Tupelo — After David Sykes graduated from Mississippi State University with a degree in aerospace engineering, the last thing he had on his mind was working in the environmental field.
But then he took a job with the U.S. Department of Energy at a research center in Morgantown, West Va., where the biggest driver was increasing the environmental performance of coal-fired power plants via technology. He studied the long-term impact of environmental regulations, primarily from the Clean Air Act, to forecast how the utility industry would be affected. And he was hooked.
“It was my first job out of college, and where I first got involved in the environmental field,” said Sykes, a registered professional engineer. “It was interesting to me because it was a combination of engineering and science. After I finished my graduate degree (in mechanical engineering) at West Virginia University, I wanted to come home to Mississippi and focus on that field.”
After working for five years for other engineering consultants in Jackson, Sykes decided to branch out on his own. In 1998, he opened Access Environmental Solutions.
“I saw that there was a tremendous market for the environmental services that I specialized in, primarily air permitting and regulatory compliance, and it was during a time when a lot of new environmental regulations were coming down the pipe,” he said. “It seemed like a job opportunity where the market was wide open.”
Today, Access Environmental Solutions has clients ranging from small businesses to Fortune 500 companies in 17 states and Canada, representing manufacturers of chemicals, furniture and heavy machines; concrete and asphalt plants; grain, feed, lumber and plywood mills; iron and steel foundries; petroleum refineries; and poultry processors.
“I was based out of Jackson, but found myself doing a lot of business in Northeast Mississippi because the area around Tupelo is highly industrialized,” he said. “I grew up in the area and saw an opportunity to get closer to family so I moved my business here.”
Sykes’ services range from handling air pollutant emissions inventories and construction permit applications to health and safety program development and training. Often, he works with smaller companies that do not have an environmental staff, and with larger companies that have a full-time staffer assigned to environmental work who needs extra help on various compliance matters. He also works with attorneys and developers on phase one environmental site assessments.
“About 50% of my work is in Mississippi, with the balance out-of-state, mostly in western Tennessee and a little in Northwest Alabama,” said Sykes. “About 75% pertains to air quality management, handling air permits, computer modeling, compliance audits and helping new companies get started.”
A former president of the Mississippi Water Environment Association, Sykes is a board member for Water Environment Federation, the parent organization of the Mississippi group. He currently serves as director of the state association.
“It’s an exciting time in Mississippi because the economy is coming back and a lot of our clients are making plans to grow their businesses,” said Sykes, whose annual growth rate has been a steady 25%. “The business climate is favorable now for industry, and I think we’ll see a lot of good things going on within the next five years.”
To prepare for that growth, Sykes, for now a one-person office with a part-time administrative assistant, plans to hire additional specialists in 2005 and is mulling opening offices in key markets.
“We pride ourselves on being able to provide personalized service with a lot of one-on-one interaction,” he said. “With a company this size, every client is dealing with me. The decision we’ve had to make is: how big do we want to get? We won’t compromise the mission, which is providing service with responsiveness and common sense solutions so clients can get on with the business at hand and grow their companies.”
Sykes admitted that wearing many different hats has been demanding.
“The biggest challenge has been letting people know we’re here, even though we’ve been here a while,” he said. “There’s so much turnover in the field that we continually need to get our name out.”
Of his collaborative partners, Sykes points to one state agency that stands out above the rest: the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality.
“I’ve dealt directly with the EPA and state agencies in 14 states, and by far, the Mississippi DEQ is the best group to work with,” he said. “They enforce regulations, but at the same time, they seem to have an understanding of how businesses work and know how to better relate to industry. They’re not as adversarial as some agencies. They have a spirit of cooperation. They’re all very professional, very well trained. It shows not only in how quickly they’re able to turn around projects and work with industry, but also in the quality of our air and water.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at firstname.lastname@example.org.