Clean-up crew

 In 2015-12

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RUNNER-UP: SMALL BUSINESS OF THE YEAR

When October’s record rains stopped falling, Terry Kennedy’s phone began ringing. News photos showed cars floating down city streets and farmland turned to lakes across the Carolinas, but Kennedy’s mind dwelled on what lay beneath the floodwaters. Enormous underground gasoline storage tanks in Wilmington had erupted through layers of concrete and floated in a stew of water and fuel. These are the moments when Geological Resources Inc. gets the call.

It’s not the glamorous work either Kennedy or John Brown envisioned when they met in the early 1990s while working at a Charlotte environmental consulting firm. The geologists imagined traveling the world — Kennedy picking up where he left off in oil exploration, Brown reliving his globe-trotting Navy days — after acquiring GRI, the company Brown’s father, Henry, started in 1971 while a marine sciences professor at N.C. State University. Brown and Kennedy imagined that environmental consulting work would tide them over until some “real” jobs came along.

Almost 20 years later, GRI has 28 employees, including two more partners, a new headquarters in Monroe, a second office in Winterville, near Greenville, and the possibility of a third outside of North Carolina. Annual revenue increased 13% to $5.4 million in the fiscal year ending June 30.

Environmental catastrophes that would have bankrupted companies back in the 1980s can now be mitigated with contaminated sites converted to new uses, often at a fraction of the former cost of cleanups.

“A lot of companies used to go out of business to avoid environmental regulations,” Kennedy says. Instead of cleaning up, Brown says, “they would just walk away,” leaving property ownership in limbo or the government’s lap. With a long list of  contaminated properties across the state, North Carolina established funds to assist gas-station owners, dry cleaners and others.

Kennedy and Brown also adapted to changing regulations and technology. Still, the partners “were making decisions as geologists, not MBAs,” Brown says.

When the recession hit, GRI was struggling with debt and slow payments from government agencies and other customers. In 2010, the N.C. Department of Commerce picked GRI for its Biz Boost program aimed at bolstering vulnerable companies during the downturn.

“They thirsted for that knowledge of how a business operates,” says Mary Klock, a counselor in the N.C. Small Business and Technology Development Center’s Charlotte office. “They’re very people-focused. That’s how they treat their customers and also how they treat their employees.”

Klock connected GRI with teams of graduate students at UNC Charlotte and Wake Forest University to study the company. A strategic plan directed the company to emphasize its expertise, including the petroleum industry. (A trade association representing gas stations and convenience stores named GRI its vendor of the year for 2015.) Results were almost immediate. In the last year, GRI bought 22 acres in Monroe, moving into an 8,500-square-foot office and adding a 12,000-square-foot warehouse. Since 2010, the company’s payroll has nearly doubled, from 16 to 28, including business-development officer Lisa Hilbish.

The company added partners Rohit Shetty, an engineer, in 2004, and geologist Justin Radford in 2011. “Even though John and I are both bold and beautiful,” Kennedy says with a grin, “we had the realization that we’re not going to be here forever.”

Brown, 60, and Kennedy, 57, are not slowing down — all four partners juggle as many as 150 projects for clients as far west as Colorado and north to Pennsylvania. Brown is in the office more than Kennedy, who prefers to visit work sites. “Monday at 10 a.m., he’s already pacing, looking at his phone, hoping for an emergency,” Brown jokes. Emergency management is a fast-growing segment, as are the trucking industry, which operates large transfer terminals where tractor-trailers are refueled, and the cleanup of contaminated land. GRI is helping a commercial developer rehabilitate land once used by a car dealership.

The founders decided early on “to treat our customers like an advocate for them at affordable prices that also met environmental regulations,” Kennedy says. “A lot of our competitors seemed to be perpetuating those problems. We seemed to be resolving them.”

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