An Environmental Biz Cleans Up

Award-winning entrepreneur Lori Lynn Nevarez discusses landing contracts, how to look for help, and knowing when to put her son first

Partnerships have played a crucial crucial role in business growth for Lori Lynn Nevarez, president of Innovar Environmental of Littleton, Colo. But it was her company's emphasis on community service that she believes pushed her past 10 other finalists to capture the National Minority Small Business Person of the Year award.

Nevarez, 41, says she "went into shock" upon hearing her name announced at a Sept. 14 luncheon during National Minority Enterprise Development Week in Washington, D.C. Upon returning from the conference, she spoke to Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein about how she started her business, what she credits for its rapid success, and how she balances single motherhood with leadership of a fast-growing company. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.

Tell us a little about Innovar Environmental.

We do environmental consulting and construction, and we're starting to expand into areas like asbestos, lead, weed, and mold abatement. We're a government 8(a) contractor, so we provide services mostly to federal and state government agencies, but we also work for commercial and industrial firms and larger engineering and environmental firms.

How did you get into this field?

Actually, my background's in finance. I worked as a CFO for 16 years for environmental-consulting firms, where I worked on contracting, bidding, finances, and did lots of client interaction. In November, 2000, I wanted to start my own business, and the firm I was working for at that time was very supportive. We set up a mentor-protégé agreement so that we could do joint ventures on large contracts.

What other partnerships did you seek as a startup entrepreneur?

Instead of looking at other firms as competitors, we look at them as potential partners on things like bundled contracts.

Also, I had worked with the Small Business Administration at earlier jobs, and so I went to the Region 8 SBA offices in Denver when I started my company. They have been fantastic in terms of providing free attorney services and helping me get my 8(a) certification.

My SBA rep calls me regularly and lets me know about all the rules and regulations. I also call her and keep her apprised of what's going on with my company and what jobs I'm going after.

Has staying in touch proven valuable?

Absolutely! A lot of companies that get 8(a) certification expect to sit back and wait for contracts to come to them. I take every opportunity to go to conferences and classes. My senior vice-president and I are out every day networking and making connections.

What kinds of contracts have you won?

We have worked on many of the local U.S. Army posts and at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs -- as well as doing environmental consulting for large commercial clients. We do custodial contracts, weed abatement, and demolition.

We also do asbestos abatement in buildings built prior to 1980, and we're hoping to do some work in New Orleans, demolishing buildings that will have to be abated from mold and asbestos before they can be torn down.

Your business is growing very quickly. Do you think that is the primary reason you won the national award?

We have a professional staff of around 25 and a total of 95 employees, some of whom are part-time workers in our construction division. Financially, we've grown 125% in revenues over the last year. I was curious why I won over such fantastic competition -- there were 10 other regional finalists -- and when I asked, I was told one of the things that made my company different was the amount of community service we do.

We work closely with a nonprofit firm that runs orphanages in Haiti, we do local construction and other work for isolated seniors, and we also volunteer time and expertise for the Red Cross and local churches.

How difficult was it to start this company?

The most difficult thing about having a small business is coming up with the working capital necessary to grow your company. I believe that having a business is all about making relationships, not just with clients but also with your bank, your CPA, and your attorneys. I've got a very fond relationship with our bankers, who have really helped us out. We recently got a working line of credit through them.

How do you balance having a young child and running a business that's growing so rapidly?

It's hard. With my background in finance, I do all the financials and work on the audits for each new contract we get. I'm a little bit of a control freak, and I also worry about keeping costs down.

But I always know when I'm working too many hours because my son will say, "Mommy, I found a job for you at Starbucks" (SBUX), or "You could be an assistant to my teacher, and then you could see me all the time."

When he says something like that, I know I have to switch back into mommy mode.

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