CLARKS SUMMIT – With little money, two young children to feed, and both she and her husband unemployed, Laurel Fischer Mueller committed an act of desperation.
She put up the family’s most valuable possession, a used pickup truck, as collateral for a $5,000 loan to launch her own soil science consulting firm – at a time when no such businesses actually existed.
Nearly 30 years later, not only is Soil Services Company Inc. still thriving, but the company has recently launched a separate division, Mountain Wastewater Management (MWM), which sells and services new technology sewage system components in the residential, commercial, and large community flow markets.
Mueller was recognized with an Entrepreneur ImPAct Award at the Governor’s ImPAct Awards ceremony, which was sponsored by Team Pennsylvania Foundation and the Department of Community and Economic Development at a recent ceremony in Hershey.
Mueller said she does not particularly think of herself as an entrepreneur.
“I don’t think much about the label, but I do think I am a survivor,” Mueller said. “You have to have the confidence that you are going to make it, that you are going to make it work.”
Mueller is indeed a survivor and a woman who scoffed when people questioned why she wanted to be employed in the sciences.
“There were two things I always knew: that I wanted to work outdoors and I wanted to be in the sciences,” Mueller said. “The more people would say, ‘that’s not for you,’ the more I would say, ‘Oh, yeah?’”
A Certified Professional Soil Scientist with a bachelor’s degree from the University of New Hampshire and a master’s degree from the University of Montana at Missoula, Mueller loved her job as a soil surveyor in Oregon.
A burning desire, however, to have her children closer to their grandparents led to a decision to return to Pennsylvania and work at her father’s Bucks County-based business.
“My husband and I joined my dad’s company with great expectations, but it fell flat,” Mueller said.
Fortunately for Mueller, prior training by the federal government in wetland mapping landed her a gig as a mapper along the East Coast.
“There were only three wetland mappers in Pennsylvania in 1984 and I fortunately was one of them,” Mueller said. “That went gangbusters.”
That experience contributed to the creation of Soil Services Company at a time when environmental engineering was not yet in vogue.
Today, Mueller’s company provides professional consultation services in soil science, geomorphology, hydrogeology, environmental inventory, assessment of natural land features, and staff scientists and associates manage all aspects of federal and state environmental permitting.
Originally based in Penns Park, Bucks County, the firm relocated in 1999 to a family farm in Forksville, Sullivan County, in the heart of the Endless Mountains.
Mueller said the company’s projects vary greatly in size and complexity. Staff works directly with property owners, land developers, and builders on single lots, subdivisions and commercial land developments. On larger, more complex projects, Soil Services coordinates with engineering, surveying, architectural and planning teams.
“We have traditionally worked within a 2.5 hour radius of Sullivan County,” Mueller said.
She added that the growth of Marcellus Shale has changed the complexion of the business: clients are now closer and the firm’s land developer clients “are your typical Joe neighbor.”
Mueller said her company of five employees, including her husband, George, is generating as much revenue as its 10 employees did when the business was located in Bucks County. The creation of the MWM branch of Soil Services Company has led to the recent purchase of a truck and a trailer, which is a sign of a successful businesswoman far removed from the desperate 1980s.
“I remember getting a call from a charity asking us to donate canned goods and we only had one can of beets in the cupboard,” Mueller recalled. “Creating this business was an act of desperation. What else was I to do? And while it has been a roller coaster ride every day ever since, you get out of bed, go to work and enjoy doing what you love to do.”