Clean Sweep

Deb Peters tackles a man's job with a woman's touch
Indianapolis Woman Magazine - July 1998

Tired of the cliched story about the woman behind the man? Deborah Peters surely is, especially since she credits her success to the opposite phenomenon. Then again, this Greenwood resident redefines the word "maverick," defying the industry's economic odds and mixing in a few fairy tale moments for entertainment.

As president, founder and principal hydrogeologist of Quality Environmental Professionals, she quickly realized after launching her company in February 1996 that running a business was similar to riding a roller coaster- with a lot of ups, downs and fast, sharp turns. ironically, Peters generally avoids those thrill rides at an amusement park. "It always feels like I'm about ready to come out of my seat and fall over the side," she says. "It's the same with a business. At QEPI, I have to continue attacking the future fast and hard."

Yet at the same time, she knows that if she wants to effectively pass on her "defy the norm" life philosophy to her other babies-daughters Laura, 15, and Kimberly, 12- she has to walk that talk. So when then-employer Fink Roberts & Petrie approached her in 1995 to buy the environmental division she headed at that company, husband Douglas agreed to be Mr. Mom to give her the chance to explore the possibilities. "My husband and I were rich with love but not material wealth," she says. "When you have two children, both daughters, most of your investment is in wardrobes. So I was happy with our Leave it to Beaver home and a steady income, " she says. Yet she emptied her personal savings account and put that home up as collateral to obtain the necessary Small Business Administration loan. Chalk it up to passion, she says.

"Wives and mothers get to nourish their families. I also get to take care of Mother Earth," she says. Her company inspects buildings for lead or asbestos, cleans ground water, removes leaky underground storage tanks and helps with regulatory compliance issues. Her client list includes heavyweights such as Shell Oil Products, Amtrak, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Banc One. Peters' personal strength lies in risk management and subsurface investigations, an area she says offers tremendous personal satisfaction. "To discover the problem, solve it and walk away knowing you made the environment safe for the bugs, bunnies and people is very rewarding," she says. However, these rewards usually remain internal- just as no one wants guests to blab about the time they dropped in to find dirty underwear piled on the floor, so industrial clients demand she not discuss their situations.

In retrospect, love is the only emotion strong enough to keep Peters' shoulder to the grindstone for more than two years now. In her first day in the boss's chair, Peters received a letter from the Air and Waste Management Institute informing her that her original business name QEP, conflicted with its certification programs- so she had to spend $5,000 for a trademark lawyer and another $8,000 to reprint the letterhead, business cards and promotional giveaways with the compromise. That same day, the computers she bought would not operate as stand-alone units. The resulting $28,000 to fix that situation, along with another $18,000 in unanticipated legal fees for this, that and the other, wiped out her working capital altogether. Suddenly she was staring at zero in fall-back funds after only one month on her own.

But Peters has adopted alternative band Chumbawumba's popular "I get knocked down, but I get up again: you're never gonna keep me down" lyrics as her theme song. She responded by cutting her own salary in half-and eventually squashed that to zero for nearly nine months. She also put in an average of 81 hours a week in her eastside office that first 16 months for a grand total of $25,000 in take-home cash. That's roughly $4.47 an hour- before taxes, of course. "There are days when I'm still convinced CEO stands for Cutting Everything Out of your life," she notes. "But you can call me Cinderella, because I literally scrubbed the company toilets in an effort to save janitor fees, waiting for my financial Prince Charming to come along."

Of course, the question begs to be asked: Why doesn't she throw off the corporate structure for, say, self-employment as a consultant? "Well, I don't play golf," she says after a pause. "I've always been more into playing first or second base on company softball teams because then there's nine of you working for the same goal."

Secondly, Peters admits she's never been one to cut corners - she has deliberately crammed as much living as possible into every second of her life since her days at Howe High School. She sang alto in the choir and madrigals, performed on the Hornet Honeys pompon squad, participated in student council, acted in musicals, studied ballet, joined a sorority that called themselves the Kittens, ran for Prom Queen honors twice, worked part-time at J.C. Penney's junior department and gave private guitar lessons to pay for tuition to attend Indiana University. Her sweetheart - now that husband with whom she celebrated her 20th wedding anniversary in March - had a difficult time squeezing in dates.

Once at IU, she barrelled down the road toward a degree in business until she enrolled in geology to satisfy that bothersome science requirement. "It played games with my head until I sought out my counselor and said, ' I have so much passion for this class. What should I do?' " His formula was straightforward: Could Peters envision herself sitting behind a desk at a bank or out in the field setting a rig? She trotted over to the geology department to change majors.

That admittance counselor had his doubts. His science-based program required difficult course the nearly graduated business student lacked. Peters flared. "Nobody ever tells me I can't do something, because then I'll do it just to spite them," she says. Now married, she chalked up straight A's at IUPUI in physics, physical geology and chemistry, all while carrying (and birthing) her first child and working at Naval Avionics as a budget analyst. "I didn't sleep, and I studied like crazy" she says. "It was hard, but I wasn't going to let anybody know it."

Peters used that same courage to steer her company in the corporate birthing days. Today the firm has expanded from eight people to 18 and increased earning from $450,00 to $1.6 million in 14 months - statistics that landed QEPI on Indiana's Growth 100 list. And this, she points out proudly, was during a time when other players in the industry were downsizing.

It's also despite the fact she bucks the "proper" way to do business. For instance, Peters' presentations and newsletters contain cartoons to separate her from what she labels the stuffy consultant image. She's also lost jobs because she owned up that the client would waste money authorizing the work. "I still believe morals will win in the end," she says.

The philosophy works at home, too, where her daughters swamp the house on weekends with friends anxious to hand out with their "cool" Mom. "Sometimes I think what a poor example I've been for my kids concerning the time commitment it took to get a business going - neither girl has any aspirations to follow my footsteps," she says. "Yet they know now there isn't anything a woman can't do."

Printed in Indianapolis Woman in July 1998. Written by Julie Sturgeon.