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Sunbelt cleans up in SW Missouri region

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by Karen E. Culp

Sunbelt Industrial Services began in 1986 when Leroy Schaefer started developing the company. In 1993, Schaefer and Tom Underwood, who had been a client of Sunbelt's, purchased the company from the owner, a Texas company, and re-named it Sunbelt Environmental Services Inc.

The company has always been an industrial waste management and environmental consulting firm, and Sunbelt has removed more hazardous and toxic waste from southwest Missouri than any other company, Schaefer said.

Schaefer's wife, Karen Schaefer, is also part of the ownership and management team for the business. She has worked in environmental concerns throughout her career, having previously been employed for both the city of Springfield and the state of Missouri. She and Leroy Schaeffer are both certified hazardous materials managers at the master's level, which is the highest such designation in the field.

Sunbelt performs a variety of tasks for its customers, including environmental property assessments, underground storage tank removal, emergency spill response, industrial waste disposal, and asbestos and lead removal, Schaefer said.

"We've worked in 23 states total. We'll go anywhere we're needed," Schaefer said.

Part of the company's business also has to do with helping its customers comply with local, state and federal environmental regulations.

Both Schaefers teach environmental safety and regulatory compliance to their clients.

"We fill a need as being a kind of buffer between the people in industry and the people who are enforcing the regulations," Karen Schaefer said.

When Leroy Schaefer got involved in the company, he brought expertise from having worked on safety concerns at International Harvester and Springfield ReManufacturing Corp.

"I started out in this business because I had a true interest, and it's pretty fascinating. There's always something different happening; it's always a challenge," Schaefer said.

Underwood was, and still is, in the oil business when he hooked up with Schaefer. He had been "involved in this type of thing every day because of the oil business," he said, and thought it would be good for him to learn more about environmental concerns.

Sunbelt started out with Schaefer as its sole employee; it now employs 27. It is not unusual for the company to watch its employees get training at Sunbelt and then move on to larger companies in the field.

"One of the hardest parts of this business is watching people go, but they move on to very good opportunities. We've sent some people to worldwide companies, and we've sent some into the regulatory agencies themselves," Schaefer said.

Underwood, who is the company's chief executive officer, is responsible for managing the employees, and it is his management style that has created a good working environment for the employees, Schaefer said. The company also uses open-book-style management, which was inspired by Schaefer's mentor, Jack Stack of SRC.

"It's just a good management philosophy. It's good for the employees to know what the company's budget is and what its goals are for the long term," Schaefer said.

The company has handled some big jobs everything from molasses spills to phosphoric acid spills. The phosphoric acid spill was one of the company's biggest jobs; it was a $500,000 clean-up, and there were no fatalities or injuries as a result of it. The spill was the result of a train derailment near Seymour. Schaefer said his employees worked 24 hours a day to get the spill contained.

"It was a big job that took a lot of manpower. We were fortunate, though, because no one was hurt," Schaefer said.

Other jobs have had big potential for explosion, such as the containment of a gasoline additive that was present in some drums leaking on a tractor-trailer truck, Karen Schaefer said.

When the company removes a tank,

the "tank itself is a bomb," which the workers then have to move, open and clean, and Sunbelt has never had an explosion or a fatality while working on one of those jobs, which are frequent, Schaefer said.

As one of the first such businesses in the area, Sunbelt has achieved a level of name recognition, Karen Schaefer said. The majority of businesspeople in the Ozarks want to do the right thing environmentally, and that makes the owners happy to be in business here.

The regulatory environment is always changing, and though it is difficult to keep up with, local business owners are willing to do so because they care about the area, Schaefer said.

"A lot of people feel very privileged to live in an area that is so full of natural beauty. Most people want to keep the Ozarks pristine," Schaefer said.

The next step for the company is to get into the waste-oil business, Schaefer said. The company has established a facility that will be an exchange site for the oil. Sunbelt will gather the oil and then load it into tanker cars or trucks to be shipped to used-oil recyclers.

The company is also starting an in-house retail store at its 524 S. Union location, where it will sell environmental supplies to businesses. The company has been at five different locations in Springfield and has resided at its present location for four years.

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