends more on research, examination, and curative efforts than on claims, unlike other insurance sectors,” he noted, highlighting the unique nature of the title insurance industry.

He concluded with an emotional statement on the importance of title insurance, especially post-pandemic: “It’s about peace of mind when buying your home, business property, or ranch. This product’s significance is paramount, and that’s a key part of our story today.”

In a conversation about the services offered by Edwards Abstract and Title Company, Byron illuminated the extensive nature of their operations. He stated, “We’re very specialized, and I’m constantly surprised how little people know about what we do. In Texas, the company is licensed through me. We examine the title, do the research, produce the commitment, and perform the escrow functions. Our mission is to bring people together for the successful closing of real estate transactions, be it a lot, home, ranch, or commercial property.”

Elaborating on the customer experience, Byron emphasized the rarity and significance of these transactions for many clients. He explained, “A big percentage of our customers experience this only once or twice in their lives. We focus on offering excellent customer service and ensure they have the resources to understand the process. A smaller percentage of our customers are repeat clients, like sophisticated commercial realtors, lenders, and real estate attorneys.”

When asked about what sets Edwards Abstract apart from other companies, Byron highlighted the regulated nature of the industry in Texas. “We all offer the same products as per the promulgated rules. What makes Edwards different is our history and connection with the community,” he said. Byron shared a personal story of receiving a letter from Analita Cantu, whose family had a longstanding relationship with the company. This letter illustrated the deep roots and impact of Edwards, founded in 1880 by Judge James Henry Edwards and incorporated in 1926.

Reflecting on his personal journey and the legacy of his company, Byron shared an emotional moment. “I lost my parents in July of 2021, which changed my perspective on what’s important in life. It made me think about legacy. My parents Robert C. Lewis and Hazel Harrell Lewis sacrificed so much for my opportunities. This understanding has deepened my appreciation for the legacy of Edwards Abstract and the importance of family,” Byron recounted, revealing the profound impact his personal history has on his professional philosophy.

In this phase, Byron told Texas Border Business about his challenges and triumphs that have shaped his professional and personal legacy. Byron candidly shared, “I was born premature. Both my parents thought I would be a minister. So, when I said I wanted to be a lawyer at the age of 12, I’m sure it disappointed them.”

Reflecting on the legacy left by his parents, Byron said, “Their legacy is so sweet and self-sacrificing. I’d be nothing without it. So, what’s my legacy? Because of my parents, I’ve had such great opportunities. I feel my obligation is greater; it is to this community.” He recollected finding his first resume, stating his desire to become an integral member of the community and make a difference using his business and law knowledge.

“A better man? I hope that’s my legacy,” Byron reflected. “Every day we have to strive to be better because, at the end of the day, it’s not us who judge our legacy. It’s those that we leave.”

Texas Border Business (TBB) acknowledges Byron’s community involvement and has witnessed multiple times how Byron, his wife Keely, and his staff approach members of this community. In a few words, Byron would have been a great preacher as well because he is kind and a compassionate human being. To which Byron responded, “Thank you. My parents gave me many gifts. I’m comfortable with public speaking, and I appreciate that’s a high compliment. The biggest difference is what we choose to do with our unique credentials and gifts.”

The economic downturn between 2008 and 2010, often compared to the Great Recession, marked a critical moment in the history of many businesses, including the real estate sector. This period, which Byron refers to as his “Valley of the Shadow of Death in Business,” was characterized by a steep decline in economic and real estate activities, as depicted by the deep V-shaped trajectories in many graphs of that era. Unlike the Great Depression, this period was unique in modern business terms, leading to unprecedented challenges.

“During this time, our company, founded in 1880, faced severe trials. From operating three separate entities with 240 employees and managing 1500 to 2000 transactions monthly, we suddenly found ourselves on the brink of collapse. This critical phase demanded urgent and innovative strategies to ensure survival and legacy. In 2010, the executive team, realizing the gravity of the situation, convened to devise a survival plan.”

The fundamental decision, he said, was to consolidate companies. “The presidents of Security Land Title, and Southern Texas Title, Mike Overly, and Guy Huddleston III, respectively, formed an executive committee with me. The team proposed a unified structure with me as president, and them as vice presidents. This restructuring was a humbling and challenging process, requiring difficult decisions, particularly regarding staff reductions. Despite the average tenure at Edwards being over 15 years, we had to identify critical staff and unfortunately let go of many valued team members. This phase was emotionally difficult, as each departing employee expressed gratitude for their time with us, which deeply moved me,” Byron stated.

The aftermath of these decisions was a slow and steady recovery. Contrary to expectations of a rapid economic rebound, the recovery mirrored a flat V-shape, indicating a prolonged period of rebuilding that lasted until 2017. This journey involved finding efficiencies and reducing costs without compromising service quality. This experience served as a humbling lesson, reinforcing the importance of continuous learning, resilience, and proactive planning. “It reminded me that no success is permanent and that every day presents new challenges and opportunities for growth. Despite having sufficient reserves, we were unprepared for such a drastic downturn, underscoring the need for constant vigilance and adaptability in business.”

