EWMA President Don Richardson (left) and Michael Sylvester, executive vice president, have led an effort over the past two years to reposition the Parsippany-based environmental remediation and consulting firm. — Photo by Jeffrey Vock for Real Estate NJ
By Joshua Burd
For a business that is 30 years old, EWMA certainly has the feel of a startup.
At least, that’s according to top executives Don Richardson and Michael Sylvester, who have led a recent effort to reposition the environmental consulting and remediation firm. With a history of guiding companies and site owners through government-mandated cleanups, EWMA has moved to expand its role in transactional real estate and adaptive reuse projects, all while seeking to add service lines that allow for longer-term relationships with its clients.
In the process, the firm has completed both an external rebranding in the marketplace and an internal plan to add new layers of expertise and build its talent pipeline for the future.
“(We’ve been) staying current, staying visible and really trying to take advantage of the market share and the opportunities that were out there and available to us,” said Sylvester, EWMA’s executive vice president. “That’s what we were most satisfied with — that we were able to work on some of our internal shifting while actually penetrating the market and continuing to grow.”
The Parsippany-based firm, which is marking its 30th anniversary, benefited in its early years from regulations such as the Environmental Cleanup Responsibility Act and later the Industrial Site Recovery Act, which compelled owners and operators to remediate their properties. But EWMA has long since expanded from that focus, seeking to put its expertise in remediation and consulting to work for clients in markets such as development, due diligence and insurance.
With about $15 million in annual billings, the employee-owned firm has seen the benefits of that plan. Sylvester said the firm grew about 20 percent from 2015 to 2016. He cautioned that spikes in revenue can depend on when the firm is paid for large-scale, multiyear remediation projects, but noted that “all of our service lines had a nice tick up.”
But achieving that level of growth may not have come without a wide-ranging effort to “reposition and refocus the company into the market externally,” Sylvester said. That meant rolling out a new tagline, website and even a new logo about two years ago in an effort to communicate its service offerings and how they might benefit key industries in the region.
It was “a shift from who we were to who we are today and who we want to be moving forward,” Sylvester said. The firm even shortened its name from what had been Environmental Waste Management Associates to simply EWMA.
“We felt that was positioning us to get a clean new brand out in the marketplace and really focus on our key service areas, which we felt were real estate, compliance and remediation work,” Sylvester said. “So we were able to differentiate not only our key services, but the markets in which they served.”
Ironically, both Richardson and Sylvester are relative newcomers to the three-decade-old firm. The former joined EWMA as a vice president in 2010 and was promoted to president in 2015, which also happened to be the year that Sylvester was hired.
Not to mention that the firm underwent a major change about a decade ago, when it became employee-owned. Richardson and Sylvester said that transition helped empower those who had spent several years with EWMA and were committed to growing it into the future.
The subsequent efforts to rebrand helped convey what the firm was doing for the business community. For years, EWMA has offered a guaranteed fixed-price remediation program known as SECUR-IT, which is meant to give clients peace of mind about the cost uncertainties that come with environmental cleanups. The offering, which accounts for about 50 percent of EWMA’s overall business, both caps remediation costs and limits environmental liability.
Richardson said the program is a departure from the conventional model of setting a budget and billing on an hourly basis. But it ensures that the firm “takes complex technical issues and really breaks that down in a way that helps to facilitate the real estate transaction, instead of creating what we call ‘science projects’ around here.” It also embraces what he says is the firm’s entrepreneurial history.
“There’s still a need — and I’d challenge that there’s even more of a need today — for that type of a solution, one that is providing a guaranteed fixed price for cleaning up known contaminants on a site,” Richardson said. “And we’re providing skin in the game to our clients to provide that surety and that certainty that we’ll land at that outcome.”
Richardson added that EWMA is certainly not the only firm touting a fixed-price option, so it tries to offer its full menu of options in order to give its clients more control. The firm tries to differentiate itself by essentially working on a month-to-month basis and allowing clients to end the arrangement at any time and pay for the work that’s been done.
Regardless of how a client chooses to proceed, Sylvester said “we’re not trying to tailor our business needs to our clients.” It’s quite the opposite, he said, in that some clients prefer the “time immaterial, bill-as-we-go scenario,” while others prefer fixed-price or lump sum options for contracting with the firm.
“So it’s not a one-size-fits-all and we feel that gives us a little bit of a competitive edge,” Sylvester said. “We need to understand what our client is up against and what their business challenges are, whether it’s cash flow, whether it’s a performance-based agreement that they’re trying to satisfy. “We can’t be in conflict with their business goals. We have to kind of come in and be a backstop for their business goals.”
EWMA has also sought to grow its offerings when it comes to long-term compliance, offering consulting services in areas such as auditing, indoor air quality, abatement and so-called community right to know planning. To that end, EWMA has bolstered its staff in recent years with the addition of certified asbestos inspectors, mold specialists and other experts.
“I’m really excited about the growth in that area because I think that area presents opportunities for us to grow long-term client relationships,” Richardson said, “whereas with remediation, a lot of times we’ll do a smash-up job — and we work with developers through the history of things for long periods of time — but don’t often have the opportunity to always stay in touch with them.
“And when we get into some of our compliance services, it assists us in really growing that trusted adviser role and long-term relationships.”
Government-mandated cleanup work continues to be a major source of business for EWMA, especially in light of what has become a defining policy for environmental consultants in New Jersey: the Site Remediation Reform Act. Enacted in 2009, the law empowered private-sector experts by requiring owners and operators of polluted properties to hire so-called Licensed Site Remediation Professionals, in an effort to help the Department of Environmental Protection clear its backlogged caseload.
With thousands of sites in play across New Jersey and deadlines now looming for remediation, the system has created plenty of work for firms such as EWMA, even if keeping up will likely present a challenge for consultants and the DEP.
“That’s why we’re very much remediation-focused,” Richardson said. “And we feel like our heritage and our history can really embrace what’s going to be necessary to push these sites over the end line. There’s a lot of firms that are really good at investigating and making science projects, and I think we’re really focused on helping the client get the closure so we can move onto the next one.”
Sylvester added that EWMA recently began to offer its consulting services for properties that have met the state’s remediation requirements — achieving what’s known as a Response Action Outcome, or RAO — but will require ongoing monitoring.
“That’s something that we adjusted and where we saw a need in the marketplace,” he said. “So we’ve tailored services and our contracts to help support some of the real estate challenges that our clients are faced with and making sure that we can give them certainty on the back end, not just for the RAO, but after the RAO is issued.
“It’s a business driver. It’s really about liability and risk management.”
Positioning EWMA for the future has been about more than simply communicating its mission to the outside world. Internally, the firm is in the midst of a recruiting push to make sure its team can carry out that mission for years to come.
In fact, Sylvester said EWMA has made “a big commitment to internal culture and trying to make it a career-centric environment where folks can feel empowered (and) … see a clear pathway for their career if they choose to take advantage of it.”
The firm also looks to support its employees by helping them cover the cost of continuing education and other forms of training. Finding that talent can be fiercely competitive, but EWMA plans to continue its push for the years to come.
“It’s built into our culture now to find the youngest, brightest and best professionals who are looking for a career, not a job,” Sylvester said. “We want career-centric folks who want to come to our company and grow as part of an (employee stock ownership plan) and eventually maintain and grow ownership shares in the company — and then be able to transition into the mid-management and senior management levels as the company continues to grow.”