Donna Pearson is a trailblazer in the state of Tennessee. She’s been in the safety consultant business for more than 30 years and serving much of that time as the only woman in the profession.
“I started in this business when women weren’t in it,” Pearson said. “When I started my business it was dominated by men. That made it extra tough. I had to be twice as informed, work twice as hard. I ended up earning the title as the go-to person for safety. If someone needed an answer they called me. I had to know it.”
Her business is Pearson Safety Services, which is a third-party consulting safety firm with three regional locations. It offers all kinds of safety training, consulting, on-site management and assistance with occupational safety and health administration issues. It’s a certified woman-owned business as well as a national and Memphis-certified minority business.
Donna Pearson, founder of Pearson SafetyThe company started in 2005, and since that time it has grown to $2 million in annual sales from the initial $250,000 per year. Pearson today has over 950 clients and 53 retainer accounts working in all U.S. states and Canada.
Typical clients are general contractors and manufacturing plants. In Memphis that includes Montgomery Martin Contractors, who has worked with Pearson for over 20 years.
Joel Thomas is chief financial officer for Montgomery Martin. He said the contracting company realized in the early days that it needed someone to develop a safety plan and help implement it to keep its crews safe and costs down.
“She walks side by side us making sure our guys go home every day and there are no accidents,” he said. “She’s been instrumental to our company and our safety plan.”to our company and our safety plan.”
Pearson didn’t set out to have a career in safety. She was in her early 20s when her employer sent her for safety training. At the time she was an office manager for a mechanical contractor. She attended a safety seminar held by the Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 1986, and realized her new path.
“I think it’s important to know I fell into safety,” she said. “I wasn’t looking for it. I realized I fell in love with it. It’s an important part of any business. I started learning everything I could about safety.”
She started to offer safety consulting to mechanical contractors, and before she realized it, she had a business. As she focused her efforts on learning the ins and outs of workplace safety, she also found herself creating the bones of a business.
“That was very daunting at the time,” she said. “I credit a lot of people with helping me. I surrounded myself with smart people who knew insurance and accounting and all the resources.”
Those early days were tough. Pearson recalled the first time she went on a job site and told a welder to put his helmet down for protection as he welded.
“He turned to me and said I needed to get my apron on and get back in the kitchen,” Pearson said. “I knew quickly this wouldn’t be as easy as I thought. I thought I could care about people and do things to keep them safe and that’s not what happened. They were resentful of a young woman coming on a site and telling them what to do. I credit my husband and a lot of project managers who supported me in the early years, or I would’ve given up.”
“He turned to me and said I needed to get my apron on and get back in the kitchen...They were resentful of a young woman coming on a site and telling them what to do."
Pearson faced a personal tragedy that played a role in her jump into entrepreneurship. She was widowed at 39 when her husband died from diabetes. She had to tell her children and mother-in-law, an experience that reinforced the idea that she didn’t want the job superintendents she trained to have to go through the same ordeal because an employee died on the job.
She previously operated her own company called Safety First, but she sold that business in 1995 and went to work for a larger firm. She relocated to Jackson, Tennessee, to be closer to her family after her husband’s death. It was while there that she had an opportunity to venture back out on her own in 2005.
“Immediately everybody I worked for in Memphis wanted me to be their consultant,” she said. “My business boomed very quickly. I had made so many contacts in Memphis and it’s still my largest branch.”
Donna Pearson shows off her busy schedule.
Pearson Safety technically is based in Jackson, but Pearson has homes in Memphis, Jackson and Murray, Kentucky, to be close to the three branches of the business in those three cities. More than half of the company’s staff works out of the Memphis office at 3644 Winchester Road because the Bluff City is where most of its work is located.
With help from her family, Pearson bought the company outright from a former partner in 2013. She bought out her family members in March becoming the sole owner of the company that bears her name.
She said she’s excited about future opportunities to grow the business that could include acquisitions of other branches. For now, the company has 12 employees, which Pearson said is rare for most safety consultant firms that usually just have two or three. And she’s pleased her people are certified.
“We’re proud of the expertise we bring to the field,” she said. “When you are an entrepreneur it’s important for you to be good at what you do. It’s important to invest in your people.”