Lab Manager | Run Your Lab Like a Business

Perspective On: An Environmental Research Lab

Michael Glavanovich receives calls with all kinds of strange requests. Once, a woman phoned to ask him if a piece of meat tossed into her yard for her dog contained poison.

Michael Glavanovich receives calls with all kinds of strange requests. Once, a woman phoned to ask him if a piece of meat tossed into her yard for her dog contained poison. Although he couldn’t help the woman, Glavanovich was able to direct her to a lab that could help answer the question.

“I maintain a list of alternate laboratories for [callers’] unique needs,” says Glavanovich, the laboratory manager of Stewart Environmental Consultants, LLC, in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Stewart Environmental is an environmental engineering firm with three main divisions: engineering, environmental services, and laboratory services. The laboratory, which Glavanovich runs, focuses on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and solid waste methods. The staff analyzes for everything from metals to anions to nitrogen, and much more.

“Environmental chemistry has distinct groups of analyses: those for drinking water; those for wastewater, such as a wastewater treatment plant’s industrial discharge (water that has gone through an industrial facility and is discharged either to a waste treatment plant or to an existing body of water); and those for solid waste, for material that may end up in a landfill,” Glavanovich explains.

Environmental labs typically analyze water, solids, and air. Each lab tends to have a specific focus. Because air sampling requires specialized equipment, Stewart Environmental’s lab focuses only on analyzing water and solids matrices.

“Our lab is small and serves a local community,” Glavanovich says. “We cannot test for everything, so we tend to subcontract some analyses. Other labs are very large and have multiple sites nationwide. These labs tend to have capabilities in many areas.”

The lab’s clients range from private citizens concerned about the quality of water from their wells to permitted dischargers, such as industrial companies that must regularly test the quality of the discharge to ensure it meets federal and local regulations. The lab also caters to specialty clients whose analytical needs are not part of the compendium of analytical tests that the EPA or code of federal regulations prescribes.

“We develop special methods and tests for these clients’ needs,” Glavanovich says. “This is where my job becomes more interesting.”

Company structure

Each of Stewart Environmental’s divisions focuses on a specific goal, creating a full-service company that meets many of the community’s environmental needs.

“The primary focus of the engineering division is the cleanup and use of water from oil and methane gas wells, which is very important here in the West where water is a precious commodity,” Glavanovich says.

The Environmental Services division performs on-site assessments, wetland delineation and mitigation, revegetation plans and sample collection; it also obtains local and federal environmental permits for clients, among other tasks.

The Laboratory Services division, occupying about 3,000 square feet, is responsible for the analysis of samples, including microbiological, metal, inorganic, and asbestos testing. All work is performed by just a handful of employees.

“Our lab is small compared to most environmental labs, but versatile,” Glavanovich explains. “Five people report to me, and as manager of the laboratory division, I report to the president of the company.”

Together, the team analyzes approximately 10,000 samples per year, comprising about 100,000 separate measurements.

Glavanovich’s team members have degrees in chemistry, microbiology and food science. But the degree, according to this lab manager, is not what makes a good team member in the lab. Instead, it’s a person’s ability to learn new methods and think on their feet that helps the lab run as smoothly as his does.

“I can teach anyone to run a method, but to have the intuition to understand it, to think ahead as to what may cause problems in the analysis or troubleshoot a problem once it happens, takes something that is far beyond what a formal education can teach,” he says. “The ability to multitask is also important. Seldom does a person in my lab just do one thing at a time.”

This is in part because, as laboratory manager, Glavanovich is given the freedom to handpick his staff. “I am responsible for hiring and firing, although I’ve never had to perform the latter,” he says.

Glavanovich’s own background is in analytical chemistry. After receiving his Bachelor of Science degree from Hope College in Holland, Michigan, Glavanovich attended graduate school at the University of Minnesota, followed by a postdoctoral position at Upjohn Pharmaceutical Company in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

“I spent 12 years in the pharmaceutical field before joining Stewart Environmental as the manager of the laboratory,” he says. “Laboratory operations in the pharmaceutical world are under very close scrutiny by the Food and Drug Administration. The EPA oversees laboratory operations in the environmental world. It was only a matter of learning a new set of rules.”

Laboratory upkeep

The lab utilizes a variety of instruments to run necessary tests. Some of these include inductively coupled plasma (ICP) for measuring metals; ion chromatographs (ICs) for measuring common soluble anions, such as chloride, fluoride, nitrate, and sulfate; and gas chromatographs (GCs), which are workhorse instruments for testing volatile organic compounds (VOCs), semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOCs), pesticides, herbicides, PCBs, polyaromatic hydrocarbons and a whole host of other compounds. To maintain these instruments, Glavanovich and his staff regularly inspect each unit and typically make repairs in-house when necessary.

