Henry Aschoff and Keith Wiehn, president and vice-president, respectively, of Petersen Ag Systems, Inc., have been named the Nebraska Small Business of the Year for 2013. The Norfolk-based firm is an agricultural equipment supplier of irrigation and grain handling products with outlets in Osmond, Hartington and Fremont, and Onawa, Iowa.
The company was nominated for the honor by Loren Kucera, Director, Nebraska Business Development Center (NBDC), Wayne. They have been invited to attend the culmination of National Small Business Week June 21 in Washington, D.C., and will compete against candidates from all 50 states and territories for selection as the SBA’s National Small Business Person of the Year.
As part of National Small Business Week, the U.S. Small Business Administration will take the opportunity to highlight the impact of outstanding entrepreneurs and small business owners. More than half of Americans either own or work for a small business, and these firms create about two out of every three new jobs in the U.S. each year.
Petersen Ag Systems was chosen as the state’s top small business based on its history as an established business, growth in number of employees, increase in sales and unit volume, response to adversity and innovation in products and services offered.
Seeking to purchase the business in 2000, Aschoff and Wiehn turned to NBDC for technical assistance and help packaging an SBA 7(a) loan application.
Since buying the business 13 years ago, Aschoff and Wiehn have grown the company from 11 employees to 41; the company hires 15 to 20 part-time employees during the summer, and plans to hire an additional 10 to 12 employees over the next 12 to 18 months.
Sales steadily have grown from $3.2 million in 2000 to nearly $20 million in 2012, a figure which includes sales of 12 used center pivot irrigation systems to a U.S. company which in turn exports them to agricultural businesses in the Ukraine. Over the next five to 10 years, Petersen Ag Systems expects indirectly to export another 300 more used pivot systems to the eastern European country.
The pair guided the company through the recent nationwide economic downturn by cutting their own salaries, freezing new equipment purchases and reducing inventory, all while keeping its workforce intact.
“How we do business has separated us from the competition,” Adchoff said. “We want to be able to go to church on Sunday and not have to hide from anybody.”
As the region climbed out of the recession, Petersen Ag Systems expanded its operations by becoming a dealership for GSI, the world’s largest manufacturer of farm storage systems. The company also serves as the third-largest dealership in the world for Lindsay Zimmatic Irrigation Systems, with a territory which covers a large part of the state and counties in Iowa and South Dakota. Recently, the company was named one of Lindsay’s top 10 dealerships in the country thanks to high marks for its sales and service.
That landfill on the outskirts of your town stuffed with trash may now be playing a part to light and heat your home. Helping communities turn noxious odors into green energy is one of the jobs of an Omaha-based engineering firm.
But to Gary Kuhn, it’s not just a job to protect the environment, it’s a passion.
“It’s all about being responsible for the environment,” Kuhn said. “The same principles and values I try to instill in my kids, I hope are consistent with the values that I try to provide with my professional services.”
Starting out with an Express loan
He took that passion, and nearly 25 years of experience in environmental and civil engineering, to found his own consulting firm in 2012: G.N. Kuhn Engineering, LLC. Kuhn used a quick approval for an SBA Express loan through First National Bank for start-up costs, including a new desktop computer, engineering software, field equipment and working capital. Thanks to networking and referrals across the Midwest region to meet the growing demand for environmentally-smart waste management services, he expects to match 2012 revenues by April of this year, and hopes to open an office shortly.
Typical projects for the firm involve preparation of design documents, permit applications, and negotiated permit conditions for landfill and other solid waste management facilities throughout the Midwest. Kuhn also is providing landfill gas services to several clients using landfill gas collection systems to capture and control methane gas generated as trash decomposes within the landfill.
While Kuhn’s firm primarily is focused on solid waste management projects, consulting work also includes landfill site preparation, site grading, building parking areas, roadways, drainage, sanitary sewers, coordination of site utilities, and erosion controls.
Today, one of the fastest-growing trends in renewable energy is to collect landfill gas and send it to nearby utility companies to be turned into electricity, or conveyed directly to manufacturing plants, schools or other buildings to fuel heating and cooling systems. Some facilities use the gas to power the very devices that collect the gas in the first place. The entire process is so carefully managed to prevent leaks or odors that nearby neighborhoods scarcely notice a landfill even exists next door.
“Landfills are so much more than just a hole in the ground,” Kuhn said. “I realized there’s so much more proactive engineering involved in the planning, designing, construction, operating, and monitoring of these facilities so a leak is either detected immediately or they don’t leak in the first place.”
Keeping trash from clogging landfills is daunting
There’s big business in trash: owners of landfills, often municipalities, but sometimes private waste corporations, spend millions on liner systems and gas collection systems.
“The facilities are large investments and the owners almost are offended if you call it a dump; in reality, it’s an engineered solid waste facility.” But there’s another reason why there’s sustainable business in trash.
“If you read what the Environmental Protection Agency reports, the amount of material we’re recycling in this country is just enough to keep up with population growth,” Kuhn said. “The amount of waste disposed of in landfills isn’t increasing, it’s leveled off. Ideally you’d like a zero waste world, but there’s not enough recycling right now to eliminate the need for landfills.”
