RICHLAND -- Dick French made a gutsy move in 2001, selling his house and everything he and his wife owned to finance a startup company, Federal Engineers and Constructors, in Richland with two other investors.
But he had a business plan he believed could succeed.
After working at high profile Hanford nuclear reservation jobs, including as one of the Department of Energy's two top managers at Hanford and as president of ICF Kaiser Hanford, he could see that the years that Hanford officials spent studying and planning environmental cleanup were about to pay off with expanded cleanup work.
He and two investors with Hanford experience, Jim Watts and Lucy Love, planned a business focused on heavy equipment work. They also saw the potential for work in building roads and bridges in the Northwest, in supplying nuclear power construction as the industry re-emerges and in environmental cleanup for the mining industry.
The company started with three employees and spent a year winning its first contract. Today it has grown with the help of a fourth investor, Bill Lampson of Lampson International, and employee stockholders to 118 employees.
And perhaps more important than its growth in size is its diversification, expanding into two of the four potential business areas French envisioned and to three countries.
It's expanded its nuclear remediation business from the Tri-Cities to England and is doing mining remediation in Canada.
That's what Gary Petersen, vice president of Hanford programs at the Tri-City Development Council, sees as the key to longevity for small Tri-City businesses who depend on substantial amounts of Hanford subcontract work.
"They need to use it as levarage to gain the technical knowledge and skills to market outside of the area," he said.
French, the president of FE&C, credits former contractor Bechtel Hanford with giving his fledgling company its big break. It trusted the company with the $4.8 million cleanup of the 618-4 and 618-5 Burial Grounds near the Columbia River.
"It was a scary job," particularly considering the company had its reputation pinned to it, he said. The cleanup included digging up 1,000 rotting drums of uranium oxide, including uranium packed in oil that could spontaneously combust when exposed to oxygen, that had been buried for more than 50 years.
But the company pulled it off with a perfect safety record and no contamination releases to the environment, French said.
Since Washington Closure Hanford took over as the river corridor contractor at Hanford, it has awarded $49 million in work to FE&C. New central Hanford contractor CH2M Hill Plateau Remediation Co. also has awarded work to the company.
Projects have included cocooning, or enclosing D Reactor; digging up the waste burial grounds around B and C reactors; building the Hanford Waste Treatment Plant Simulator Training Facility and reroofing historic B Reactor. It is working on seven Hanford projects.
French believes the company has cleaned up more underground hazardous waste at nuclear site than any other small business in the nation and possibly more than any other large business.
In 2006 the company added the United Kingdom and Canada divisions, winning work related to decommissioning nuclear reactor sites in England and doing mining cleanup in the Thunder Bay area and the tar sands area of northern Alberta.
Two months ago the company moved into a new 20,600-square-foot office building on the Columbia River just south of the Hanford 300 Area, where almost daily a coyote passes by workers' windows on its hunting rounds.
The company leased the land between the building and the river from the Port of Benton under an agreement that it develops it into park land with a picnic area.
French sees possible future expansion to other DOE cleanup sites and, as the commercial nuclear industry develops, he'd like to start a fabrication plant on 25 acres the company owns.
But he'll be taking small steps to the goals, he said.
"In our business, our clients live in the spotlight," he said. "So we have to be real good at what we do to maintain happy clients."
-- Annette Cary: 582-1533; firstname.lastname@example.org; More Hanford news at hanfordnews.com.