With $200 in her pocket, a 1970 station wagon which she used as a truck, and a small, ragtag crew, Deborah Turner started Ram-T Corporation, a landscape company specializing in erosion control and hardscapes. That was in 1984. Now more than 30 years later, not only has she thrived as a woman in a heavily male-dominated industry, but she has also transformed her start-up company into a multimillion dollar corporation.
Born in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, to a family of seven, Turner lived an average American life. Her father drove a truck and her mother stayed at home with the children. They moved to Chester County, the next county over, when she was 10 years old, and there they’ve been ever since.
In high school, Turner was an average student—by her own admission—more interested in foreign languages and art than erosion control or landscapes. She graduated college with a degree in education for French and Spanish. After graduation, Turner taught both languages for six years before stopping to start a family of her own.
She has two children, a son and a daughter, who are now in their 30s. Both of her children have followed in her footsteps and are involved in the industry.
Turner’s son, Wesley, works with Asplundh Tree Expert Company in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania. Her daughter, Ashley, has been learning all the many pieces of running the family business and is set to assume her mother’s role at some point in the future.
As the owner and CEO of Ram-T Corporation, Turner has accomplished what many would call the “American Dream.” She saw an opportunity in her grasp, reached out, and reeled in a multi-million dollar outcome. With hard work and complete dedication, Turner helped turn her small start-up company into a $20 million corporation by the early 2000s. Like many American businesses, she suffered a few setbacks during the 2008 economic downturn, and has since scaled back, now closer to a volume of seven-and-a-half million.
“I would like to grow the company back to where it was, but I’d like to do it a little differently now,” she commented. “I’d like to keep it not as labor-intensive as it used to be.”
Her accomplishments are an inspiration, not only to other women in the industry, but to any person who ever had an idea and longed to make it a reality. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves...Turner’s story really begins as that of a stay-at-home mom looking for a few extra bucks. “At the time, I was only looking for a little extra money to join the local swimming pool for my kids,” she said. She even thought about returning to teaching part-time, as a substitute.
Her then-husband was working for a DuPont geotextile distributor. One day, he brought home a brochure for a product his company was having a difficult time selling. The product was called “silt fence,” a new development in erosion control. At the time, most contractors were still using straw bales.
“He said, ‘All the contractors come in and complain that this stuff doesn’t work,’” Turner recalls. “So I said, ‘I’ll bet it’s not working because these guys aren’t reading the directions.’” One of the contractors’ complaints was that water would run under the fences, displacing them. After reading through the pamphlet, Turner understood that if they simply trenched in and backfilled the flaps—as the directions stated they should do—the fencing would perform its function. “It’s one of those funny ‘men-vs.-women’ stories about how we’ll ask for directions, but guys won’t,” she laughed.
Turner played out her hunch. She bought a couple of rolls of silt fence, and began installing the product according to the instructions. The results were encouraging. Soon, she was able to hire two part-time employees and start the tedious process of cold calling. Turner and her team took odd jobs here and there, installing a few hundred feet of fencing along the way.
Then one day, they got their lucky break: their first major contract. A large landscape firm hired Ram-T for a Department of Transportation (DOT) project on the Schuylkill Expressway. It was a contract for 80,000 linear-feet of silt fencing. Every day, Turner and her two employees drove down to the expressway to roll silt fence down the banks of the Schuylkill River.
When she signed the DOT contract, Turner found that the profits she could make in just one month were much better than what she could earn as a teacher. Changing career paths allowed her to spend more precious time with her children while still being able to provide for them.
As a woman entering a heavily male-dominated industry, Turner met with both positive and negative attitudes. However, she never let any of that initial rejection influence her work, or her determination to succeed.
“Some of the contractors started calling me ‘The Silt Fence Lady,’ and they’d pass my number out,” she said. “Then, of course, I encountered some of the ‘good ol’ fellas,’ where I had to knock on the door 20 times before they finally let me in.”
But some old ideas die hard.
Turner thinks that her success may have played a role in ending her marriage, which she describes as “traditional.” After being together for many years, she and her husband filed for divorce in 1999.
The business, however, was thriving. Ram-T doubled in size, year after year. What had started as a company with two employees grew to as many as 200 at one time (before the recession). She expanded the company’s services to include all aspects of erosion and sedimentation control, landscape design and installation as well as hardscape construction.
The next step was to become a seeding contractor. In the years following her entrance into the industry, Turner and her team began to take jobs seeding subdivisions for home builders. At first, it was all mechanical spreading and dry seeding, but eventually Turner applied for minority business status and bought a hydroseeder.
Currently, Ram-T averages around 75 to 80 employees. Most of its work is subcontracted from general contractors or excavators with both commercial and private contracts. They also do a lot of transportation work involving airports, railways, and parkways.
Even after the downsize, Ram-T is still as busy as ever. The company gains a lot of its new projects through website traffic and word-of-mouth. Turner is a member of the Women’s Business Enterprise (WBE) in the states of Pennsylvania and Delaware, and uses this to network and further spread the word about her company. “We’re high performers,” she said. “We provide service like no others, and we stand behind our work.”
In the little time off that Turner can find, she enjoys sailing and visiting the beaches at the Jersey Shore.
She’s also dabbled in the real estate business, flipping Shore properties “for fun.” Her life has certainly shifted over the last 30 years, but never in her wildest dreams did she imagine that merely ‘reading the directions’ would lead her down the path to great success.