Stacy Anderson, president of Earth Wizards, a design-build paving and landscaping company in Spring Lake Park, grew up with blacktop in her veins.
At age 6, she commandeered a Roscoe asphalt roller from her parents' paving company, nearly taking down a telephone pole. She spent her summers in high school and college on paving crews, working long hours under a blazing sun.
She still loves the smell of blacktop, especially that first load in the spring. But after her college chemistry classes instilled a continuing interest in water quality, she thought there had to be a better way to build parking lots and driveways.
Which is why Anderson is working hard to move her company away from asphalt, which has been its mainstay, while she builds up the ecological side of her business: designing and building projects with a goal of limiting their effects on lakes and streams and the rest of the environment by using permeable pavement, native plantings, rain gardens, and even reused or recycled materials.
"The old school was to always make sure the water goes away from the building," Anderson, 41, said. "The more that it can go in the street, the better. Get it off the property. Now we have a completely different take: How can we keep it on the property? What can we do on site to get the water to stay here as much as possible?"
The earth-friendly push has produced results. Ecological projects accounted for almost half of the company's 2009 revenue of $1.2 million, Anderson said, nearly matching what paving brought in. Three years ago, such projects accounted for just 20 percent of sales.
Anderson is looking to increase the ecological share of her business to 70 percent of revenue in the next couple of years, and plans on swapping dump trucks and asphalt rollers for excavators and other equipment needed for ecological and landscaping projects.
Still, overall revenue was down 20 percent last year from 2008, largely as a result of the recession, Anderson said. Her business likely suffered less than other construction companies because of grants available from some cities and watershed districts that can help offset the costs of storm water and other projects that fall into Earth Wizards' ecological category. Reducing storm water runoff can also save some customers thousands of dollars in fees.
The company is on pace to hit $1.75 million in revenue this year as the economy improves, interest in "green" projects continues to grow and grants remain available.
In some cases, customers choose to have Earth Wizards design a green solution, while in others they face mandates from watershed districts or municipalities to make changes, Anderson said.
"It costs a little more, but there are a lot of people excited about doing things differently and lessening their impact," Anderson said. "Especially on the ecological side of the business, you just want to work that much harder for your client, to make them just love you more and want to hire you back and back and back."
Anderson's success persuaded her parents to shut down their paving company and join her at Earth Wizards. Her father runs the paving crew while her mother handles accounting and administration. The company's 14 employees include landscape architects, a biologist and an engineer.
Anderson had worked for her parents briefly after college, then tried stock brokerage business for a couple of years ("The nylons and business suits weren't my style," she said) before returning to her parents' company. She spent five years in sales and estimating before she left to start Earth Wizards, with a small loan and some leased equipment.
Repeat customers include Karin Ciano and Ted Kiesselbach, who had Earth Wizards put in a driveway and rain gardens to address major storm water drainage issues on their Minneapolis property in 2006 and brought the company back last year to create a hillside with boulders and native trees to take the place of a retaining wall. Metro Blooms, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit organization that promotes environmentally sound gardening and landscaping practices, last year named the property the best residential rain garden.
"She's wonderful at coming up with creative solutions that are better than what I would have come up with," Ciano said of Anderson. "She's got a knack for seeing potential in an area. When we have a problem ... they've been our go-to company."
Work is in progress on a high-profile rain garden project at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Minneapolis. The work is necessary in part because the city is requiring property owners to disconnect roof drains from the sanitary sewer system.
The church could have rerouted the runoff and let it flow into a nearby alley. But Pastor Jay Carlson and other church leaders instead are having Earth Wizards develop a series of three rain gardens in the heavily traveled courtyard to handle the storm water.
"They're great to work with," church administrator Vicki Mann said. "It's going to be a great project. It will draw the community in and hopefully be educational so people will learn how to do some responsible rainwater management at their own homes."
The expert says: Dileep Rao, adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, said Anderson appears to have identified a profitable and growing niche and to have found it in a business that she knows well.
Both traits are hallmarks, Rao said, of the entrepreneurs he interviewed for his recent book, "Bootstrap to Billions." "The successful ones ... started doing something entrepreneurial in their teens," Rao said. "It looks like Ms. Anderson has improved on them by starting at the age of 6."
Environmentally conscious paving and landscaping appear to have the potential to grow, and Earth Wizards can grow with it, especially with government regulations addressing storm water runoff, Rao said. He suggested, however, that Anderson closely evaluate her diversification strategy. For example, he said, her do-it-yourself retail plan is unclear.
"Is she trying to compete head-on with the giants with lower prices, which I would not recommend for an emerging venture? Or is she opening a green retail center?" Rao said. "If the latter, could the giants do the same and kill her business? Also, there is a great deal of difference between retail and design-and-build paving."
Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail address is email@example.com.