Making it after ‘make-or-break’ moment

By Mike Lewis
Jocelyne Melton is president and CEO of Baxter Group, based in Chambersburg, Pa.

Baxter Group CEO talks about coming back from financial crisis.

By Mike Lewis
mlewis@crossroadsbizjournal.com

Jocelyne Melton refers to a 2015 audit as a “make-or-break” moment for her company, Baxter Group Inc. And now, the company is making it.

The company, based in Chambersburg, Pa., has fought back from a financial crisis to have its biggest year ever. That comeback is one reason the U.S. Small Business Administration recognized the company and Melton, its president and CEO, as Eastern Pennsylvania Woman-Owned Small Business of the Year.

Melton, who said she was surprised and honored to receive the award, gave credit to people who work there.

“The team has made all the difference in helping put the pieces in place of where they need to be and in pushing each other up. Without our team, success would not be possible,” she said.

The company was founded in 1989 as an asbestos-abatement firm and thrived as it grew into an environmental testing and remediation company.

“We had a great 2012, a great 2013, a great 2014,” Melton said.

But things changed in 2015. An audit found that what had been portrayed to Melton as a six-figure profit was actually a six-figure deficit.

Melton knows she’s not the only business leader to face those kinds of problems. But knowing didn’t help.

“You feel so alone when it happens to you. … I spent about two weeks crying,” Melton acknowledged.

Then the tears stopped.

“You’re either going to give up, or you’re going to suck it up,” she said.

She chose the latter. She basically tore down the family business and rebuilt it. She sought help from experts, like those at the Shippensburg University Small Business Development Center. The Franklin County Area Development Corp. also came through with assistance.

“They’re great people,” Melton said of the FCADC staff. “They took a risk on us. They believed in us. That was awesome.”

It took a couple of years, but Melton has a strategic business plan as well as programs for marketing, managing finances, developing leaders and assuring quality. Her office is lined with binders. She has regular meetings with key team members to keep her fingers on all aspects of the business.

“I have checks and balances. … If things go wrong, I think I’m going to see it coming,” she said.

The work has paid off. Baxter has gone from nine employees, at its nadir, to 37 employees now. The company is closing its biggest year ever. It serves businesses, residences, schools, health care organizations and other clients in the areas of Chambersburg, Hagerstown, Md., and Martinsburg, W. Va. The company recently added a construction and renovation component, becoming more of a “one-stop shop.”

Baxter has put a leadership development plan in place, and there’s a succession plan in place as well.

“I get up in the morning, and I’m excited about coming to work,” she said.

Melton was nominated for the award by Cheryl Young, consulting manager with the Shippensburg University Small Business Development Center.

“Jocelyne is a very competent and resilient business leader who has come through a gauntlet of challenges in the last few years that could have caused many business leaders to throw in the proverbial towel. But Jocelyne, a fighter, fought back,” Young said in a news release. “I’m honored to nominate her for Woman-Owned Small Business of the Year. She has evidenced impressive leadership skills over the past few years — watching her turn her company around from a tough period of decline to one of growth and greater success is inspirational.”

Melton talked a bit more about her business and philosophy:

What does your average day look like?

There is no such thing. My goal is to spend 25% on leadership development and 75% on business development, but business happens.

What’s the most common mistake business leaders make when it comes to the environments at their locations?

One would be not performing preventative maintenance on their buildings to prevent environmental crises to keep the business healthy. Second would be ignoring roof and pipe leaks, which lead to structural damage and mold. Third would be, as they are growing, not realizing as they increase personnel in small areas they also need to increase ventilation and fresh air supply. When there are a lot of people in a small area, the human metabolism creates carbon dioxide that can make people very fatigued, breathing the same air in as others have breathed out.

What are the biggest challenges and opportunities you face at Baxter Group?

The biggest challenge is finding skilled laborers, and the most exciting opportunity is finding leaders within our talented staff at Baxter Group.

How has the company adapted and evolved since its founding in 1989? Does any particular move stand out as being the most significant?

The biggest development was diversification. In 1989, we were an asbestos abatement only company only. In 2015-2016, we found ourselves in “a learning moment” that could have been a make-or-break point in the business. Creating a strategic business plan, quality assurance plan and leadership team has helped us revolutionize our company and handle the growth that we have experienced. It also made it a fun place to come work every single day. I truly enjoy what I do.

What led you to add the construction and renovation components to your services, and how is that working out so far?

We bought Steven E. Jaymes Contractor in 2016 because of their basement dewatering systems. We had worked on many projects together hand in hand by SJC by handling the basement dewatering issues while Baxter handled the mold caused by wet basement problems. Steven Jaymes had a renovations component to their business, and from 2016-2019, we now have two separate renovations crews running at any given time. It has been a real blessing because now we can not only tear out the hazardous parts for our clients, but we can now also rebuild for them as well.

What do you wish more people understood about your business?

We still run into contractors who do not respect the hazards of asbestos, lead, mold and radon. In their minds, it’s all a gimmick. However, every day I meet people who tell me their stories and/or nightmares. So many lives are affected because of a lack of understanding on how important our indoor environments are to our health. Which is precisely the reason we began educating people through the 2019 Breathe Healthy Initiative, to further explain the hazards to home owners and business owners alike.

Outside of work, what are your ambitions and aspirations?

This is the hardest question to answer. Right now, my whole life revolves around Baxter Group Inc., our people and our business. I love what I do, but I have 37 families depending on me to stay successful. Outside of work, I enjoy spending time with my husband, Gary, my daughter and grandson and the dog Lucy at the river and fishing. I also am working with the Leitersburg Ruritan to build a community center.