It was the eleventh hour when the muse finally whispered in W. David Kimbrell's ear. He had all but closed his tiny asbestos-removal consulting firm and was about to take a federal government job. Then he thought better of it. "I thought this would be a boom industry and that we could build a national company," he says.
In less than seven years, Kimbrell has built the largest asbestos-consulting company in the nation. Hall-Kimbrell Environmental Services Inc. (#9) inspects buildings for asbestos and develops detailed engineering plans for its removal. Last year the company recorded net income of $12.8 million on $44.5 million in sales.
From almost the beginning Kimbrell's strategy has been to pour all available resources into growing quickly. His was a niche with no established players, and he saw the chance for a few companies to race ahead of the pack.
Kimbrell's niche emerged in the early 1980s with legislation that required schools to identify and control on-site asbestos. In 1982, he started a consulting company in Oxford, Miss. During 1983, he and his wife inspected half the school districts in Mississippi, netting about $100,000. But why, he asked, remain a small local company?
So, late in 1983, Kimbrell spent his $100,000 nest egg on a go-for-broke marketing attempt to position his company as a national player. He sent out 100,000 letters offering a free on-site consultation. And he moved the company to Kansas to be within a couple of flying hours of any potential work. Within a few months the Kimbrells' customers included hospitals, colleges, manufacturers, and commercial businesses.
Despite these successes, Kimbrell faced a problem that restrains the growth of most consulting firms. Each project was one of a kind and labor-intensive. All required investigation, analysis, and a detailed report -- hardly something that can be mass produced. Or could it?
"I realized that there were some standard approaches to assessing properties," Kimbrell says. "If we could develop computer programs and train everyone the same, we wouldn't have to reinvent the wheel on each project."
He discovered that some of the best opportunities for standardizing projects lay outside the asbestos arena. For example, for $800, Hall-Kimbrell supplies a golf course with a 45-minute videotape that discusses environmental regulations. After watching it, an official of the course answers a 502-item questionnaire about the facilities. "In 12 minutes," says Kimbrell, "we have a report telling the golf course which regulations it is in compliance with, which it is not, and what to do about it. We market the service to 8,000 courses. The package cost $250,000, but when we've sold it to just 300 courses we've broken even."
One of the company's newest packages is aimed at schools and day-care centers, which are required to analyze their water for lead. Hall-Kimbrell is marketing a package that enables these centers to send water and paint samples to the company's lab for testing.
Amid this growth, though, came a self-imposed lull in 1989. "I decided to put the brakes on for one year to let all our systems and people catch up," says Kimbrell. But the constraints come off in 1990, and Kimbrell sounds like an unrepentent advocate of growth. "We are," he says, "a big kid with a thyroid problem."
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Niche: Environmental consulting
Strategy: Be there first with new products to help customers stay on top of government regulations