While municipalities seek to strengthen recycling programs, and Kuhn sees a consistent desire for clean water and air, “there’s a cost. So communities need a balance. In my work I’m not just looking at disposal of trash, I take a holistic approach to solid waste management, working with them to reduce, reuse and recycle to divert those materials from a landfill in the first place.”
Prior to starting his own firm, he provided similar planning, permitting, design, construction and compliance services at solid waste facilities across Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas and Missouri; he’s also served with the Cornhusker Chapter of the Solid Waste Association of North America and the American Public Works Association.
Lifelong dedication to environmental work
Kuhn’s decision to become an environmental engineer was made while in college when he decided to follow in the footsteps of his father, a retired environmental engineer with the Union Pacific railroad.
“I always knew I wanted to be an engineer,” he explained, “but it was my father’s guidance and insight into the role an environmental engineer plays in the protection and restoration of our water, land and air environments that began my professional journey.
Kuhn said he tries to set an example, recycling at home and at work, and has been invited by his kids’ teachers to talk to middle school and high school students about the importance of recycling and being good stewards of the environment.
“Recycling and overall environmental awareness is everybody’s responsibility,” he added, “not just for my clients or other consultants like me.”
Going ‘green’ creates a sustainable business model for Lincoln’s ServiceMaster Professional Building Maintenance
The young girl watched in alarm as the screen in her fourth-grade class flashed images of landfills, dumps and mounds of garbage, pictures of a trash-choked environment which would haunt her to this day.
“That’s where it all started,” said Angela Paolini. “The waste we create, and where we’re going to put it, the projection of what we’ll create in the future. That’s what drove me to what we do now.”
Paolini, along with her husband, Jon, bought ServiceMaster Professional Building Maintenance (PBM) in 2009, a 170-employee, Lincoln-based franchise dedicated to sustainable cleaning services not just to contribute to healthier environment, but because it makes sense on the balance sheet. Workers don’t use featherdusters for those hard to reach corners; instead, they wear lightweight vacuums with high-filtration bags on their hips to capture dust, using long pole attachments to help reduce back pain and injuries. Even the vacuuming patterns on the carpets they make are designed to be ergonomic and efficient. Moreover, the company eschews prolonged exposure of their employees to harsh chemicals such as ammonia in favor of “green,” natural products with low or no hazardous ingredients. Green products cost more, but:
“The system, products, processes and equipment we use save us time, at least five to 10 percent in the long run,” Jon Paolini said. “That savings enables us to offer green cleaning services for the same cost as traditional cleaning.”
Saving money by saving the environment
The company claims a typical competitor using off-the-shelf general purpose cleaning products dumps more than 12 tons of harmful chemicals into the environment every year. Using their company-developed green cleaning products, ServiceMaster PBM releases only around one percent of that amount. Out of nearly 25,000 gallons of floor cleaner used by the company every year, less than a gallon of hazardous ingredients is released into the environment.
Then there’s the 8,200 gallons of restroom cleaner they use over the same period, not a drop of which is harmful to the environment.
Passing on the cost-savings to go green is important, Angela said, considering 60 to 70 percent of ServiceMaster PBM’s customers are small businesses; on the other hand, one big customer is Union Bank & Trust, a cleaning contract the company has had for 20 years this year. Their devotion to saving resources, both “green” and green has helped to grow the business from $2.5 million in revenues in 2011 to $3.1 million in 2012.
Getting help from NBDC to be a leader in going 'green'
Jon worked for ServiceMaster PBM for 15 years, earning a promotion to general manager before he and Angela visited the Nebraska Business Development Center for help with a business transition plan, and relied on NBDC’s help with their SBA loan application to buy the business; they were approved for a 7(a) loan through Union Bank in July 2009. In 2013, the franchise was named NBDC’s Business of the Year in the Energy and the Environment category.
Upon taking over the franchise, Angela, who often rides her bike to work, started a company-wide recycling program: they reuse cardboard boxes to move products to work sites, donated five-gallon buckets to area churches, and offered old washers and dryers to school fundraisers.
“Our vision is to be a leader in environmentally-friendly cleaning practices,” Angela said. “We saw the trend in the industry, and we wanted to be the first in the area to be third-party certified as a green business,” something the franchise notched with their certification of GS-42 in 2009 by Green Seal, the state’s first such cleaning company to achieve such recognition.
This honor, from an independent non-profit with decades of experience evaluating green businesses, recognizes companies such as ServiceMaster PBM for its work to reduce toxic pollution and waste, to conserve resources, and to increase the health and well-being of its customers, particularly those most affected by its product choice, such as school children, service staff, and the elderly.
As a result, ServiceMaster PBM can say its environmentally-responsible products and services meets or exceeds Green Seal performance and quality expectations; they can use the recognition to market to ecologically-aware customers and high-value niche markets, increasing its customer loyalty, and its place in the community.
Even their employee picnic this past summer was a zero-waste event complete with compostable cups, plates and utensils.
“I have a personal belief, a passion to be a good steward, not to be wasteful,” said Angela, who while serving with AmeriCorps, created a recycling club in a Lincoln elementary school. “I want to do all I can to reduce our carbon footprint.”