Twenty-five years ago Amy Gonzales was working for the state Department of Transportation when someone put a bug in her ear: She should start her own business.

But, as is common with first sparks, Gonzales didn’t give the idea too much thought. She instead left the DOT and started consulting with companies in the environmental field before she landed a senior management position with Foster Wheeler. The company assigned her a 20-something protege named Kelly Caldwell, who eventually gave Gonzales the same piece of advice — and offered to help Gonzales start and run the new company.

People thought Gonzales was nuts, of course. Leaving a good job and a good position to start a firm with someone barely out of college and 17 years her junior? Please.

But 10 years later AK (recently changed from AK Environmental), based at 850 Bear Tavern Road and in Holly Springs, North Carolina, is celebrating its 10th anniversary with yet another recognition as one of the state’s fastest-growing firms.

“She just got it,” Gonzales says of her business partner. “We just clicked.”

Gonzales admits that the leap into entrepreneurship was made easier by the fact that she and Caldwell had a safety net — they were married to husbands who had good jobs and benefits. But more important to the eventual (and growing) success of AK is the fact that Gonzales and Caldwell have what Gonzales sees as a perfect blend of complementary attributes. She, the scientist and longtime manager, takes care of the people from Bear Tavern Road, and Caldwell takes care of the business operations from North Carolina.

The two were not always so geographically far apart, but they have hardly ever worked in the same place. Back at Foster Wheeler, Gonzales and Caldwell were in separate offices in different parts of the state. But this gave them a certain edge — they were able to start and run a company together without distance becoming a problem. They started the company virtually (“literally out of my closet,” Gonzales says) and largely continue to operate it that way.

For a while, Caldwell was based in Bridgewater, but having grown up in Indiana, she wanted to live outside of New Jersey. Gonzales says the move “didn’t affect us at all. All the resources she needs are near her in North Carolina.”

Gonzales admits that it gets tough sometimes, but she adds an oft-stated word of gratitude: “Thank God for FedEx.” The two also keep in heavy contact on the phone and through E-mail every day, but also try to get together at least once a month.

AK’s business is focused mainly in the Northeast, but Gonzales says the firm has clients all over the country. Most of those clients are natural gas companies, which Gonzales admits is controversial. “The issues are very emotional,” she says.

Those issues have to do with the fact that AK’s clients often have to remove trees and cross public lands. People, she says, do not always like the idea of tampering with nature to run a pipeline. But Gonzales defends her clients and her business by reminding people that pipeline companies are trying to build something necessary. “We need energy,” she says, particularly now, when the federal government is focusing so strongly on domestically produced fuels.

“We can’t eliminate the environmental impacts,” Gonzales admits, “but we make sure [projects] are built as environmentally sensitive as possible.” If a client must take down trees, for example, AK works to help minimize the effect on migratory birds. If a client has to cross a stream that has been stocked, the company will find ways to do the project without disrupting the trout population.

The company operates in three core areas: environmental planning, project management, and construction. Planning involves professionals from biologists to archeologists. Project management oversees and contends with those controversial issues and logistics. Construction includes everything from “a stable of inspectors” to welders. “We’re a beginning-to-end operation,” Gonzales says.

Gonzales says that she and Caldwell like the natural gas industry because “they pay their bills really fast. The business demands good cash flow, so utilities pay on time. We never have to go to collections.”

But the roots of AK’s focus come from Gonzales’s time as a consultant, after working with the DOT. Someone at a firm she worked with suggested she focus on the pipeline industry — an industry, she says, that needs a lot of documentation.

Getting into the pipeline and energy area is how Gonzales met her husband, Ed, who is AK’s director of project and construction management. An engineer, Ed brings in much of AK’s cash flow, Gonzales says.

Originally, Gonzales and Caldwell expected to do most of their work with the state. Gonzales had, after all, worked there and figured it would be an easy client. But the duo quickly learned that working with governmental bodies takes a long time.

Gonzales also originally was told that her starting a company would be great because it would be a rarity in the energy field — a woman-owned business. But Gonzales says she doesn’t think of the firm as a woman-owned entity per se. “I’m more proud that we’re getting the work. Something I learned from Foster Wheeler is, you do good work, you get good work. I’d rather be technically right.”

Gonzales seems to have always been drawn to things that demand technical proficiency. She grew up in Harding Township, where her father was an electrical engineer (and “a brilliant man”) at Bell Labs and her mother was a social worker. She started college at Wellesley, but quickly transferred to Colgate, where she “fell in love with geology.” She also was a springboard diver and a gymnast there. She graduated in 1981.

She went to Johns Hopkins for her master’s, where she “fell out of love with geology.” Mostly, she says, because there was way more math involved that she cared to do. But she earned her master’s in the subject anyway, before embarking on a brief career as a teacher at her old high school. She then went to the DOT and eventually to Foster Wheeler, from 1998 to 2002. That year she started AK Environmental, which is shortening to AK because Gonzales and Caldwell don’t want the company’s broad range of services to be overshadowed by a name that sounds as if its focus is narrow.

When the company launched, Gonzales says, she expected it to do well. But AK’s steady growth has caught the attention of several business journals, including Inc., which recently ranked AK at No. 346 on its 500 Fastest Growing Companies list. In 2010 it was No. 6 on American Express Open’s and the Women Presidents’ Organization’s list of Top 50 Fastest-Growing Women/Owned-Led Companies in North America. AK has also been a regular name on the ZweigWhite list of fastest-growing companies, and for the fifth year in a row has cracked the top 40 on New Jersey Women Entrepreneurs’ Fastest-Growing Women-Led Businesses list.

AK, which aims for the $50 million client market, now employs 130, about half of whom are office workers and the other half field reps. “Most of those are in construction trailers,” Gonzales says. She is looking to hire more later this year or early next.

As for how to grow a firm from closet-sized to one that catches the attention of Inc., Gonzales says it takes flexibility and persistence. What started as a firm that would zero in on wetlands and government work evolved into a full-service firm because, Gonzales says, she and Caldwell kept their options open. When one day a competitor asked her to provide an inspector for a project in Minnesota, she said yes, and the rest has been a 10-year history of growth.

“Business plans are good for when you’re looking for funding,” Gonzales says. “But you have to be flexible.”

AK, 850 Bear Tavern Road, Suite 106, West Trenton 08628; 609-771-1730; fax, 609-771-1731. Amy B. Gonzales, president. www.ak-env.com.

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