“I have a great deal of experience in maintaining and repairing equipment,” he says. “This is helpful when I cannot afford to wait for a service technician to come to our site or for equipment to be sent in for service. Some instruments are under a service contract and are maintained and serviced by the manufacturer.”

The lab staff also assumes the responsibility of making sure all necessary supplies and consumables are available. Should an item be running low, after performing inventory, the lab member will report it to Glavanovich, who then takes care of the ordering.

A series of samples tested for Chemical Oxygen Demand (COD).

Challenges and solutions

Like many lab managers, Glavanovich wears many hats—from running inhouse operations to meeting with clients—so his days are often a juggling act.

“I manage four things throughout the day: sample analysis, reports to clients, supplies ordering, and the lab budget,” he says. “I receive many calls and emails throughout the day as well [and] respond immediately if I can, but sometimes I need to focus on a task at hand and let voice mail do the work. I usually set aside a block of time when I reply to calls and emails before the end of the day.”

Of all these tasks, his biggest challenge is meeting the budget. Because environmental labs all pretty much perform the same analytical methods, there’s tremendous competition when it comes to pricing procedures.

“I cannot just price everything so that I meet my budget,” Glavanovich says. “I am forced to compete with every other lab on price.”

What Glavanovich can do to distinguish his lab from many other environmental labs, however, is to provide excellent service to his clients.

Top Instruments used

  • Inductively coupled plasma (ICP)
  • Ion chromatographs (IC)
  • Gas chromatographs (GC)
  • Cyanide Analyzer
  • A Spectrophotometer

“My clients have needs and deadlines, so timeliness matters,” he says. “I’ve also taken the initiative and asked my permitted clients for their discharge limits [and] keep a spreadsheet by my desk. When I check their reports, I compare the results to the limits and call them if I see an overage.”

“I can help my clients the most, though, by learning about all the ways to solve their problems,” Glavanovich explains. “I have discharge clients with problems meeting their requirements, drinking water providers that cannot manage to remove enough naturally occurring uranium from their water, private citizens whose well water smells like rotten eggs and a whole host of other problems.”

“I have answers for all these problems. I’m also willing to work with them and a third party to get their problems solved,” he adds.

These extra efforts build lots of goodwill with Stewart Laboratory’s clients. “It’s that extra step that I can offer that most labs cannot—because of my own experience and education, and because right outside my office door is a team of about 20 engineers [(in the engineering division)] who may be able to help,” says Glavanovich. All this comes easy to Glavanovich because he loves his job and the people who work for him.

“It’s the sense of being on a team and serving that team that brings me back every day,” he says. “A manager is a leader to a degree, but a manager must also serve his or her team.”

To serve his team, this lab manager works hard to continually keep up the morale of his employees and to foster a sense of community in the lab. It also helps that the lab staff maintains a positive attitude and a sense of humor, without which a day’s work could prove to be monotonous. Glavanovich capitalizes on these qualities in his colleagues to make the job seem, well, less like a job.

“I’m probably lucky that I have people skills as well as chemistry skills, and I use both of them on a daily basis,” he says. “My employees are not mine to boss around; they know what needs to be done, and I generally get out of their way. I’m always there for them to answer questions, and more important, to lighten the mood if I can and to be a little social.”

Part of this approach comes from the fact that Glavanovich was once on the other side, working for a lab manager who was not inspiring to him.

“He was a micromanager and never socialized with the staff,” he says. “Consequently, most people felt he was aloof and someone to be feared. I am the complete opposite. We have a wonderful sense of comradeship in the lab, and I have the respect of my staff because they know that I have their backs, that I care about them. My philosophy is that if we are not having fun in the lab, then I’m not doing my job.”

Glavanovich and his team participate in something called the Friday After-work Club (FAC), where they unwind over beer and snacks, bringing the staff closer to each other and to their lab manager in a more relaxed atmosphere than the one in which they spend the workday. Activities like this one and an occasional luncheon hosted by Glavanovich help the staff grow closer to each other.

“We are also a very social group in general; if all we did was talk about work for eight hours a day, we’d get pretty bored,” Glavanovich says.

Such social activities also help promote technical and work communication, which, according to Glavanovich, is a vital part of running a laboratory.

“We are a small lab, and I really need to know what’s going on,” Glavanovich says. “When customers have questions or concerns, I’m the one who takes the call, and I really need to know if anything was unusual in the analysis of their samples.”

For example, many of Stewart Lab’s clients are permitted dischargers. If any one of their parameters is over limit, Glavanovich needs to know about it right away. This can happen only if the staff communicates issues in a timely manner. “In such cases, I take the initiative and call [the client] soon, so that they have time left in the month to resample if necessary,” Glavanovich says.