Local Firm Grows With Peoria
ELM Investments was formed in August 1998 in Barrington, and the company now has offices in Peoria and Kansas City.
Lee Graves started ELM to implement a new business model with regard to managing environmental liabilities. ELM’s approach is to manage the liability off the balance sheet of corporations as another option to the traditional environmental remediation approach. Helping corporations eliminate the liability from their balance sheet rather than continually spend money on remediation was the founding vision for ELM.
Graves, who is an attorney with significant environmental law experience, also started Graves Law Offices at the same time he founded ELM. "By having the legal and technical resources available in one package, we can better serve the client, who otherwise has to hire these disciplines separately, which is more costly," said Graves.
"Traditional environmental consulting firms and law firms are focused on how many hours they can bill the client; we focus on how we can take the liability from the client’s balance sheet and let them focus on their core business," said Jim Bourazak, chief operating officer of ELM. "This allows us to manage the liability more cost effectively, and lets the client focus on their business."
ELM offers environmental engineering consulting, liability management, liability transfer, and investment banking. Partner firm Graves Law provides the legal side of environmental liability management.
ELM started with 9 people in Barrington and has grown to 14 full-time and 4 part-time employees in just a few years.
The staff additions are a direct result of the growth of the business itself, which was primarily achieved by referrals from clients pleased with the company’s work. Other growth stemmed from working with Marsh, Inc., a large insurance broker which encounters many liability opportunities through mergers or their client contacts.
What sets ELM apart in its industry is the company works to bring closure to the client’s site from EPA in the quickest and least expensive manner. It also takes the liability from the client, if the client desires, and actually becomes the owner of the liability. ELM said to the best of its knowledge, it is the only company to offer such an arrangement.
During the past few years, Graves has seen various trends in the industry. "The environmental industry became very competitive some years ago, driving down the ability to make reasonable profits. Many small firms merged or were acquired, creating some very large firms. The large firms have large overhead, and need to keep people billing clients. Hence, they are not motivated to find low-cost solutions for clients. I think the industry has changed for the better, especially from the client’s standpoint, since there are still firms like ELM who can do the work of a large firm, but also provide more innovative solutions."
Bourazak said there are misconceptions about the industry. "I think many people believe all environmental problems are very costly, and they may try to avoid the problem until EPA forces them to act. However, there are many government programs to help with costs if the owner of the liability is proactive in cleanup. We can help clients identify those programs and assist with taking advantage of them, as well as guide the client through the regulatory process."
ELM hasn’t been very aggressive in marketing or advertising because most of its work is through referrals or by working with other partners. However, since the Peoria office opened two years ago, it has now started to focus on developing clients in this area.
ELM staff is key to the company’s success, Graves said. "They’re a group of people who have worked with each other in the past, and we have primarily hired through employee contacts; however, a recent hire, Dan Dunn, came from another local firm. We have hired some staff from advertising, and our name is getting out more in the Peoria area. We operate a very non-corporate environment, trusting the integrity of each staff member to do his or her job without a lot of oversight. I think the freedom to perform and be responsible is very attractive to our staff. We aren’t concerned if they get in the office at 7 or 8 a.m.; we focus on client satisfaction and the work being done. The downturn in the economy has not affected our business so far, and we hope it won’t. Most of our clients need to perform some sort of cleanup, and the economy doesn’t affect that as much."
The future looks bright for ELM, and could include a high-profile purchase.
"We’re looking to grow in the community, providing jobs and becoming more active in being a community partner. We’re currently working with banking and equity partners to place a bid on purchasing CILCO," Graves said. "We believe we have the right management team lined up to run CILCO, and being from the Peoria area, we want to preserve the jobs and restore the service CILCO was once known for in this area."
Bourazak said the most challenging part of the business, like many businesses, is covering the high costs of providing benefits and paying taxes. "It would be nice if the government could have a different rate structure for new business in terms of payroll taxes, etc., to help businesses get started.
"The most rewarding part of our business is developing new business and providing jobs for our people, as well as being a good community partner. We are a people business, and they make it happen." IBI