Q&A with: Karen Long, Amethyst Environmental

Karen Long has owned Amethyst Environmental Ltd. in Lee for 13 years. The six-employee firm offers a range of environmental and safety and health services, from sewer pipeline and septic cleaning to site investigation and remediation, waste management and occupational safety and health consulting. In 2005, the University of New Hampshire graduate was named Tradeswoman of the Year by the National Association of Women in Construction.

Q. What did you find to be the biggest challenge as a woman when it came to starting your own company?

A. All the problems that go with working in a non-traditional workplace. I have a business partner who is a man. When we go to talk to potential clients, they talk to him. He’s quick to point out that I’m the one they should be talking to. There is still a certain patriarchy in the trades.

Q. In your experience have you found a difference in how women are accepted as entrepreneurs or successful businesspeople, as compared to your male counterparts?

A. When I first started in the early 1990s, there wasn’t the same level of expectation for success. There was the expectation that you would fail. Now I see more of an even playing field. It’s really gotten significantly better. Generally, I don’t notice a difference anymore.

Q. What made you decide to own your own business?

A. While we do environmental engineering and remediation, we also do sewer system rehabilitation, which is what I won the award for. We rehab sewer systems without having to dig them up. It’s a niche market utilizing new technology. We can offer long-term solutions to municipalities with a lot less disruption to the community.

Q. What is the greatest perk you’ve found in being your own boss?

A. The ability to control my own destiny. Success or failure is based on what I do. Certainly, my employees have a lot to do with the success of the company. But bottom line, it’s me and what I do and the decisions I make, how I operate business, that determines if we will be successful and not successful.

Q. What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

A. I grew the business too quickly. In 1999 and 2000, the construction field went crazy. Municipalities had a lot to spend, and I took on contracts I wasn’t able to handle effectively from an infrastructure point of view. I went from three employees to 20 in month. When the bottom dropped out after 9/11, I had eight or 10 contracts and lost seven. I didn’t have anything to support our business, and I had to let go of some employees.

After that, I took steps to grow slower. I took on a business partner and streamlined administration and operations. I’m smarter on financing equipment and setting a bottom-line figure that needs to be on the book each month and plan work accordingly to carry us through slow months.

Q. Who has been most instrumental in your success and why?

A. My parents owned their own business and were very good businesspeople, honestly. They are both deceased now, but the lessons I learned from them, the basic premise of how business works, were what saved the company after 9/11.

I learned from them to involve employees in the process to instill a sense of ownership in them so that they, too, will have some level of control.

Q. How and when did you know you were successful?

A. It was wonderful to have people start calling me for work instead of the other way around. And to have enough to pay for the bills!

Q. What is the one drawback or part of owning your own company that you hadn’t counted on?

A. I was surprised by how much of a leash owning your own business is. There is never really a time when you’re not thinking about it. I have had vacations cut short because something has come up. I have great people, but sometimes there are things that need my hand.

Q. What are some of your techniques for balancing work and family that you can share with other business owners?

A. The hardest thing is to set a limit on yourself. You need to find “the end of the day.” I used to be out doing the work and then come back to the office until 11 p.m. or later. I decided in the last year or so to work in the evenings only if I absolutely have to. It has been an adjustment for everyone.

You really do have to set boundaries. You will not be successful in business if you
do not have a life.

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