By Teya Vitu –
Southwest Hazard Control has a modest presence in northwest Tucson with 68 employees at its office and warehouse. Big-name clients and annual revenue of $17 million, however, tell you that there’s more than meets the eye.
“We’re bidding an asbestos removal project in Northern California at Stanford University,” said Chrisann Karches, SHC president. Her company previously cleared asbestos from Stanford’s Wilbur Hall and William F. Durand Building.
Karches has run the family-owned firm since her father, Gerald Karches, retired in 1999 after quadruple bypass surgery. SHC was established as a hazardous materials remediation company in 1982, and today is the longest operating hazardous material abatement company in Arizona.
Other major projects completed by SHC include asbestos removal from a courthouse in San Francisco and a nearly four-year asbestos abatement project at the former San Manuel BHP Copper smelter in Pinal County. Currently, SHC is bidding on contracts with The University of Arizona, Tucson Unified School District and Pima County.
Over the years, Southwest Hazard Control opened mostly autonomous operations in Phoenix, Albuquerque, San Leandro, Calif.; a small operation in Sparks, Nev., and its newest hazard removal facility in Las Cruces, N.M., that opened in April 2012.
“Honestly, we had an opportunity and we took it,” Chrisann Karches said. “You have a stronger company if you have a bigger foundation. I did have a business mentor – his message was growth, growth, growth. He really helped me grow the business in a sustainable way.”
Asbestos removal and associated demolition makes up 70 percent of the revenue for the $17 million company – but SHC also has strong niches in lead paint and mold removal, taking out underground fuel storage tanks and numerous other environmental remediation and hazardous material abatement. SHC conducts about 1,300 to 1,500 remediation jobs per year.
Asbestos removal is common and is required to be removed before a building gets demolished or renovated. But what does the work entail?
“You have to contain and isolate the entire work area with plastic and air filtration before you begin any work – and you have to continually wet the asbestos,” which is found in floor tile, drywall, sprayed-on acoustical material on ceilings and many other forms, Karches said. “We basically scrape it off the ceiling, use blades to pull up floor tiles, then bag the material in leak-tight containers. We take it to an approved landfill, where it has to be buried within 24 hours.”
How about cleaning up lead and mold? Lead abatement nearly always involves paint removal. Mold stems from water leaks, floods or poor maintenance that allows moisture and water to accumulate.
“What we use for lead abatement depends on the situation. We use chemical strippers for paint and gentle removal techniques when dealing with historical buildings. It takes a lot of time and patience – so we do not damage the underlying wood,” Karches said. “If it’s something you don’t have to be as careful with, another method is a blasting machine equipped with a HEPA filter that captures the dust at the source. Mold remediation can range from simple cleaning using a 10-percent solution of bleach and water to complete removal of moldy materials.”
Long before Chrisann Karches stepped to the forefront, her father had a 22-year career at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in Cincinnati and Boston, before he joined the UA faculty in the late 1970s. In 1979, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency launched an asbestos technical assistance program, followed in 1982 by the Asbestos-Containing Materials in Schools Rule, and in 1986 by the federal Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act.
All these regulations led Gerald Karches to start Southwest Hazard Control in 1982 with initial work for the Navajo Nation to analyze schools for asbestos contamination.
Karches came to her dad’s newly established Southwest Hazard Control that same year as a recent UA graduate with a degree in agriculture and thoughts of becoming a nutritionist.
Instead, Gerald Karches said, he asked his eldest daughter to start by doing secretarial work. “Then she started keeping track of the financing,” he said. “Then she learned how to use the microscope to identify asbestos in samples of building materials. She was always a very responsible person.”
In 1985, SHC evolved into an asbestos abatement firm. SHC added hazardous materials abatement in 1986 and lead abatement work in 1991. Expansions soon came into play.
SHC established a Phoenix office in 1986 followed by the Albuquerque branch in 1987. In 1991, the company landed the Sandia National Laboratory contract – which it held for 20 years. A contract with San Leandro followed in 1992 to serve the San Francisco Bay area.
“We were thinking outside the box all the time,” Chrisann Karches said. “We were learning. We made mistakes. But we never made the same mistake again. Thinking outside the box works best.”
Gerald Karches said he had no problem turning the company over to his daughter as the 20th century drew to a close. “She had had experience across the board. She’s a take-charge person. She also has good people skills,” he said.
Chrisann Karches presides over all the offices – yet she allows local managers to run the show to fit the niche market that they are in. SHC hires only locals in each community. “We do have protocols and standardization of work practices, and sound policies and procedures – but I do not micro manage each office,” she said.
During its growth, SHC has had four homes in Tucson – all near Grant Road and Interstate 10. Since October 2009, SHC has owned its property and built an office and warehouse. “Rob Paulas Architects did a great job designing SHC’s new building with a lot of green touches such as water harvesting,” Karches said.
One thing she insisted on, and architect Andrew Hesse embraced, was having the office and warehouse detached, even if by only a few feet.
“It made a center courtyard where employees could hang out,” Hesse said. “It was their own little garden. Then we thought ‘Why not let other people through here?’ ”
Eleven water harvesting tanks frame the entryway to the main entrance. Hesse originally drew in 12 tanks to close off the courtyard but removed one to create an entryway.
Inside, you find soothing colors and abundant daylight from windows and solar tubes. Karches insisted on wood doors in the modern setting. A stalactite and piece of purple onyx are embedded in lighted wall nooks behind her desk.
“This is a green building,” she said. “We collect our rainwater. I always tell people I want to make the world a better place. We all need to do the right thing with the environment.”
The nutritionist in Karches also influences the workplace environment.
“We always have fresh fruit for our employees,” she said. “The bananas go like crazy. People really love the fresh fruit that we have available. “
SHC employees – 167 across the Southwest – receive other benefits as well. Everyone gets paid vacations, healthcare, 401(k) retirement and paid holidays. Little touches like giving employees gift cards at Thanksgiving and Christmas and giving birthday cards signed by everyone are just some of the small things that employees appreciate.
More than half the Tucson staff has been with SHC for 18 years. Most others have at least 15 years with the company.
“You have to treat people really well, so they are willing to invest in a company that is being built for the long term, and this will benefit the community as well,” Karches said.