Bio Sleuths

Posted on Aug 1, 2010 :: Cover Story
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Photo by Shane VanBoxtel of Image Studios

Photos by Shane VanBoxtel, Image Studios

On a hot summer day, a cheese sample arrives in an overnight mailer, with an urgent request from the cheese maker to solve a mystery: Why – after just a couple of days in the refrigerator – does the cheese develop a foul smell? Bio-detectives are soon on the case. A technician carefully carves off a few slices of cheese and places them in a solution. The solution is lightly spread on the bottom of a Petri dish, then placed in an incubator. Then begins the waiting game – to see what bacteria develops and find out why those culprit microbes are turning good cheese into bad.

Welcome to another day at Cherney Microbiological Services, where every day is different as scientists test a variety of products from food and non-woven cloths to floor tiles and equipment from manufacturing sites. As the technicians work, they never know what they’ll discover, which to owner Debra Cherney is part of the fun.

“We’re a little geeky when it comes to bacteria. If something really interesting is found, we all crowd around to take a look,” she says as technicians wearing white lab coats constantly move – mixing solutions, taking samples, moving them to incubators or peering at the Petri dishes under microscopes.

A trained microbiologist, Cherney knows that a speck too small to see can quickly grow into something that takes over a surface, whether it’s a block of cheese, a non-woven cloth or a tile on the floor. As an entrepreneur, she’s seen the same thing happen with her own business – in a positive way.

Cherney Microbiological began as an idea in 1989 at the Advance Business Center incubator in Green Bay. Today, the business employs 45, is planning a physical expansion of the Green Bay facility and is looking to set up satellite locations in the Midwest to better serve its growing customer base. The larger lab and added locations could add 40 workers to the company’s payroll.

In 2009, the company performed 212,050 tests and has grown 231 percent over the past five years. Since 2002, the company’s workforce has already grown 181 percent.
“When you own a business, it’s life-changing. It’s not just a job, it’s your life,” Cherney says, “but the rewards when you succeed are unbelievable. It’s so exciting and rewarding.”

After earning her medical microbiology degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the Kewaunee County resident worked eight years in the industrial food-testing industry. As she worked, Cherney kept noticing things that could be done to improve the business.

“Being an entrepreneur burns in your stomach. Sometimes, it’s worse than others, depending on how things are going, but over time you realize it’s what you need to do,” she says. “I was strong-willed, but didn’t realize at first how much time and effort it requires to have your own business. It’s a 24/7 thing. You live it and breathe it. Being an entrepreneur isn’t easy. I get through by having blinders on – just focus on what’s ahead, not what’s on the side or what’s behind me. If you start looking around too much, fear sets in.”

With three employees, Cherney Microbiology opened at the Green Bay incubator and operated there until 2000, when Cherney and 11 employees “graduated” and moved into the company’s current Huron Road facility on Green Bay’s east side.

Ten years later, Cherney is planning a major site expansion, which will more than triple its existing structure. The company will be able to significantly expand its chemistry department and its special studies and research area. Preliminary plans also call for a training area, so the company can offer educational opportunities relevant to the industry. Cherney hopes to break ground on the project later this year and open the addition in 2011.

But to get where she is now wasn’t an easy road.

Understanding the Business

Product testing is a multi-billion dollar business. With manufacturers concerned about recalls, more companies than ever put a larger focus on testing and making sure that what they’re selling is safe. While some manufacturers have internal testing labs, others rely on independent labs like Cherney to make sure the cheese, meat or other food product isn’t contaminated with bacteria such as Salmonella, E. coli and Listeria. Some manufacturers turn to Cherney to double-check their internal lab results.

“Product recalls are nearly a death sentence for a food supplier, and proactive prevention is essential for businesses,” Cherney says. “They can’t be ignorant of the micro-bacterial world.”
That’s partly why the maker of the foul-smelling cheese turned to Cherney, and it’s why she and her staff put so much detective work into finding out what lies beneath the surface.

“You never quite know what you’ll find,” Cherney says. “We’re trying to uncover what’s there and causing a problem, or we’re making sure there’s nothing there to cause a problem.”
With so much riding on accurate and timely results, Cherney Microbiological focuses on providing quick turnaround and excellent customer service.

“We have care and concern for what we do – we want to help our customers, not just provide the testing. We can help them develop better processes or test manufacturing sites to make sure they’re clean,” she says.

As proof of the company’s commitment to quality and service, it recently received ISO accreditation from the American Association for Laboratory Accreditation in the biological field of testing. Cherney says her company is the only science-based, woman-owned business in Wisconsin to receive the certification. The company was also certified as a woman-owned Women’s Business Enterprise by the Chicago Certification Committee, a regional certifying partner of the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council.

Going through the ISO certification was a tough, three-year process, but the hard work was worth it, Cherney says. “It was something we needed to do to make sure everyone here was on the same page when it came to process.”

