Workaholic entrepreneur stokes scorching growth from start-up

Indianapolis Business Journal - 1997
By Stephen Beaven - IBJ Reporter

How did Deborah Peters launch Quality Environmental Professionals Inc. in a competitive market with no business experience? Let us count the ways. She cashed in her life savings and took out a heart-stopping $150,000 start-up loan. She's stumbled through an entrepreneurial maze in the first two years, learning how to run a business and turning to competitors for advice. She's forsaken a paycheck some weeks to protect cash flow and she's not afraid of hard work.

"I have no life," she says, sitting in a conference room down the hall from her office, wearing a pair of QEPI earrings. "My life belongs to QEPI now."

"She is driven," says Salim Najjar, president of the structural engineering firm Fink Roberts & Petrie Inc., for which Peters used to work. "She is absolutely driven and does not quit."

Which may be why QEPI racked up $1.6 million in revenue in 1996, its first year in business. Through September, revenue in 1997 stood at $1.5 million.

In a competitive business in which Johnny-come-latelies sink or swim, QEPI is beginning to look like Mark Spitz.

"The growth," Peters says, "has been out of this world."

And unexpected. When Peters started QEPI, she hoped to end the first year in business with $750,000 in revenue. But referrals and workaholism have boosted QEPI's profile and helped the company overcome Peters' lack of business experience.

QEPI grew out out of an environmental company Fink Roberts & Petrie started in 1993. Peters, a hydrogeologist with a degree from IUPUI, was the director of FRP Environmental Inc. But, she says, there was some disagreement about the company's mission.

Rink Roberts & Petrie executives wanted FRP Environmental to provide environmental impact statements and other work for property transactions. But Peters wanted to do hazardous waste management and remediation work.

"It really bothered them that we were doing that kind of work," she says, "I think they were worried about the liability." Najjar said the environmental company created an "identity crisis" for Fink Roberts & Petrie because clients associated his firm so closely with structural engineering. And he admits he didn't know much about environmental work.

So, with Najjar's blessing, Peters struck out on her own. She financed the purchase of FRP Environmental with $42,000 she and her husband Doug had saved, the small-business load and about $7,000 from her partners. She brought with her about 15 clients and a staff of 10.

Though Peters had years of experience in environmental consulting, she didn't know how to run a business. She didn't know how to use marketing and didn't hire a salesperson until four months ago. [June 1997] "I had no idea what a CEO was when I took the position," she says. "I was very naive." Peters' growing pains elicit knowing chuckles from Najjar and other friends in the business. Peters isn't shy about asking for advice, even from so-called competitors.

She's asked for advice about accounting and office communications form Jimmy New, CEO of JF New & Associates Inc., an environmental consulting firm with an office in Indianapolis. "Deb's good about asking," New says. "She's not going to sit there and drown."

"She's learned an awful lot in a very short period of time," Najjar says. "She had to learn practically from scratch." It helps that Peters doesn't blink at the prospect of an 80-hour week. She has quite a reputation for hard work. Once, at FRP, Najjar caught her in the office after midnight and told her to go home. Sometimes, he said, she'd go to the office at 5 a.m.

And she's not in it for the money. At least not yet. Some QEPI employees make more than she does, Peters says. She'd rather take a smaller paycheck and reward herself with a bonus, depending on performance, to protect cash flow.

"When you're a little company, just starting out, cash is king," she says. For now, about 40 percent of QEPI's work involves subsurface investigaion, risk management and remediation. Peters estimates that 30 percent of business is derived from industrial health and safety training. And about 25 percent involves the immediated removal of contamination and waste for the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.

But the industry is changing and Peters expects her business to do the same. She especially hopes to increase QEPI's work with industrial clients by creating plans to help them meet changing regulatory responsibilities. And now she has a better grasp of her responsibilities as CEO and feels better prepared to manage the rapid growth QEPI has experienced.

"I have to make sure I'm not afraid to grow," Peters says. "I was afraid to grow," Peters says. "I was afraid to hire new people because I thought, 'Oh my gosh. I'm responsible for one more person.'"