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Business Observer Friday, Feb. 2, 2018 7 months ago

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In modernizing PhosLab, George Fernandez didn't forget its roots: passion

By John Haughey | Contributing Writer

PhosLab Environmental Services in Lakeland had been expanding for a decade when George Fernandez took over.

Established by his grandfather in 1965 to analyze phosphate for a mine and diversified by his father in the early 2000s to meet increasing demand for environmental testing, by 2013 PhosLab was analyzing drinking water, soil and hazardous metals for Polk County industries and municipalities.

When Fernandez succeeded his namesakes in the day-to-day management of PhosLab five years ago, the half-century-old business was in solid shape and its market was growing. All was well — except it was still his grandfather's lab.

“We were doing everything on paper until six, seven years ago,” Fernandez says, recalling how books, ledgers, folders and files were crammed into cabinets and desks, and how manually completing forms and paperwork was cumbersome and time-consuming.

Backed by a loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration, Fernandez invested in a digital upgrade that included installation of a LIMS --  laboratory information management system — with automated reporting tools for workflow tracking, regulatory compliance, data processing and exchange. 

Fernandez amplified these technological enhancements with marketing guidance and website assistance from the Florida Small Business Development Center at the University of South Florida. As a result, PhosLab secured a steady pipeline of testing contracts, broadened the range of substances it could analyze and tapped into different client channels, such as environmental consulting firms.

In the process, what was once a one-man lab committed exclusively to one customer now employs 17 chemists, biologists, geologists and technicians — 22, counting contractors and couriers — and has customers far beyond Polk County.

“We have clients all over the country and the Caribbean. A client from Iran recently sent samples to us,” Fernandez said. “We're getting queries from all over the world every day. Before, finding business required sales representatives, now we're getting a lot of business through Google.”

Industry-wide growth, is “incredible,” Fernandez says. “For an environmental testing lab,” he adds, “it can almost be overwhelming because there is such a diverse range of industries” that need testing and analytic services. 

PhosLab Environmental Services had to decide between “taking the niche route or going after a little bit of everything,” he says. “We decided to go after a little bit of everything — you wouldn't believe how diverse our client base is — and the markets we service are expanding.”

Fernandez's “little bit of everything” includes analytical services accredited by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection as a National Environmental Laboratory Accreditation Program-certified lab. It conducts drinking water analysis for nine counties, including Pinellas, Hillsborough and Orange, and 33 cities, including St. Petersburg, Tampa and Orlando. 

In addition, PES does dozens of other tests, from ground water analysis to testing of petroleum products to nutrient analysis of lakes and streams for customers who can ship samples via FedEx from anywhere on the planet and access results online. “A lot of companies we do testing for want a classification of what type of waste they produce,” Fernandez says, noting much of PES's workload now comes from environmental consulting firms.

He sees no slackening of demand in the future. “Testing for bacteria, chloroforms and lead in drinking water will continue to be necessary,” he says. “Testing for hazardous metals, I don't ever see that going away.”

Of course, PES still conducts the same standard P205 phosphate test for some of the same mines George Fernandez contracted with in 1965 after fleeing Cuba. He'd been chief chemist at Nicaro Nickel, one of the world's largest nickel-processing plants, but “came here with absolutely nothing,” Fernandez says. “He was a very hard worker who did a lot of reading. He was obsessed with the business,” he says. “Even on weekends, he'd check into his lab. It was his passion.”

His grandfather's work ethic and passion for his business better inspired Fernandez to invest money in modernizing the lab and seek business advice from management and marketing consultants. In that sense, it is still his grandfather's lab. “All these things came around full circle,” Fernandez says. “It is really rewarding to see.”

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