Daughters work with mom at engineering firm

The Daily Journal - Johnson County, Indiana - August 25, 2008
Staff writer

Aug. 18, 2008

Deb Peters doesn't need any more cowbell. The Greenwood geologist owns an environmental engineering company in Indianapolis. Every time her company got a new project, she would give a bang to the instrument. But the company, established as Quality Environmental Professionals in 1996, grew quicker than she imagined and faster than her cowbell could take. With balancing up to 150 projects a year across the country and having $17 million worth of backlogged projects, what would have been occasional ring in the past would be a daily routine now.

She had to put the cowbell away. Now her company works for groups such as the U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. National Guard and the city of Indianapolis, bringing in $6 million to $10 million worth of new projects a year.

Peters is setting up her business, one of the few female-owned environmental engineering companies in the nation, family-style. Her two daughters have become company employees. Laura Peters, a 2001 Center Grove High School graduate, has joined the marketing and public relations staff. Kim Hlava, a 2004 Center Grove graduate, is working in the field for her first projects as a geologist until she starts graduate school.

Her daughters already run one part of the business, leasing out vans and vehicles for use during projects. The two said they likely would come back or stay in the company in the future after their mother retires. After all, they practically grew up in the office.

Taking initiative

The company started more than a decade ago in an office a little more than half the size as the current 13,300-square-foot building off the Brookville exit on Interstate 465 East. Peters didn't set out to start her own business, but at her final job before starting the company, her skills as a geologist weren't pushed. The company didn't want to work in technical sites with hazardous waste and chemicals, but Peter pushed for them. She wanted to get in the muck and get dirty to figure out how to safely excavate hazardous material.

She was the only geologist in the company at the time and was allowed to hire others to create a department. When her company wasn't pushing for the projects she wanted, she decided to buy the department she created and all its assets. She took $30,000 of her savings and a $150,000 loan to open her business. In the first year, she didn't write herself a paycheck.

She worked 80 hours a week and had to rely on her mother to help care for her children as she tried to fund projects with no established credit. But the hard work paid dividends. Her first goal was to hire 10 people and rake in $1 million in annual revenue in the first five years. By the end of her first year, she had a staff of 15 and revenue of $1.5 million.

Growing pains

Now she oversees about 30 employees and two smaller offices in South Bend and Evansville. The company has also gone nationwide. Peters' employees are currently completing site assessments at two U.S. Army depots in Tennessee and Iowa to investigate facilities and environmental issues, such as soil contamination and water levels, so military officials can know how to prioritize their budgets. In order to work for the federal government, Peters had to spend three years earning a federal certificate for the company. The company also has contracts with the U.S. National Guard.

"We're all over the place now. To work with the Department of Defense is pretty cool," she said. Despite her success in the business world, she struggled to balance her family life. "I have maternal guilt," she said. Being away from her family wasn't abnormal for Peters. In the late 1980s, she worked for a company where she was the only remediation hydrochemical geologist, a rarity at the time, especially for a woman, she said. Her company would send her across the country to investigate and evaluate potential toxin-filled sites. To spend more time with her husband, Doug, and two young daughters, she worked days and nights to finish the project a few days early.

But when she got back early, she was always sent back out to another state, sometimes hundreds of miles away. The company wanted to flaunt her talents to potential clients in a time when the environmental engineering field was young and environmental regulations still were developing. "I'd say, 'You're killing me here.' (The owner) would say, 'I'm building your résumé here. You're the token female hydrochemical geologist.' That's pretty much how it was," she said. Being a woman in a male-dominated industry came with its prejudices, she said. "You had to work twice as hard to get half the respect. That's not the case now," she said.

Starting her company took a toll on her personal life. She was stuck in the office for long hours and sometimes would bring her daughters to work with her. In the early years, she couldn't afford to pay for janitorial staff, so she and her two daughters would spend some nights cleaning the toilets, floors and tables. Sometimes the office became their playpen. Peters' daughters would bring their favorite toys with them to visit her at work. Peters' staff grew accustomed to her daughters and would play with them, too, hanging up the girls' collection of dolls, about 1,000, around the ceiling. The two also would come to the office to mimic their mother by playing office games and taking pieces of paper and highlighting them like their mother would. "We tried to make the best of it," she said. Laura Peters came back to the company between each school year at Indiana University to help keep up the Web site, which she designed.

Holidays in the office weren't off-limits either, Peters said. "I knew I had a major problem when they showed up one Easter morning in the office with Steak 'n' Shake," she said.

Reaping rewards

Peters eventually cut her work week from 80 to 60 hours and loosened her reigns on the business. She pushed aside major city and state officials at times to not miss her daughters' high school marching band contests. Some days she spends working from home now. The long hours didn't bother her because of her passion for geology and figuring out how to economically rid hazardous chemicals from sites while also keeping people and the environment safe. "I was so passionate about it that 80 hours a week wasn't a problem," she said. Her daughters didn't mind her extreme focus to her company, either.

"I think it made us better people. A lot of moms will pack your lunch and do all the little things that they don't really need to do, so she kind of made us very independent. We would see the results of not doing our laundry as opposed to a mom who puts the clothes in each drawer," Laura Peters said. Her daughters grew up saying they would never get involved in their mother's field of work, but that changed with Hlava. She graduated in the spring with a degree in geology from Purdue University even though she always grew up wanting to be a storm-chasing meteorologist. "I was shocked when she changed. I was like, 'What did you do that for?'" Peters said. Hlava said she likes the problem-solving part of geology and site work. Currently, she is working with the company in an area near Evansville to determine why sinkholes are developing underneath a home's foundation. She and her colleagues will determine if the holes are from loose soil or abandoned mines underground.

Although she is going back to school to get her master's degree in geology, she would like to come back to the company and focus mainly on research instead of site work. Geology has been a part of her family but is now a permanent part of her name. In August, she married fellow Center Grove High School graduate Dustin Hlava, pronounced like the molten rock, lava. "How appropriate, huh?" Deb Peters said.