Deb Peters is one of the guys...in a symbolic sort of way. As a woman in the male-dominated environmental-engineering industry, she's come a long way from her college days as one of only three female geology majors at IUPUI. Today, Peters is still a minority in the field. But she's also the successful owner of Quality Environmental Professionals Inc., a 36-member firm with annual revenue of $5 million and offices in five states.
She's earned the respect of the city's large law firms, such as Baker & Daniels and Barnes & Thornburg, which frequently send clients her way.
So how did Peters survive the gender jokes and earn the respect of her male peers? Balance.
"You have to learn how to be a female in a male-dominated world without losing your femininity," Peters said.
That might include quick and to-the-point conversations when communicating with men and saving the detail-orientated talks for women. Peters and her CFO, Ann Morris, a part owner in QEPI, avoid marketing their company as female-owned, but rather as a quality environmental-engineering firm. Her colleagues can't argue.
"She's never let it be a disadvantage," Baker & Daniels lawyer Lewis Beckwith said of Peters' sex. "I think she's gotten here by giving first-class service and attention to her clients. I think she really comes across as someone who is out to do good work."
While that may be true, the 43-year-old Peters has experienced her share of discrimination. Like the time a male executive from an international company told her to "come back, little girl, when you grow up."
The scathing remark has left such a lasting impression on Peters that, although she has had the opportunity, she refuses to bid on the company's projects.
Peters has built such a solid reputation within the industry that those comments are distant reminders of her earlier days as a business owner. William Scott, owner of Fibertech, a fiberglass and plastic manufacturer and repair company in Huntingburg in southern Indiana, couldn't care less whether Peters is a woman.
In February, Fibertech's facility was destroyed by fire from a welding spark that ignited fuel or lacquer thinner fumes from a boat. The Indiana Department of Environmental Management became concerned after thousands of gallons of water used to douse the blaze had emptied into a nearby creek. Beckwith called QEPI, and workers boarded a plane and were there in two hours.
About 22,000 gallons of water were treated as hazardous, and IDEM's plan to dispose of the water would have cost $1.5 million. QEPI's director of redevelopment services, Karla McDonald, presented an option that would run roughly $300,000. Scott was insured for only $1 million. He chose QEPI to handle the cleanup.
"Obviously, when a small company goes through something like this, nobody can be prepared for the fallout of a major fire like this," Scott said, "[QEPI] analyzed the situation immediately, and from that point, they were able to make quick decisions and eliminate the exposure that was there."
QEPI will celebrate its five-year anniversary in January. Peters began her career immediately following college when Environmental Resources Management, an international environmental consulting firm, hired her as a consultant. With two young daughters and tired of the traveling, Peters quit in 1988 to work for a more regional environmental consulting company. In 1993, ERM begged her to return while promising her travel schedule would be much lighter. Peters rejoined the firm, but soon found herself back in the same routine.
Peters then hooked up with local architectural engineering firm Fink Roberts & Petrie, Inc., which was starting an environmental division. While heading the department, she brought her ERM clients with her and began performing hazardous waste management work. FRP became so concerned about the liability involved that it wanted no part of the hazardous waste operation. Peters bought the division and brought Morris with her. The two started their company in 1996.
"The first year was like, ' Oh my goodness,'" Morris said. "It was very difficult."
The women estimated they could break even by bringing in $36,000 a month in revenue. They since have eclipsed that margin by about $300,000 a month. QEPI performs about 300 jobs a year and has been presented with two Growth 100 awards from the Johnson Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation, part of the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University.
Earlier this year, QEPI bought its own building on Franklin Road on the east side. Q5 LLC, composed of a handful of QEPI employees, owns the building. Other offshoots of QEPI are DEP Leasings and QEPI Construction Management Systems.
QEPI has expanded its services to include health, safety and quality management consulting. It has a contract with the U.S. Department of Transportation to evaluate management systems of state transportation offices in Florida, Louisiana, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. QEPI has offices in each of those states. When Peters travels now, she brings her children along for "mother-daughter retreats."
She frequently speaks at environmental conferences and addresses women business owners.
"It took a long time to get the respect of my peers," Peters said. "I'm not bellyaching, but what I had to do was work harder."