Working in manufacturing, Robin Thorne regularly hired consultants to help her employer with environmental compliance. “I always thought, ‘I could do that!’,” she recalls. In January 2009, she took the plunge, starting CTI Environmental Inc., an environmental, safety, engineering and specialized industrial construction firm, with a partner. In late 2009, seeking to expand to new markets, Thorne visited the Small Business Development Center hosted by El Camino College for advice on which small business certifications to pursue.
SBDC Business Advisors Charlie Lowe and Daniel Hancuff not only helped simplify the certification process for Thorne, they also advised her on how to buy out her business partner, clarify her goals and create a business plan.
- Find your focus. Small business certification is complex, and Thorne wasn’t sure where to start. “There were so many certifications I could pursue—at the county level, the city level, the state level,” she recalls. Lowe simplified things by having her determine the types of projects she wanted to pursue, then obtain the certifications that would attract those types of clients.
- Have a plan, but be ready to deviate from it. “Writing a business plan was a huge challenge for me, especially the financial projections,” says Thorne. “Charlie helped me by showing me how to keep things simple and be practical, yet flexible. It’s not etched in stone.”
- Assess your options. “As a general contractor, one conversation I had with Charlie was, ‘What type of business model do I want?’ “ Thorne says. Instead of buying her own heavy equipment and hiring employees, Thorne decided that retaining trusted consultants on a per-project basis offered more flexibility. “It has worked very well for us.”
Thorne bought out her partner in February 2012, after using Lowe as a sounding board to help her clarify her goals: “I wanted to focus on short-term contracts and diversify our experience.” With clients including manufacturing, transportation, real estate and consulting firms, Thorne has achieved those goals and more. CTI Environmental still operates lean and mean—the staff is just Thorne, an assistant and an intern—but revenues are growing at the company’s three divisions: environmental construction and remediation, safety training and consulting, and emergency planning.
Thorne, who recently landed her first Northern California contract, is targeting government clients and has her eye on East Coast and international expansion. As CTI Environmental grows, Thorne will continue consulting the experts at the SBDC, where she recently met with Business Advisor Becki Walker for marketing advice.
“What I like about being in business is the freedom it provides to chart my own path,” says Thorne. “My future is up to me, and no one can limit what I can accomplish.”