Dollars In Dirt

Your business consultantDeborah Sawyer clears the air and heftyprofits with environmental consulting firm

In the grimy business of toxic and hazardous waste management, rarely do you find a woman–and even rarer, a black woman. But Deborah Sawyer has built her six-year-old business, Environmental Design International Inc., into a $2.7 million company with 40 employees and four offices in the Midwest.

EDI, a full-service environmental consulting firm that offers professional engineering, industrial hygiene and environmental services, has many Fortune 500 clients. Yet despite its success, Sawyer says, “still to this day, at nearly every meeting with potential clients, I have to go through the `what’s a nice girl like you doing in this business’ spiel. It’s still a very white-male-dominated industry.”

Sawyer, who holds a master’s degree in petroleum microbiology from Eastern New Mexico University, worked for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and two engineering firms before starting her company in 1991. As with most start-up businesses, Sawyer lacked initial capital. She took out a $25,000 equity loan on her house and her mother threw in another $20,000. Within two months of operation, Sawyer was acquiring receivables, so she went to the banks–24 to be exact–but was rejected by 23 of them. “Banks were not eager to lend to service businesses, particularly to women-or minority-owned high-tech companies.” Eventually, Sawyer acquired a $50,000 line of credit from the 24th bank she visited.

EDI performs a variety of environmental services including: environment assessments; underground storage tank compliance, removal, replacement and remediation; industrial hygiene, involving asbestos, radon, lead- based paint and indoor air quality assessment; surveying; and construction inspection. Some clients include First Chicago, Roy F. Weston, Kmart, Walgreens, William Wrigley Jr. Co. and Zenith. Jeff Watson, program manager of Roy F. Weston, one of the world’s largest environmental design and consulting companies, is also a satisfied customer. “If we needed someone with expertise in a certain area, EDI provided the resources in a timely manner,” he says.
While business is good, Sawyer faces a number of obstacles, including earning credibility and attracting top black engineers in the industry. EDI has increased services to include environmental compliance training and more site inspection and reconnaissance projects. The company’s goal is to branch out internationally and forge alliances with environmental companies in France and Italy. With the increased services and plans for expansion, Sawyer expects EDI to hit the $4 million mark in revenues this year.
Environmental Design International, 4415 W. Harrison St., Suite 530, Hillside, IL 60162; 708-449-0800

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