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.”
How the owner of Lincoln's inMOTION Auto Care went from working on her own ride to starting her own shop
Sherri Stock remembers the first time she saw it, back when she was in high school and sitting on the front porch. “This beautiful blue 1971 Chevy Nova, this muscle car, driving by every day. I told my dad if it ever came up for sale, I was going to be driving it.”
She admits she was a little naïve when it came to the car she would call her “high school crush”; first, she had to learn to drive a clutch with a four-speed transmission. Then there were wiring problems. “I ended up pushing it a few times,” she remembered, “and my dad said, ‘If you’re going to be driving a car like that, you’d better learn how to fix it.’”
She was fascinated with how the car worked, and tinkering with her ride back then sparked a lifelong love affair with auto repair, which led to opening inMOTION Auto Care, a brand-new, airy and sparkling clean repair shop just off Lincoln’s busy O Street.
With a staff of five highly-trained full-time technicians and 2 knowledgeable advisors, who were technicians in the past, inMOTION serves, according to its web site, as a one stop shop for large or small automotive needs from oil changes, tires, brakes and scheduled maintenance to difficult electrical diagnosis, engine and transmission repairs and replacement.
A month since opening the doors, Stock said “We were worried about opening in the dead of winter but revenues are doing much better than anticipated.”
Overcame early struggles to make a career in the garage
After graduating high school, Stock would be the second woman ever to graduate from the 18-month automotive technology program at Southeast Community College; she also completed the parts management program at the college’s Milford campus.
Back then, recalling her post-college search for a job in a male-dominated field when she sent out 40-some resumes and got just one callback: “They wouldn’t talk to you about turning wrenches, let alone hire you.”
Luckily, a father of a friend she’d had in college gave her a job running the parts department at his Dodge dealership in Columbus. “They’d let you do a little auto work if they were strapped,” she said.
Three years later, she returned to Lincoln for a job with a 100-employee dealership as a wholesale parts advisor, eventually moving up to parts manager. By 1997, she was promoted to the service and parts director, even smiling now thinking about her time as manager there dealing with customers and employees.
But in 2009, as a side effect of the recession, the dealership lost its Chrysler franchise, even despite record customer satisfaction in service and the parts department ranking in the top 10 percent in sales among dealerships across the country. The lot dropped from 400 cars to 100, as a result. For three years, they continued to sell used vehicles and perform service, thanks to a strongly loyal customer base. As the price of purchasing and reconditioning used cars skyrocketed, the owners decided to close the business.
Working for 25 years there, she had expected to retire from there. Instead, she found herself soon to be out of work. “I said to myself, ‘hey, I’m 50, how is this going to work for me being unemployed now?’”
Starting her own business with the help of a 504 loan
She immediately had an answer: buy all the shop equipment plus some company vehicles out of her own pocket, take an already-strong customer base across the street to a vacant lot and open a new service center of her own. Word came down of the impending closing on a Friday; by Monday, lenders from Cornhusker Bank were there to sit down with her to discuss financing.
Stock would need to learn a few things to go from running a department to running her own businesses. Even though she had plenty of experience in forecasting, budgeting and managing inventory, the actual art of accounting was a concern. She took some online classes while the shop was built.
Through her network of female business owners, including an owner of the shuttered dealership, she learned of the SBA’s 504 program and suggested the bank use it to help finance the project.
“It’s a smart business move to use the SBA 504 program,” Stock said. “It really improves cash flow knowing what the payment will be for the next 20 years. I got hooked up with the SBA web site, and there was a ton of information there to explain it, which was great because I didn’t want to go back to the bank looking like I didn’t know anything.”
The 504 Loan Program provides approved small businesses with long-term, fixed-rate financing used to acquire assets such as real estate, buildings and heavy equipment for expansion or modernization. These loans are made available through Certified Development Companies, in this case, Lincoln-based NEDCO.
As a new business, Stock put 15 percent down; Cornhusker Bank financed 50 percent and NEDCO covered the balance. The guarantee was approved by the SBA in June 2012, and as the construction came in under budget, there was enough left over for state-of-the-art security measures and a big new sign.
Ten months later, the doors opened for business.
Aggressive marketing, reaching out to women proving key
One reason the new shop has outperformed expectations is Stock’s effort with online marketing, from an easy-to-navigate web site, to a Facebook page that gets new updates when the place hires a new tech, gets new equipment or new comfy waiting room furniture, even posting one morning when the owners made all the shop employees breakfast.
inMOTION Auto Care also was an exhibitor at the 2013 Lincoln Women’s Expo at the Lancaster Events Center in January, an effort which hardly was the first time Stock worked to make the idea of vehicle repair more female-friendly.
While still at her old dealership, Stock was instrumental in listing that center with AskPatty.com, a web site which lists businesses which have taken significant steps to address concerns of their female customers, and offers companies helpful tips to attract and keep them.
"As a female working in a male-dominated industry, I understand the concerns and questions women have when it comes to automotive service," Stock said.
When she managed her old job’s service and parts department, 68 percent of their customers were women; while inMOTION Auto Care has been open only a short time, already “we have seen a lot of women customers at the shop, both prior customers and new customers.”
Stock would be quick to point out that inMOTION partners with all its customers to protect their investment by providing thorough inspections and the best solutions for maintaining and repairing a vehicle.
Especially if it happens to be a 1971 beautiful blue Chevy Nova.