Strength in numbers

Indianapolis Business Journal - May 28 - June 3, 2007

IBJ shares insight from central Indiana business leaders each month in its "Lessons Learned" feature.

Deb Peters - Quality Environmental Professionals Inc.

Deb Peters used to pull all-nighters when her top managers didn't get the job done. "The business was running me early on," said Peters, 49, founder and owner of Quality Environmental Professionals Inc.

Despite earlier cliams that they had been working since the projects first fell on their desks, some directors at the environmental, engineering and redevelopment services firm came to her empty-handed the day before big client proposals were due. But instead of holding her employees accountable, Peters rolled up her sleeves and took on the massive tasks alone.

"I was all talk and no action," she said "They knew I wouldn't do anything other than gripe a little bit."

Assuming she was the root of the problem and doing the work herself was easier than acknowledging she had hired the wrong people, Peters said. Instead of firing them, she tried to "fire them up."

"I was too optimistic," she said. "I only wanted to see the good in everybody."

Eighty-hour workweeks and late-night fast food led to exhaustion and weight gain. She canceled vacation plans for both her 20th and 25th wedding anniversaries, and she struggled with guilt when she could not become fully involved in her teenage daughters' lives.

In the meantime, Qepi gained a reputation as the "party" firm, one competitor told her; employees knew they could get away with laziness. At first, Peters attributed the comment to jealousy at Qepi's low turnover rate.

"I'm stubborn, and I don't want anyone to say anything negative about my team," she said. "I assumed leaders didn't have to be told what to do."

But some of her managers came from the geology and engineering fields with little leadership training. They did not respond well to enforced standards, even after a performance coach persuaded Peters to toughen her attitude. She began pulling in experts who could teach her directors better communication and mentoring skils, and those who were open to evolving with the business would continue with Qepi.

Only two made the cut.

In late 2003 and early 2004, she fired three directors, and two others soon left the company. She filled their positions with people who could meet her demand that managers focus on teamwork, diligence and confidence. Some of them were junior staffers who had worked for the former managers. Now, all of her directors have technical skills in their respective fields as well as the appropriate leadership style, Peters said.

"They're comfortable," she said. "They're good communicators. They don't wait until the last minute." The benefits are shining through for both her and the company. She has trimmed her workweek to 55 to 60 hours - the range she had targeted from the start. The office atmosphere is happier and more productive, she said, and she hopes to triple Qepi's annual revenue to $17 million within the next five years as the company works through its backlog of projects.

Although she worked incessantly for years, Peters said a personal desire for control had nothing to do with her exhaustive schedule. She prefers to find clients, close deals and then allow her employees to take the reins. In fact, she gathers more joy from their successes than her own.

Now that the business no longer runs her, Peters said she can focus more on her heath and take two-week vacations - including one for her 30th wedding anniversary. Trusting her employees' abilities, she no longer has to put work first. "Now I have a choice," she said.

- Lisa Gerstner