How to Succeed in Consulting

Since the success of a consulting business relies heavily on word of mouth, you can't afford to make mistakes or miss deadlines.'

Editor's note: The ranks of safety and health consultants have exploded in recent years. Patricia Carlisle, CIH, who has been certified in the comprehensive practice of industrial hygiene by the American Board of Industrial Hygiene since 1990 and has been a private consultant for about 20 years, discussed competition, networking, and other consulting challenges in an April 21, 2005, conversation with Occupational Health & Safety's editor. Carlisle is certified as a course director by the Council for Accreditation in Occupational Hearing Conservation, is approved as a Professional Source by the Arkansas Workers' Compensation Commission, and is a principal in Carlisle Consulting Inc. (800-256-1835, www.carlisleconsulting.com) of Harrison, Ark. Excerpts from the conversation follow.

How is the consulting business going right now?

Patricia Carlisle: It's going great for us.

How many years have you been involved?

Carlisle: I started consulting in the mid-80s.

Have you always been a generalist, or have you specialized in certain areas?

Carlisle: We've always done traditional industrial hygiene, air and noise monitoring, program development, and exposure assessments. There have been times in the past when we did more of one thing than another, like when asbestos was real hot, we did a lot of asbestos work.

You're in Arkansas. Do you work just in that neck of the woods?

Carlisle: Most of our work is in Arkansas. We have worked all the way to the East Coast and done a little bit of work on the West Coast. But most of it is in Arkansas.

You mentioned asbestos being hot. That's not a hot area any more?

Carlisle: No, not that we know of.

A bill introduced again in Congress would set up a $140 billion trust fund for victims of asbestos-related illnesses. I don't know if that will make it come back in any way. Was the work driven mainly over the years by litigation in that field?

Carlisle: Yes, that, and when removal was taking place in schools.

What's hot now? Mold?

Carlisle: I don't think mold is as hot as it was five years ago. Everyone was offering IAQ services then, but few consultants were able to do the surveys correctly. There were several reasons for this: the lack of standards, high liability insurance premiums, and incredible competition from "overnight wonders." Consequently, IAQ has narrowed to a small number of experts. This is a good thing.

One area that has created an increase in opportunities since 9/11 is emergency response to chemical and biological hazards. I don't think the demand for this type of work will decrease any time soon. We were involved in hazmat early in our careers at hazardous waste sites and military installations. Emergency response personnel have our greatest respect; it's very hard work. Another thing that's hot right now is exposure assessment database development.

Exposure to what?

Carlisle: Mostly air contaminants and noise, also ergonomics.

Clients want to develop databases to track exposures to these things?

Carlisle: They want to develop databases that tie their MSDS database together with their occupational health databases so they can see which exposures might cause illnesses and injuries. And they want to tie that information to worker's comp claim data, and then they can see how much different tasks in the workplace are costing them and if their operations are harming employees.

It sounds like you're describing a database that would track any kind of exposure--a truly comprehensive tool. Is that new?

Carlisle: People have been developing these databases for years, collecting historical data and putting them into Excel spreadsheets and such, but it's only recently that we see larger corporations actually tying all these different databases together. They can work all together as a unit, instead of, say, the health nurse has one database that doesn't really tie to the industrial hygienist's database. The data can then be used to help allocate funds for control measures.

Are these manufacturing companies that are doing this?

Carlisle: Yes, manufacturing.

So far, can you tell what they've been finding?

Carlisle: Different companies have been finding different things, depending on their operations. I really can't go into specifics because of confidentiality concerns.

I just wonder whether some of the things they discover by linking these together and analyzing them are surprising to them. Are they finding ergonomic injuries or conditions they had not realized were present?

Carlisle: I think the health and safety managers have known where these hazards are. And the occupational nurses usually know where the hazards are because the employees tell them. But I think tying all this to dollars and lost work time often opens the eyes of upper management.

You've been in this for about two decades. What do you think is good preparation for a career in consulting?

Carlisle: We're a very small company; we just have two CIHs. We've had to learn about business administration. So my advice to a safety and health professional that doesn't have an MBA or other business experience would be to work for another consulting firm before they actually start up a small business.

Do you two have MBAs?

Carlisle: No. Our backgrounds are in science.

Do you wish you had done that?

