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Karen and Leroy Schaefer, co-owners of Sunbelt Environmental Services with Tom Underwood, invested $1 million for equipment to add geothermal field services. Geothermal services, including drilling for heating and cool systems, now represents 55 percent of the company's work.
Karen and Leroy Schaefer, co-owners of Sunbelt Environmental Services with Tom Underwood, invested $1 million for equipment to add geothermal field services. Geothermal services, including drilling for heating and cool systems, now represents 55 percent of the company's work.

Business Spotlight: Know the Drill

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Though silver may be the traditional symbol for a married couple celebrating a 25th anniversary, Karen and Leroy Schaefer and Tom Underwood, business partners at Sunbelt Environmental Services Inc., will be celebrating their company’s silver anniversary at the Schaefers’ home with their employees.

Karen Schaefer says the intimate celebration is appropriate, as it is their employees who have given the company this quarter-century run. “Our employees and diversification are the two main reasons,” says Karen Schaefer.

In recent years, the company has increased revenues, even through the economic recession and recovery, from $2.9 million in 2009, when it was named a Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce Small Business of the Year finalist, to an estimated $4.3 million when the company’s fiscal 2011 ends on June 30.

Schaefer credits most of that growth to an increased demand for geothermal heating and air units, led by a combined surge in environmental interests and federal stimulus dollars designed to help companies become more sustainable. The company’s environmental hazardous material removal and consulting work has remained steady, due to more people renovating than building, she says.

The company in 2007 added geothermal drilling to its list of environmental cleanup services.

Environmentalism runs deep
Leroy Schaefer graduated from Drury University with a business degree. In 1986, after some time in the U.S. Army and with International Harvester, Schaefer opened the Springfield office of Ft. Worth, Texas-based Sunbelt Industrial Services. After building Springfield’s Sunbelt office to $1.5 million in revenue with 200 clients such as Detroit Tool Metal Products, Aaron’s Automotive, Springfield Remanufacturing Corp. and Williams Pipeline, he decided to purchase the company in 1993 and change the name to Sunbelt Environmental Services.

Partner Tom Underwood, a graduate of William Penn University in Oskaloosa, Iowa, joined Schaefer, and the company later added Neal Calton, who died in 2008. Karen Schaefer, a biology and environmental studies graduate of Drury, became a partner in 1994, and she is now president of the company.

When Sunbelt Environmental started, the primary focus was on environmental cleanup and remediation as well as consulting. The company has removed more than 1,000 leaky petroleum storage tanks and cleaned up the nearby soil and groundwater. It’s also responded to more than 2,000 emergency chemical incidents.

Sunbelt eventually added biohazardous removal, such as cleaning up crimes scenes, but Karen Schaefer says that only accounts for about 1 percent of revenue.

Hazardous material cleanup, including removing mold, asbestos and lead from buildings and homes, is still 45 percent of business, but Schaefer says that geothermal field services will represent 55 percent of its work this year, up from 25 percent last year.

“We’ve both been interested in sustainability and were looking for an alternative to fossil-fuel based energy systems,” she says. “We thought geothermal would be part of the answer to our current energy problems, and we decided to invest in the equipment.”

That $1 million investment hit at the right time, says Schaefer, as interest in energy savings systems, as well as federal stimulus money for those investments, triggered sales among mainly commercial facilities.

In the complicated geothermal process, Sunbelt crews drill more than 200 holes in the ground 400 feet deep and fuse loops to piping that transfers the temperature of the earth to the geothermal heating and cooling system.

This past year, Sunbelt helped install geothermal systems at the new Johnson County Criminalistic Laboratory in Olathe, Kan., a new high school in Columbia and at the Missouri Department of Conservation in Columbia. Schaefer says those projects alone represented $2.3 million in contracts.

Around the bend
Karla Smoot, branch manager with Preferred Pump & Equipment in Springfield, has been selling geothermal equipment and commercial water well products to Sunbelt since 1996. Smoot says that sales to Sunbelt for geothermal equipment have increased by 60 percent in the past year. “I think it is largely due to the grants that are out there for environmentally friendly systems,” says Smoot. “But Sunbelt is also a great company to work with.”

Schaefer says she knows that stimulus funding is currently running out, and The New York Times recently reported that sales for environmentally friendly products are down, which may be a sign that interest in “going green” is only as strong as the economy.

“I’ve heard that green spending is pulling back, but I don’t think interest will be completely gone. It just makes sense as the price of energy is not going down,” says Schaefer.

In addition to a strong commitment to environmental awareness, the Schaefers also demonstrate a commitment to the enrichment of children in their north Springfield area, says Kim Harris, president of the North Springfield Betterment Association, an organization that focuses on positively impacting the children in 14 north Springfield elementary schools and four middle schools.

“Sunbelt has been very involved for many years, donating time, effort and resources,” says Harris. “Lee was very instrumental in bringing our superhero mascot, Nate, alive.”

Nate encourages children to have good attendance at school. Harris says Sunbelt donated $1,000 for the costume. “It’s something a small organization like ours couldn’t have done on our own,” says Harris.

Since 2007, when the character was introduced, attendance has improved in the schools. Last month, a record 609 elementary students had 99 percent attendance.

Sunbelt is projecting a slight decline in revenue to $4 million in fiscal 2012, as it doesn’t have as many or as large of geothermal projects on the board. It’s currently bidding on projects for the Johnson County Public Works Department in Olathe, Kan., and a project at Ft. Leonard Wood.[[In-content Ad]]

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