Roll with the changes: Case study profiles strategies for survival in the environmental industry

By Nancie Hudson

An industrial hygiene consulting company that was started by three college students in a fraternity house 25 years ago has expanded its staff and client list while other environmental companies went out of business because it adapted to changing marketing conditions, developed a network of professional relationships, garnered a reputation for being personable problem-solvers, and expanded its services to include total project management. The Portage, Mich.-based company, BDN Industrial Hygiene Consultants, Inc., is a case study in how to survive and remain profitable in the volatile environmental industry over the long term.

One of the first independent industrial hygiene consulting companies in Michigan, BDN Industrial Hygiene Consultants was formed when current company president Brent A. Bassett and two of his fraternity brothers at Ferris State College realized that a private consulting company could provide monitoring services directly to industrial employers and help employers reduce accidents and injuries, lower their insurance costs, and provide a better working environment for employees.

"Back then, the insurance companies would send out an industrial hygienist that would help them determine how much to charge a company for liability insurance," Bassett said. "Whereas the insurance companies were doing it for their own benefit, we could do it for the employer's benefit."

Initially, BDN provided only noise monitoring and chemical exposure monitoring services, but as its clients' needs expanded, it began offering a variety of safety and training courses, indoor air quality monitoring, and sampling for asbestos, lead and mold.

"There always seems to be something new coming along," Bassett said. "A few years ago, it was lead. Before that, it was asbestos. Now, it's mold. By keying in on those new issues, we are able to provide full-level consulting for those issues as they surface in the workplace and are brought to people's attention in the media."

Downsizings in the manufacturing industry during the mid-1980s and early 1990s significantly changed the market for industrial hygiene services, Bassett said, and BDN adapted by providing more monitoring services.

"A lot of larger companies that had safety and health professionals on staff eliminated many of those positions," he said. "Now they basically have a safety and health manager that sets policy but no longer has the time to go out into the facilities and do the monitoring or gather the data related to employee exposures. As they downsized their safety and health departments, they needed trained individuals to do the monitoring."

Downsizing also prompted clients to ask BDN for help with CAD assistance, clerical assistance, accounting and project tracking. In many such cases, BDN sets up a multi-phased subcontractor project in which it provides total project management for the client.

"That's where we're going as a company, to providing project management for safety and health projects, bringing together a team that can perform all the functions for fairly large projects," Bassett said. "We bring the team together and then we supervise and manage that team."

The company is able to do so because it has developed a network of relationships with other companies, he said. So even though a client request may not fall within BDN's services, it has enough contacts to assemble a team that can handle whatever the client's needs are.

Another key to surviving in the environmental industry is to be personable, Bassett said. People normally don't expect technical professionals to be personable, so by being friendly and upbeat, BDN's staff members have been able to cultivate relationships with clients in which the client actually looks forward to having them return to his or her workplace as needed. And being likeable as well as technical has its perks, as the company gets the majority of its new business via word-of-mouth advertising.

Showing a positive, problem-solving attitude when clients present problems also has helped the company survive during the past 25 years. For example, whenever someone who is in the process of buying commercial or industrial property calls BDN because asbestos or lead has been detected on the premises, BDN helps the prospective buyer cope with the issue in a safe yet cost-effective way.

For example, recently BDN helped facilitate the sale of an apartment complex in which the texturized ceilings of the apartment units contained sprayed-on asbestos. Without such technical assistance, the deal may have fallen through. But BDN staff helped the buyer understand that instead of removing the asbestos, he could manage the asbestos in place without creating a hazard for the residents of the apartment building.

"We were able to help that deal go through because we were able to educate the purchaser to understand how to handle it economically and what his responsibilities would be for an ongoing operations and maintenance program," Bassett said.

Currently BDN Industrial Hygiene Consultants employs 18 and has offices in Portage, Grand Rapids, and Detroit. The firm provides a variety of training courses, including OSHA safety, hazardous materials handling, HAZWOPER, right to know and personal protective equipment, 50 online safety and health training classes, air and bulk sampling for mold, asbestos and lead, noise monitoring, chemical exposure monitoring, and indoor air quality monitoring for companies of all sizes. During the past 25 years, BDN has completed more than 13,000 projects for 3,500 clients and has provided 600 training courses to 9,000 individuals. For more information, go to www.bdnihc.com.

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/2005 issue of Environmental Protection.

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