Duke’s Earth Services Inc.: Environmental services firm cleaning up on spills Haz-mat niche paying off; business expected to double

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When a truck carrying a load of frozen chicken crashed on Interstate 74 near Batesville last month-mixing the meat with less-than-appetizing ingredients like diesel fuel and coolant-Duke’s Earth Services was high on the invite list for the impromptu barbecue.

The Mooresville-based environmental services company specializes in such unpleasant jobs: cleaning hazardous materials spills, removing underground storage tanks, and checking construction sites for contaminated soil.

And business is good.

Duke’s posted revenue of $3.5 million in 2005, and leaders expect to nearly double the staff of 21 within two years.

That’s quite a change from 1997, when owner David “Duke” Brown first fired up his own drill rig.

Brown, 39, grew up in Greencastle with the dream of becoming a racing mechanic. When that didn’t pan out, he went to work for American Environmental Corp. in Indianapolis. He spent eight years at the consulting/contracting company, doing everything from sales to project management before striking out on his own.

“It was a chance to create the work environment I wanted,” Brown said.

Duke’s Earth Service grew as he identified-and responded to-changing conditions in the environmental services industry. Flexibility is a key element of Brown’s business strategy.

“A business is the equivalent of a sailboat,” he said. “You know where you want to go, but you have to be at the discipline of the wind.”

So although the company started out taking soil and groundwater samples for customers, it soon began locating and removing underground storage tanks, too. That grew to include draining and cleaning operational storage tanks. From there, Duke’s offered to transport waste liquids and materials to disposal sites and recycling centers.

The big vacuum- and pump-equipped trucks Duke’s uses for these jobs also have been put to work in other capacities. Last fall, Brown sent three employees and equipment to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, where they worked to remove moisture from once-flooded buildings.

The company’s current focus, though, is emergency hazardous-materials cleanups. About 30 percent of its business comes from that kind of work, Vice President Tom Turnpaugh said, and that’s expected to double in the next year.

With Indianapolis’ growing importance as a hub for transportation and distribution, more vehicles will be carrying more materials through the Crossroads of America, he said.

Brown said he’ll likely add 18 to 24 employees over the next two years to keep pace with business. Revenue should reach $5 million in the same period.

Still, finding employees is the company’s biggest challenge, Turnpaugh said. The ideal candidate has a strong customer-service mind-set in addition to the technical knowhow. More often than not, Duke’s hires employees with good people skills, then trains them to do the job.

It must be working.

Kim Forster, owner of local consulting firm Active Environmental Service-which uses Duke’s to drill monitoring wells-said the professionalism of Brown’s employees sets his firm apart from the competition.

“Duke’s sends people who are welltrained and qualified for the task at hand,” agreed Troy Gamble, director of business development for ESI Environmental, an Indianapolis-based company that specializes in wastewater treatment and has been using Duke’s about four years.

Duke’s Earth Services emergency response technician Matt Smith checks the status of cargo after a recent truck accident on Interstate 70 west of Indianapolis. The truck was carrying flammable materials. Owner David “Duke” Brown, left, and Vice President Tom Turnpaugh are at the helm of Duke’s Earth Services.

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