Carlisle: Yes. In fact, I've thought about going back to school for a business degree. When we worked for other consulting firms, we learned about administrative procedures like billing, advertising, defining scope of work, things like that. A small consulting firm probably won't have people on staff with this expertise--they will need to hire outside experts, like a CPA or an attorney.

What percentage of your working time is spent on those office administrative activities versus your consulting and IH activities?

Carlisle: Probably a third.

Has that increased or decreased? There might be more resources now--software and other things--to ease that.

Carlisle: Yes, it's decreased with [bookkeeping software].

Given that you're a small firm, how do you and your colleague stay current in the various fields that you do work in?

Carlisle: By reading trade journals and attending professional conferences and courses.

I'm wondering how technology has improved the life and work of a consultant in the past two decades. You mentioned software, but computer power, portable devices, PDAs--are they also of use to you?

Carlisle: Oh, definitely. Twenty years ago, an IH had to have a huge collection of criteria documents, years of professional journals and magazines, reference books, regulations, etc. Now, most of this information is available on the Internet, often free. Also, we can now research and write reports just about anywhere. Less time is wasted while traveling.

Calibration equipment for sampling pumps and passive devices have made air monitoring easier. Dosimeters and air sampling pumps have gotten smaller, so it's less hassle for the workers to wear them.

And you can stay in closer touch more easily with clients, right?

Carlisle: Yes. Years ago, our clients had to wait for a huge report in the mail. Now we often correspond by e-mail while we are writing the report, or we send data tables before the report is even finished. Some of our clients want reports only via e-mail. Other clients have even gone to only accepting the data after it's been input into a database.

I assume there's a wide range of capabilities among clients, as well?

Carlisle: That's right. It has to do with the risk management philosophy within their company, the H&S manager's level of expertise, and the sophistication of their data management systems.

We've talked about several things that make consulting better and sometimes easier. Is anything making it harder? Competition, perhaps?

Carlisle: Competition is always a concern. It's always been difficult to stay ahead of the competition. When seasoned health and safety professionals are laid off or burned out, then consulting seems to be the way for them to go. Corporate health and safety is such a high-pressure job that our competition stays fierce.

Many consultants are in the field because they used to work for corporations that don't employ them any longer. Does that open more doors for your work? If a company down the street used to have its own staff but doesn't any more, it may have needs you can serve.

Carlisle: Yes, it does open doors for us. The work still needs to be done, and often it's cheaper to hire consultants than maintain a staff of professionals.

Is this true for companies of all sizes?

Carlisle: It seems that a lot of companies of all sizes are either trying to grow their own health and safety professionals from off the floor, or they're hiring more consultants.

And if they grow them off the floor, they'd probably still need some outside expertise.

Carlisle: Yes, I think so.

You mentioned somebody starting now who lacks business expertise ought to work for someone who has that capability. What other suggestions do you have for anyone starting out?

Carlisle: They will need to determine how much time they are willing to spend on the road. Almost all consultants travel . . . a lot. I am gone about five nights a month. It's not unusual for a consultant to be out of town two or three times that amount. This can be rough on your family if you don't have a good support system, but all that travel really earns a lot of reward points, so our family is able to take at least one nice vacation each year without paying for hotels. It seems to balance out for us.

Also, I would suggest that they become very familiar with all of the different types of industries that they are going to market. We gained this experience while working for the State OSHA Consultation Division and Department of Environmental Quality.

Was that one of your first jobs in the field?

Carlisle: I was an intern with OSHA Consultation while finishing college. I worked there for several years after that.

So that's one suggestion, to find out a lot about the industries for which you want to consult. Other suggestions?

Carlisle: It is important to obtain professional certification. Certification will give you credibility and a sense of professionalism that will separate you from other consultants. On the practical side, it would be a good idea to consider getting a business loan. You need to build up a financial safety net. When you're starting out, there may be months without any contracts at all.

What would you suggest about the insurance they need to maintain?

Carlisle: You're going to need general business insurance, professional liability, and worker's comp. Also, if you're planning to bring your vehicle on a client's property, you may be required to have significantly higher auto insurance coverage than you would normally have. Disability insurance is also a good idea.

This seems self-evident, but you've seen insurance rates for yourself and your company go up significantly during the past 20 years?

