Sep 20 2005

Winds of Change

North Wind founder tells how company went from operating out of a low-tech kitchen to a new high-tech headquarters that helps it handle multi-million-dollar contracts.

Photo: David Agnello

When Sylvia Medina launched North Wind, she wanted to create the type of company she always wanted to work for: one that not only saves the environment but values its employees and customers. In building her company, she thought of everything, except technology.

As her environmental consulting firm took off, she learned that small businesses can only neglect information technology for so long. When the number of employees grew and remote offices multiplied, she realized she not only needed technology, but that technology could enable her company to flourish even more.

"One of the biggest mistakes I made was not paying attention to IT early on," says Medina, named one of the top five outstanding women entrepreneurs of 2005 by the Small Business Administration (SBA).


North Wind, founded in 1997, has grown from a one-woman consulting firm that Medina ran from her dining room to a 250-employee operation with headquarters in Idaho Falls, Idaho, and 20 offices nationwide, from the remote regions of Alaska to Washington, D.C. Her business, which specializes in environmental remediation, now rakes in $23.5 million in revenue a year and is projected to bring in $30 million next year. With business booming, she plans to hire 100 additional workers by next February. With the company poised for even more growth, emphasis on cost-effective IT is increasing.


Last year, North Wind invested $200,000 in technology, purchasing an e-mail system with Web-based access, file servers, projectors and document-imaging software to digitize its records. The company has created an intranet to improve project management and communication among employees. It has installed virtual private networks and firewalls to boost security and subscribed to Web-based video and teleconferencing services for staff meetings and employee training. Management and key personnel are equipped with notebook PCs, cell phones and BlackBerrys for fast communication.


Photo: David Agnello
Leslie Diggins, Quality Assurance Manager and IT Adviser,North Wind

The investments will not only boost worker productivity and efficiency but will also allow the company to develop the corporate processes and meet certification requirements for best business practices that it needs to win bigger federal contracts, says Leslie Diggins, North Wind's quality assurance manager and IT adviser. North Wind, for example, is developing company policies on everything from identifying and correcting employee mistakes to managing corporate documents. The company is also working to meet an international standard for quality management, which includes more than 100 best business practices on IT, finance, human resources and other areas.


Gaining a competitive edge from corporate processes and certifications is important as North Wind positions itself for continued growth and success after graduation from the SBA's 8(a) business development program. The program was created to provide developmental assistance to small disadvantaged businesses and help them compete for government contracts. Once North Wind graduates, it will compete head-on against larger businesses for big federal contracts.


One particularly strategic investment is in document-imaging software to digitize North Wind's paper-based records. "We're setting this company up for audits to go smoothly from day one," says Diggins.

North Wind specializes in waste disposal and environmental cleanups of land and buildings contaminated by hazardous substances. It also conducts geological surveys and environmental impact studies for the federal government and some commercial clients. In recent years, the company has expanded its services to include civil construction, archeology and even anti-terrorism work, in which the company analyzes the potential impact of explosives on federal facilities.


"North Wind is built on the passion for the type of work we do. We're making a difference in this world," says Medina, North Wind's president and an environmental engineer who previously worked at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory.


Growth Opportunity Ahead


North Wind should see continued success because of the country's growing need for environmental remediation, says Kshitij Nilkanth, a research analyst at market research firm Frost & Sullivan, in Palo Alto, Calif.


The U.S. market for environmental remediation reached $8.1 billion in 2004 and will grow annually at 7.2 percent through 2010, he says. About 400 companies offer remediation services, with the top 18 companies accounting for 70 percent of the market share, he says. But there's room for smaller companies, such as North Wind, because of the Bush administration's push to give smaller companies a larger percentage of federal contracts. About 80 percent of environmental remediation spending is from the federal government. Bush's goal is to award 23 percent of all federal prime contracts to small businesses.


"North Wind has good prospects," Nilkanth says. "Medium- and small-sized companies [in environmental remediation] are concentrating on their niche markets, developing new ideas and innovative technologies and improving their market shares."


For the first three years, North Wind was motoring along just fine with the technology basics: computers, e-mail and fax machines. But when Medina found herself managing $2 million projects with an accounting program that cost less than $100, she knew it was time to invest in IT.


From 2000 to 2003, she upgraded her phone and intercom system, leased more multifunction copiers for inhouse production, negotiated corporate pricing for computers and started companywide standardization. She also purchased a new heavy-duty accounting system to handle payroll, receivables and payables, contracts and the budget process.


Digitizing Records


When Diggins arrived in 2004, the company was again in need of a tech upgrade. North Wind purchased new servers to back up data, upgraded its e-mail software and instituted additional security measures, such as a policy to regularly change passwords and firewalls to protect the network.


CEO Takeaway
Pay attention to IT early in the life of your company. It's easy to get caught up in high growth and then find your business limited by inadequate technology infrastructure.
As your company grows, install and automate corporate processes and certification procedures that are appropriate for your industry.
Take advantage of opportunities to be mentored by larger companies in your industry.

In addition, the company for the first time conducted a comprehensive inventory of its hardware and software and created a refresh schedule for computers and other equipment.


To improve efficiency, the company built an intranet that serves as a central location for corporate announcements and data, such as human resources information, project information and corporate procedures. It also includes a Web-based time sheet and an online help desk for IT and building maintenance needs.


One particularly strategic investment is in document-imaging software to digitize its paper-based records. As North Wind receives larger contracts, it will need documents to be easily accessible for the complex audits required by the government.


"We're setting this company up for audits to go smoothly from day one," Diggins says.


The company has hired interns this year to scan in all the documents and will complete the project and get the database up and running within six months.


"Digitized records will also improve staff efficiency. For example, when employees need to update a state's fire management plan, they currently call their colleagues to see if they have an updated plan from another state handy. In the future, instead of calling each other, they can search our own database through the intranet to find information instantly," she says.


North Wind upgraded its technology with the same vigor that it uses to tackle projects for customers. Department of Energy's Yosef Patel is impressed with North Wind employees' work ethic.


"We are always looking for firms like North Wind—tenacious, qualified and aggressive," says Patel, director of DOE's Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization.


North Wind's tenacity and IT strategy are already helping it move to the next level. The company recently won a $300 million contract from DOE (pending the outcome of protest and subsequent corrective action). Medina credits her talented staff as well as mentor-protégé programs, which have offered tremendous business advice, she notes, and helped guide her company to new market opportunities, such as anti-terrorism work.


"They teach you lessons they've learned, so you don't make the same mistakes," she says.