Business a la King

by Margery Sharp

Faced with joblessness, Amy King took charge

kas_lead_alt_DSF0027_1Amy King had worked her way up the ladder from receptionist to a position in financial management when the environmental consulting firm she worked for closed. Against the advice of many, she launched her own environmental consulting business, KAS Inc., in Williston. Now six years later, her 22-employee firm is going strong.

A little over six years ago, Amy K. King heard a rumor that her employer, a Williston environmental consulting firm called Griffin International Inc., might shut down. The possible closing was devastating news to her. In the seven years she had been with the company, she was promoted from her reception job to secretary to a position in the financial management department. As a single mother, she was forced to take a long look at the direction in which her career might go.

It wasn’t long before the company did close; King and her fellow workers were jobless. She thought long and hard about her options. Over the years, she had learned a great deal about the environmental consulting business, so why, she wondered, should she give that knowledge up. Why not continue working in the same venue, since she knew the ins and outs of the business? In short, why not start her own environmental consulting company?

With great courage, despite some naysayers, she persuaded a group of former fellow employees to help her start a company. Four of them — Peter Schuyler, Tim Kelley, Jeremy Roberts, and Alan Liptak — are still with her.

There were factors in their favor. They knew the type of clients they would service, and King had secured financial support from one of the Griffin engineers, Pete Schuyler, who does environmental consulting with KAS. He has since sold his shares.

Armed with the knowledge of their potential customer base — some gleaned from their old employer — the small staff persuaded several clients to continue doing business with their fledgling company, KAS Inc., with King at the helm.

“K-A-S are the initials of my two daughters — Kelly and Shelby — and myself, ” King explains. “We do environmental consulting in Vermont and New Hampshire, upper Massachusetts, and northern New York.”

With the available client base and the know-how of those first five staff members, the business grew quickly. Its reputation for expertise and reliability attracted more clients, and the business has flourished.

A 1995 graduate of Mount Mansfield High School, King grew up in Richmond. Her first job out of school was as a licensing data entry clerk at American Network Insurance Co. in Colchester, where she worked for two years before joining Griffin International.

In 2004, when she founded KAS, King was attending classes at Champlain College toward earning her bachelor of science, and she continued her studies. “Fortunately,” she says, “Champlain encouraged single parents and offered grants to help with tuition and college expenses.”

The company’s first office was a single room on Commerce Street in Williston, but it quickly outgrew that space, says King. After renting rooms in a warehouse for a year, KAS moved to Avenue D in Williston, where there is ample room for offices and storage of testing equipment. The company owns two trucks and four cars to do site and field work.

“As company president, I take charge of financial management, write paychecks, and take care of personnel and scheduling,” says King, who interviewed and hired all of the firm’s 22 employees. “Also I am licensed as an asbestos inspector — we check a lot of old buildings, particularly in Vermont, for asbestos.”

In addition to responsibilities for her own business, King manages financial records for King Property Maintenance, a landscaping business owned by her husband, Justin. She commutes daily from their home in Fletcher, which makes for 10-hour days, but she still takes time to go apple- and berry-picking with her children — Kelly and Shelby and a 2-year-old son, Justin.

Helping to ease the stress are her two business partners, Alan R. Liptak, a certified professional geologist, who is in charge of the environmental side of the business, and Erik C.F. Sandblom, P.E., who oversees engineering.

“Alan has been with KAS since its inception,” says King. “He was at my old company.” A member of the American Institute of Professional Geologists, he is licensed in New Hampshire — Vermont does not offer such a license — and is a member of the New Hampshire Geological Society.

Born in Wisconsin, Sandblom studied at the University of Vermont and never left the area. He holds a bachelor of science in civil engineering. He was also with King’s old company, but took a somewhat different route to joining KAS.

“I already had a company in Plattsburgh called ESPC,” he says. “I had started it so Griffin could provide engineering services in New York. Since it was already going, when we separated, all of the engineers came with me and the environmental folks went with Amy. The only reason we didn’t come together as one entity at the start is that the professional licensing laws were complicated, and we wanted to be sure we were doing everything right.”

Sandblom worked closely on projects with KAS for several years, and the two companies merged into one entity a year ago. Sandblom manages the company’s engineering staff. The Plattsburgh, N.Y., office remains open as a branch office for KAS.

“We are a diverse company,” Liptak says. “One of our local projects was oversight of the first stage of the cleanup of Burlington’s Moran Plant. We designed work on the underwater cementing of the plant’s cooling tubes to prevent excess water running out into Lake Champlain. A team of scuba divers did the work on a cold day in January ’09.”

Soil scientist Jeremy P. Roberts is the company’s manager of state-regulated programs. He concentrates on assessing soil samples for hazardous waste treatment systems and sites, water system monitoring and maintenance, and soil contamination. He has a bachelor of science in plant and soil science from UVM; is certified in federal wetland delineation, identification, and classification; and is a certified asbestos site inspector.

“Some clients hire us for one project,” says Sandblom. “Others have an ongoing relationship with us. We offer our clients training in health and safety,” he continues, citing, as an example, a contract with IBM to provide training required by OSHA for respirator use. “We do periodic checking and testing for petroleum leaks for places like gas stations, and for a lot of clients, we test soils once a month; or every six months; or for some, once a year.

“We are geared for new customers all the time,” Sandblom continues. “People are more aware than ever of environmental issues and our business is in a good place. The company has continued to grow.”

Nick Warner is with the special projects division of Burlington’s Community and Economic Development Office. “I know the work of KAS,” he says. “They are a highly professional business and very thorough in their approach to a project. They are good communicators; they stick to their quoted price for a job. They also set good work standards.”

Warner mentions the company’s work on the sluice channels [cooling tubes] at Burlington’s Moran Plant. “The job was challenging and complex,” he says. “KAS oversaw the job’s technical aspects, the work of the technical divers, and the difficult reading of the 1953 blueprints of the plant’s layout. Warner also worked with company personnel on Burlington’s City Neighborhoods Project for the Environmental Protection Agency Region 1 in testing soils for contamination.

“We have a good staff of hydrogeologists, engineers, geologists, and technicians,” says Liptak. “That enables us to tackle any number of environmental problems. We also have taken on industrial hygiene projects such as inspections for mold, dust, and air quality, and even solid-waste disposal.”

Sandblom has given expert testimony on engineering problems and inspected underground storage tanks for compliance with the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation regulations. He and Jeremy Roberts were involved in developing a handbook called The Shoreline Stabilization Handbook for Lake Champlain, which promotes natural ways of stabilizing lakeshore.

Company personnel often work with Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations and with the National Forest Service. For example, they have overseen the removal of asbestos deposits from the federal prison at Ray Brook, N.Y.

Projects cover work for clients as diverse as international corporations, government operations, small commercial and residential property owners in industry, banks, gas stations, municipalities, state and federal entities, developers, and Realtors, says King.

To illustrate the company’s willingness to take on any project, Sandblom mentions that company personnel designed a special set of composting toilets for Mount Philo State Park.

To keep current, King belongs to the Women Business Owners Network. The organization holds a monthly luncheon meeting featuring speakers of interest. “They are a helpful and encouraging group of women and I get a lot out of the meetings,” she says.

This month marks the sixth anniversary of the founding of KAS Inc. While many people in King’s position might rest on their laurels, King does nothing of the sort. A year ago she re-entered the classroom and started work on a master of business administration. •