Reflecting on the post-COVID period, he optimistically noted, “The years 2021 and 22 will probably be the peak performance in the history of the company because after COVID, people just came back with a ferocious appetite for real estate.”

When asked about the support and training provided to employees at Edwards Abstract, Byron emphasized their commitment to continuous learning. He stated, “Most of our key people are licensed with the Department of Insurance. They have continuing education requirements like attorneys or doctors.” Byron detailed how the company offers seminars and training, both digital and in-person, to equip their employees comprehensively. “We also have our underwriting partners send their key people for training. We’re very intentional about equipping our people,” he added.

Byron underlined the importance of certifications and specialized training within the company. “I’m a Certified Title Insurance Professional, and we have Certified Escrow Professionals and Certified Examination Professionals in our company. We’re really committed to that,” he explained. His belief in the value of education and continuous professional development is a cornerstone of his leadership philosophy, ensuring that his team is well-prepared and knowledgeable.

In Byron’s journey, he discussed the strategic decision-making behind the expansion of Edwards Abstract and his vision for the company’s future.

Byron explained how location choices for Edwards Abstract were influenced by economic drivers and community readiness.

“When I started, Edwards Abstract was in Edinburg, with a new office in McAllen,” he said. “The McAllen office was a great choice because it’s the economic driver for South Texas.”

He also mentioned the calculated risks in any expansion, like their opening in Weslaco, Mission, and Sharyland Plantation; the last one didn’t work, however. Later they decided on expanding to Cameron County with offices in Harlingen, Brownsville, and South Padre Island.

Discussing the company’s primary target audience, Byron emphasized the importance of shared values and productive relationships. “Our primary customer is someone who shares our values like respect, honesty, and trust,” he said. Byron detailed their focus on sophisticated commercial, farm, and ranch transactions, seeking customers who are not just high-volume producers but also share a commitment to mutual respect and they enjoy working together.

When asked about the future plans for Edwards Abstract, Byron shared his excitement about the company’s transition to the next generation. “Our son, Mark, graduated with a business degree and joined the business. He’s now managing the McAllen office and is remarkably good at this business,” Byron stated proudly. He expressed his desire to pass the baton to Mark over the next five to ten years, while he remains CEO to provide guidance and support.

Byron’s enthusiasm was evident as he spoke about his son’s achievements and commitment to the family business. “Mark is a Certified Title Insurance Professional, Certified Escrow Professional, and a Certified Examination Professional. His commitment is evident in his desire to be certified in every area,” Byron said. He also shared the joy of having a grandson named after his father, Robert, reflecting a deep sense of the family legacy and continuity in both personal and professional areas.

At this phase of his journey, Byron reflects on critical moments and individuals who have shaped his career and his approach to life and business.

Byron identified a crucial moment in his career, saying, “The defining moment that made me a better person was the great recession experience.” However, he fondly recalled another significant chapter; it was his time with Jesse Hedrick. “When Jesse Hedrick asked me to join Suzanne Scott as counsel, it was essentially a three-year job interview,” Byron shared. He described Jesse as a complex individual, hard to get close to, yet possessing an innate ability to form deep relationships.

Byron vividly recounted learning from Jesse’s example and acumen. “He could look at people and almost ‘x-ray’ read them,” Byron said, emphasizing Jesse’s unique ability to connect with people. A particular moment for Byron was a conversation on Jesse’s back porch rocking on their chairs respectively, where Jesse acknowledged Byron’s potential to excel in the business, recognizing that Byron didn’t carry the same ‘demons’ he did.

Byron’s journey with Jesse was a profound learning experience, surpassing his education at business school and law school. “It was like a crash course of a PhD in business, specifically this business,” he said. After Jesse passed away, Byron faced doubts from others about his ability to fill Jesse’s shoes. He realized that he didn’t need to be Jesse; he needed to be Byron and lead in his own way.

Byron emphasized the importance of forming relationships with his team, customers, and the community. “I intentionally formed relationships with everyone here,” he said, underscoring his belief in the power of personal connections.

Reflecting on his journey, Byron expressed gratitude for the opportunities that came his way. “There is no other place on earth than the Rio Grande Valley of Texas where I could have had this opportunity,” he said, highlighting the unique possibilities that the region provided him.

Byron’s story is not just about navigating the highs and lows of business but about the chances and choices that shape our lives. “Every day is like a day of wonder and opportunity, and blessing, if we just let it, trust it,” he concluded encapsulating his journey from humble beginnings to legal eminence as a tapestry of learning, building relationships, and seizing opportunities.

Written by Roberto Hugo González, the 2009 SBA Journalist of the Year award winner & the 2009 and 2012 Paul Harris award recipient.

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