Carlisle: Every single year, without fail. The cost of health insurance can be one of the biggest obstacles to starting your own business.

How should they network? How do you build up the kind of network that will support your livelihood as a consultant?

Carlisle: Like most people in health and safety, we have worked many different places, so we keep in touch with old co-workers. We also try to attend several local and national professional conferences each year, as well as continuing education courses. A new consultant could also offer seminars and continuing education classes for potential clients.

Are there local universities with departments that can help you? Is it the same way you network for any kind of business--just your contacts on a daily basis?

Carlisle: Yes. Most of our business is word of mouth. Most of our clients have been with us for 10 years or more. And a lot of our expansion comes from multi-site operations within our clients' corporations.

Have the clients themselves been changing, through mergers, acquisitions, etc.?

Carlisle: Some have changed through acquisitions, so we are serving more facilities of the same companies. One of our clients went through a merger last year. Their new corporate structure requires that they obtain OSHA VPP status. Restructuring usually results in positive changes in health and safety.

Looking ahead five or 10 years, what might be a hot topic?

Carlisle: I think we'll see a bigger demand for task-based monitoring that will build on the historical data to predict and, hopefully, prevent future occupational illnesses.

That makes sense. With the comprehensive databases companies are putting together now, obviously the goal would be to use them as predictive tools. Do you think ergonomics will stay hot?

Carlisle: Yes, I do. I think there's been a decrease over the years in worker exposure to air contaminants and noise, and now we're able to pay more attention to things like ergonomics--hazards that used to be accepted as just part of the job.

We talked about launching a practice. Do you have suggestions for how to maintain a successful consulting practice?

Carlisle: Write a business plan and stay current in your field. And try to attend every workshop you can on running a small business. That's what we try to do. We have a community college locally, and we're a little over an hour away from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.

You've tapped resources at both of those places?

Carlisle: Right. You asked earlier about specializing in one or two areas. I think this is one of the most important decisions a new consultant can make: It's important to have a very broad and diverse background, but it's easy to spread yourself too thin and make mistakes if you market yourself as being able to do everything.

Since the success of a consulting business relies heavily on word of mouth, you can't afford to make mistakes or miss deadlines. And I would encourage new consultants to focus on a few areas that they enjoy and that they are good at. Consultants that only focus on the latest hazard, like asbestos, lead-based paint, or mold, often find themselves with a lot of slow months or years.

How important are business ethics in making your life as a consultant successful?

Carlisle: Companies want someone they can trust because you're going to know a lot of things about their company that they don't necessarily want everyone to know. Also, a lot of time and money may be spent based on your recommendations. Those recommendations have to be based on sound data and analysis. Plus, they will find out if you're not ethical, and they won't hire you again.

So they want to have a deep level of trust with you if they're going to hire you to do this kind of work. You're right, that probably could be established but certainly couldn't be maintained if you didn't behave ethically.

Carlisle: I don't think people would ask for your help more than once. You could even end up in court or lose your certification.

Can you last in this business if people don't hire you again? In other words, if you didn't perform well and nobody would hire you twice, could you make it at all?

Carlisle: No. Most of your new clients are going to ask for references or they're going to ask about you at business meetings, 'What do you think of so and so?' A bad reputation will eventually kill your business.

A consultant needs to decide at the beginning how big they're going to be. We decided early on that we wouldn't have employees or subcontractors. When you start hiring people to do work for you, then it exposes you to more liability and other headaches. In addition, you will always have to pay your employees on time, even if you have a slow month.

Have you ever had to turn down an offered job because you didn't have sufficient personnel to handle it?

Carlisle: Yes.

So you make that decision early. And if you stick with it, sometimes it's helpful and sometimes it can be a little harmful.

Carlisle: Yes, but not very often.

Did you ever have reason to rethink the decision? Have you thought about going a different way?

Carlisle: A couple of times, when we were going to lose large contracts, we thought about subcontracting to other industrial hygienists. But it just seemed like it would be a lot more trouble than it was worth to us.

In your experience, you need to decide that at the beginning. Is the way you structure the business important at the beginning--whether it be a corporation, a partnership? How you set it up to operate must be important at the outset.

Carlisle: Yes. That's when you need advice from your CPA and attorney.

This article appears in the July 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the July 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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