Jesse Norton, quality assurance director at Wiskerchen Cheese Co. in Auburndale, says Cherney and her team have provided the manufacturer of blue cheese and feta cheese with invaluable service through the years.

“The turnaround on the results is fast. We rely on them for not only product testing, but also environmental testing. When you have a product that’s ready to be shipped out, you need a quick turnaround on results or else you may lose a customer. Cherney always comes through for us,” he says. “They also have worked with us on how we can improve our own processes here.”

Seven days a week, samples from manufacturers stream into Cherney. Before the first item is tested, a positive control is run through the entire lab to make sure everything is operating correctly.

“Being an accredited lab means we adhere to the same process and procedures day after day,” Cherney says while walking through the lab, which has a faint sour milk odor. “Everyone on the team is committed to the process and has taken on the personal responsibility to do their best work. Getting the equipment is easy – having the right people and philosophy in place is the hard part.”

Cherney Microbiology offers cutting-edge technology to its customers. The lab uses TEMPO, the first automated system for the enumeration of quality indicator organisms. Cherney worked with BioMerieux, TEMPO’s designer and distributor, to test equipment. The system helps provide customers with results more quickly and at a lower cost than the traditional Petri dish testing.

“I go to my clients and say, ‘I can offer you testing at this price or that price’ depending on which type of testing you want to use. We get the same results with both,” says Cherney, adding that some clients prefer one method or the other for their own reasons.

Regardless of the methodology used, Cherney Microbiology’s lab techs are expert bio-sleuths. They have degrees in microbiology, chemistry and other sciences. “We’re definitely knowledge workers,” Cherney says.

Besides testing products, Cherney Microbiology also tests worksite conditions and processes to make sure contaminants aren’t being added through the manufacturing process. Sometimes Cherney technicians and consultants go on site to see how businesses operate as a way to help them deliver better outcomes.

“We don’t just want to do tests, but we want to help our clients improve,” she says. “It’s all about delivering the best customer service. We still have our first three customers from 1989 – I think that definitely says something about the kind of service we deliver.”

As product safety gains more attention (think about the media coverage garnered by product recalls) Cherney expects companies to intensify their testing processes.

“That’s why the accreditation has become so important. Many large companies want to use only accredited labs and some of those larger companies are requiring their suppliers to use the accredited labs too. It’s a trickle-down effect,” Cherney says. “By going with the accredited lab, it stops all questions about how the tests are performed.”

Cherney says opening satellite locations allows her company to be closer to key customers, and also provides a back-up option if the main lab isn’t available. “It’s a prudent business strategy. We need to have another option for our customers,” she says. “If there’s a big storm and we can’t get the samples in or we lose power, we have to be able to tell our customers they can do something else instead. They are relying on us and waiting for us to get them their results so they can send their products to market. Now that we have perfected our process here, we can go ahead and create a couple of branch labs that will mimic exactly what we do here.”

Cherney isn’t sharing yet where she’s looking to expand, but with customers concentrated in the Upper Midwest it’s safe to say it will likely be in Wisconsin or another nearby state.

Providing Perspective

A successful graduate of the Advance business incubator, operated by the Green Bay Area Chamber of Commerce and now located at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, Cherney is often called on to share her expertise with budding entrepreneurs. She sits on a committee that looks at prospective tenants, offering her thoughts on whether a business should be accepted into the program.

“I ask a lot of tough questions, but I do it because I want the business to succeed,” she says. “There is so much that goes into starting a business. A lot of people are like me – they have the expertise in their field, but not all the background on how to actually run a business. I was lucky to surround myself with experts in law and accounting to help me through.”

Lisa Hartman, incubator program manager at Advance, says Cherney’s experience is invaluable. “She’s lived with what they’re going through and she provides such an excellent story about what can happen. She has such a keen insight about what the tenants are facing and really knows what it takes to succeed.”

Cherney says she’s happy to share what’s she’s learned. “I provide very honest advice, from the heart. It’s such a time investment, a real commitment,” she says.

But one she has found worthwhile. In addition to running her business and providing insight to budding entrepreneurs, Cherney speaks at industry conferences and provides consulting internationally on design for food plant labs and product development. And when there’s time, she likes to put her attention a little closer to home – and to her heart: Talking to students – especially girls – about pursuing a career in science.

“That’s something I wished I had a little more time for,” Cherney says. “To me, it’s important students realize the opportunities out there in science and take a look at what is definitely an interesting and fast-growing industry.”

Meanwhile, back at the lab, Cherney’s team continues sleuthing. The quest for the cause of the stinky cheese is the sort of mystery that keeps them engaged in their work. Like hard-boiled detectives, they take an almost morbid interest in the things that make people sick. Finally, their detective work pays off and the cheese maker client has his bio-culprit.

“These things take time,” says Cherney. “It can get complicated and sometimes the solutions aren’t easy.”