SBA honor is an award for Ketchikan

Photo/Hall Anderson/For the Journal

Renee Schofield, owner and CEO of Ketchikan’s TSS Inc., has won the Small Business Administration’s Small Business Person of the Year award for Alaska in 2015.

The award is really for Ketchikan, Scofield said.

“This isn’t about me. It’s about a community that has raised a business,” she said.

Schofield’s business, which is in drug testing and safety counseling, is still small. She has 13 employees in six locations, three of them outside Alaska.

The TSS story is pretty much start-from-scratch. She bought the bare-bones firm in 1999 when it had one small office and four clients.

“No one really knew how long the company had been in business. It was started in the 1980s when federal requirements for drug screening came about,” she said. 

There had been several owners by the time Schofield got it.

Schofield hustled despite naysayers in the community who predicted a no-growth future. Ketchikan is a small community and Schofield developed a networking strategy, joining the Chamber of Commerce and, most important, seeking the help at the Ketchikan office of the Alaska Small Business Development Center.

All this paid off. She now has 400 clients in several Southeast communities with branches in Juneau and Craig, and Lower 48 branch offices in Keokuk, Iowa, which is where Schofield and her husband are from, as well as Quincy, Ill., and Hannibal, Mo.

Her timing was good, because she got into the substance-abuse testing field just as federal requirements for screening were expanding. A lengthy client list now includes sport fish charter and tourism boats and marine tug operators as well large companies like Vigor Alaska, operator of Ketchikan’s shipyard, which is expanding.

Ketchikan, with its vibrant maritime industry, is a key location for Schofield, but the nature of the business is changing, too. Vigor Alaska, for example, has asked her firm to screen for exposure to harmful chemicals that workers might encounter at Vigor’s Ketchikan shipyard.

As she developed her business Schofield grew to appreciate the value of networking. In 2006 she entered a national contest for women entrepreneurs, “Make Mine a Million,” and was one of 40 women business-owners chosen for a $250,000 prize. Among the judges was Hillary Clinton, the former U.S. senator, Secretary of State and now presidential candidate.

The competition was held in New York.

“A critical part of it was that we had to show how we could grow quickly, in three years,” Schofield said. “I had to give an elevator pitch,” a quick pitch like one could give in an encounter with a potential investor while riding in an elevator.

“My pitch showed how I develop a culture of safety with my clients, and secondly, on the social-benefit side, how to reduce the stigma people who are recovering from substance abuse often feel,” Schofield said.

She feels a personal stake in this because of problems her own family has experienced.

Winning the award opened up a new universe of contacts and networking opportunities, however. She also joined the national Drug and Alcohol Testing Association, which further helped her refine procedures and instill confidence among clients.

The business of substance use testing has grown far beyond alcohol and the common recreational drugs that include marijuana, cocaine and opiates. There is a routine screening for substances that can now be expanded to include others if desired by clients, Schofield said.

There are other ways to do tests than urine and blood samples also, including testing of samples of hair or sweat. TSS Inc. can now do paternity tests, too, and also does training in CPR and assisting clients in dealing with federal and state safety regulations.

“This (occupational safety) is a specialized area so we mostly help our clients find the right people in the state or federal agencies to provide assistance,” she said.

Several Southeast school districts are also among the company’s customers. Schools have to screen members of athletic teams for substance use. Schofield’s firm doesn’t conduct school tests but rather advises schools on how to do them.

The legalization of recreational marijuana use in Alaska has opened up a new field of business although testing for marijuana has long been a staple of the firm’s business. There are a lot of uncertainties around thresholds of impairment with marijuana that will take time to sort out, Schofield said.

Colorado and Washington, two states that preceded Alaska in legalizing recreational marijuana, have set tentative thresholds for impairment and these are low enough that, “even casual smoking might put a person under the influence,” legally, Schofield said.

Some European nations that have been quite liberal with marijuana, such as the Netherlands, are now becoming more concerned with long-term health effects and are starting to roll back legal thresholds, she said.

Also, as legalization expands there are concerns about having global, uniform standards.

“So many of us work globally and we need to have common understandings as to when a person who is traveling is impaired. We need to have everyone on the same page,” Schofield said.

Schofield grew up in Iowa and her roots in the area led her to locate a branch of TSS Inc. there. Her husband, Ed, is from Ketchikan but the family moved to Iowa when he was young, and that was where he met Renee.

The couple eventually relocated back to Ketchikan and lived there through the community’s experience with losing its major industry, a large pulp mill, in 1997. That was painful for the community but it has now rebounded with a more diversified economy that is now expanding, including the shipyard, fisheries and tourism.

“Our community has ridden the roller coaster and we found we just had to find ways to get through it, and to be creative and innovative,” Schofield said.

The small town character of Ketchikan was what sustained Schofield as he was developing TSS Inc., she said. Things like having a local banker, and an accountant, who had personal knowledge of people and the community, and who looked on customers as friends, counted for a lot.

“Ketchikan is the reason why this business has done so well,” she said.

But then, there’s the rain. Having grown up in Midwest with warm summers and lots of sun, it took a lot of adjustment to get used to 60-degree summer days and rain every day.

“The hardest thing for me was getting my kids out to play, but in the rain. Where I come from you go indoors when it rains,” she said.

After all these years there are still days when the rain wears on her, Schofield admitted, but in so many other ways, including with her business, she feels blessed in living in Ketchikan.

11/20/2016 - 8:59am