Environmental Resource Technologies: Safe Water, Rural Opportunities
By: Sunnie Dawn Baker
“If it wasn’t for hauling hay, I wouldn’t be here,” Tim Hensley said with a chuckle. Sometimes the strangest paths will lead you to your purpose, and for Hensley, that path began with hauling hay and ended with a degree in environmental science and his own business: Environmental Resource Technologies, or ERT.
When Hensley graduated high school in the mid-80s, there weren’t a lot of jobs available so he was hauling hay while going to college at East Central University. However, Hensley says, “I wasn’t doing very well because I didn’t know what I wanted to do.” So, he continued working in the fields and going to his classes, even though he felt adrift. Everything changed, though, when two of the people he worked for noticed his strong work ethic and offered him a job, and a future. They both worked at the Robert S. Kerr Environmental Research Center, known locally as Kerr Lab, and had a position available doing field work. After starting work there, Hensley found his niche and a career.
Hensley went on to gradate from East Central University with a degree in environmental science and continued working for Kerr Lab for the next ten years. His work took him all over the country and he began to view Ada as a truly great place. He wanted an opportunity to stop traveling, have more time at home with his wife, Dee, and start a family. They already had a farm, but he wanted to have a business where he could be at home in the evenings. So, in April of 2000, the Hensley’s purchased Environmental Resource Technologies (ERT) from Bob and Joanne Bennefield. At the time, ERT was a small operation and the Bennefields were doing it part time as their retirement. They had a single building and would be there a few hours every week. As someone who was already working with water for the EPA at Kerr Lab, this was the perfect opportunity for Hensley. He and his wife talked it over and decided to take the leap into being entrepreneurs.
At first, Hensley’s dreams of having his evenings free were dashed. He took a job with the City of Ada as the Environmental Coordinator, and he and his wife would spend their evenings and weekends working at ERT, alongside their single employee, Alan Jackson. They would bring their dinner to the office and eat while they worked. It was hard, but it was a labor of love. By 2005, though, Hensley quit his job at the City of Ada and they took their new business full-time. Jackson, who had been a part-time employee, went full-time as well. It was a year of expansion for both their business and their family as their first son was also born that year. Shane Nelson followed soon after as a full-time chemist for ERT.
In the beginning, ERT focused on wastewater analysis. Due to the Clean Water Act, it is necessary for municipalities and industries to test their wastewater before it is released into streams. ERT will do that testing and file the paperwork to make sure that these entities are in compliance with the regulatory requirements. Unlike many other testing facilities, though, if someone is not in compliance, they will let them know with a personal phone call so they can start working on remediation before they hear from the Department of Environmental Quality; a phone call from a friendly voice is a lot better than a surprise notice from a regulator and this is one of the strengths of ERT: a personal approach.
Four years after going full time, the Hensleys decided to add analysis of drinking water to their roster of services. This led to even more expansion and they now have a drinking water manager, Keri Condon, who was instrumental in starting the drinking water analysis service offered by ERT. Today, the drinking water side of the business totals 15 employees.
Physically, their business has expanded from a single building to three, each packed with sophisticated testing equipment and the other things needed to make their business run smoothly. They have three drivers that go pick up samples across Southern Oklahoma and bring them to their warehouse where they are then sorted for the different types of testing and distributed amongst the workers. Because of their setup, they are also equipped to test soil, but exclusively for oilfield analysis. At ERT their primary focus is on municipalities and industries, but do accept water well customers as the need arises.
The key to the Hensley’s success lies in the relationships they develop with their customers and their employees. Even if someone has a degree in environmental science, they still need to be trained extensively on the complicated equipment used at ERT. So, Hensley invests his time and energy in training his employees. However, because of that time and energy he wants to make sure that they will stick around. To this end, he and his wife have developed a culture of respect for their employees, and this works to everyone’s benefit. He also makes sure that the people he hires are invested in this community and want to stay in Ada. All of their employees except for one are local graduates of East Central University, and the one that isn’t is originally from the community of Byng, a few miles to the north.
Just as Tim Hensley was given a focus for his future through the researchers at Kerr Lab, he tries to do the same for students at East Central University. He has a great partnership with the professors at the University and will tell them to send promising students his way, ideally those at the sophomore level. With this approach, he can provide a student with a part-time job in a field that they are interested in while also training them and seeing if they fit the organization at ERT and potentially a full-time position after graduation.
Through the course of his career as a researcher and entrepreneur, Hensley has learned a lot of lessons and is grateful for the help he has had along the way. He says, “If you work hard, somebody will notice, but don’t be afraid to ask for help or advice. And don’t be afraid to try.” Hensley found his niche unexpectedly, all because he was hauling hay. Now, the Hensleys and ERT make sure our drinking water and streams are safe, all while providing opportunities for others who just might need to find their own niche as well.
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