This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: Fluorescent bulb recycler gets a jolt from Goldman

EverLights has been a successful fluorescent fixture recycling company, but owner Kelly Gallagher hopes to take it to the next level with the skills she picked up this year in an intensive business training program sponsored by Goldman Sachs.

Kelly Gallagher

With no formal business experience, Ms. Gallagher, her brother Ken and mom Patt in 1995 launched a company that collects and recycles fluorescent lightbulbs for businesses that didn’t want them to end up in landfills. Ms. Gallagher, then 21, aimed to create a company that would safely recycling fluorescent lamps and other lightbulbs because the toxic mercury content in those bulbs never decomposes in landfills. The trio’s corporate customers were in other states, since lightbulb recycling laws weren’t on the books in Illinois at the time. They joined others to work on changing legislation and new recycling laws were enacted in Illinois in 1997.

The Chicago-based company grew modestly but steadily over the years, increasing sales by about 10% each year, says Ms. Gallagher, who now runs the company solo. This year, EverLights expects to hit $2 million in revenues, with about half from Chicago-area customers. Some of the firm’s biggest clients include Walgreens stores nationally and, closer to home, they provide services to six Chicago city colleges, the John Hancock Building, and the University of Chicago.

Last year, Ms. Gallagher applied to attend a program created by Goldman Sachs and funded by The Goldman Sachs Foundation, which promised to boost her skills as a business owner. The investment firm designed a 5-month crash course — called 10,000 Small Businesses — that’s free to small business owners who want to learn strategic skills. It was a competitive application process and Ms. Gallagher was among 37 students out of 150 applicants accepted in the Chicago area’s first class this year. She graduated in May and says she is already enjoying results from participating.

Crain’s met with Ms. Gallagher to learn how the Goldman Sachs program refined her business know-how.

Crain’s: How has your perspective about running your company changed over the years that led you to apply to the Goldman Sachs program?

Ms. Gallagher: I’ve evolved from a tree hugger and “let’s get mercury out of the landfills” to looking at this as a business. I would have had that (phrase) tattooed on my butt back then. Now I’ve changed my focus to spreadsheets, accounting and growing the business.

I have an English Lit background with no formal business training. I was overwhelmed with the commitment of getting an MBA. When the Goldman Sachs program came along, I thought: I can do this. It’s only five months.

Crain’s: How demanding was the program?

Ms. Gallagher: When you’re accepted, you have to commit to every class and the homework assignments. Goldman Sachs is partnered with Chicago city colleges and they flew in Babson College professors to teach the program (and mentor the local instructors too since Babson has one of the best entrepreneurial business programs in the country). We had class every other Friday from 8 to 5:30 and every other Thursday night. There was lots of homework in between and we had to write a growth plan for our final assignment. Each student also had a consultant come in to our companies to work with us directly to pull apart our business.

Crain’s: What were the most valuable things you learned?

Ms. Gallagher: It gave me a business edge and a different way of looking at how successful we are, ways we can grow, and how to measure that growth. I called it a boutique MBA because it’s geared to small business owners. Every class presented a scenario and challenge that I’ve experienced at my own company. I got a training opportunity that cut out the stuff that I’ll never have to deal with as a multi-million dollar company.

Now I have more tangible goals. My company will hit $2 million in revenues this year and the goal is to hit $8 million in 3 years. This program gave me a roadmap of how to get there. It also taught me how to apply metrics toward growth opportunities to see if it makes sense for us to pursue them.

Revenues for 2012 so far have grown 25% from the year before. I attribute some of that to the program because I started applying what I was learning to the business right away. For example, we recently added an auditing service for our clients.

Crain’s: Did the program teach you anything that is particularly helpful for a small company trying to succeed in the green sector?

Ms. Gallagher: Not really. They customize the program for each business since we all get one-on-one time, but the program isn’t designed for any one specific sector. But if a company is trying to change its buying process to be more green or one of the goals is to be more eco-minded, the program teaches them how to figure out what makes most sense for your business to pursue, and how to measure the results.

Crain’s: Were there other green-focused company owners in your classroom?

Ms. Gallagher: There was great diversity in the class and a couple of landscaping companies had some green aspects to their business. Other classmates included owners of a yoga studio, a motorcycle company, a doggy daycare center, and home health centers. There was an acupuncturist, owners of a few tech companies, and a baker. We had different businesses but we were all coming from the same financial footprint.

Crain’s: How were you able to fit in this 5-month, 100-hour program into your life that was already crammed full running a company with only a handful of employees and taking care of 3 children under 10 years old?

Ms. Gallagher: I needed to get everyone’s blessing because I knew it was going to be a crunch. Everyone around me supported me and that was all it took. At graduation my staff told me they were inspired by me. At home, my kids kept saying mommy was going back to college. Maybe it will inspire them later on in life too.

Crain’s: Do you have advice for other entrepreneurs applying for the next round of this program?

Ms. Gallagher: Send in your application, speak from the heart and go for it.

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