SBA honors Washougal’s LKE Corp.

Small Business Administration names environmentally focused construction firm one of 10 national award finalists

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Kim Erion, president of LKE Corporation (center), receives her award from the U.S. Small Business Administration. (Courtesy of the Small Business Administration)

A Washougal construction company that specializes in environmental work, including wildlife habitat and watershed restorations, has been named the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) 2019 Pacific Northwest 8(a) Graduate of the Year.

Selected from a pool of award-winners in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska, LKE Corporation was one of 10 finalists for the SBA’s national award given to companies that take part in the SBA 8(a) Business Development Program, a nine-year certification program, which helps small business owners gain access to federal contracts.

“The spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship in our small business community is part of what makes life in the Pacific Northwest so special,” SBA Portland District Director Martin Golden stated in a press release about the award, adding that LKE President Kim Erion “represents the thousands of small business owners who dedicate themselves to building a better life for their families, employees and communities.”

Erion, LKE’s president and lead ecologist, started the company in 1993 and now employs between 20 and 60 employees, depending on the projects and scope of work happening at LKE, located about 11 miles east of downtown Washougal in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.

“These awards are more for my crew than for me,” Erion told the Post-Record. “I hire people that are smarter than I am as often as I can. I think really globally so I can make the magic happen with a lot of people’s ideas. And there are usually about 200 good ideas around me.”

The daughter of a logger father and a mother who started the “Goddess Gallery” retail shop in Southeast Portland’s Hawthorne neighborhood, Erion, 49, said she tries to incorporate the best of her parents’ qualities into her work life.

“I take the stuff my dad gave me — being a hard worker — and combine it with the visionary, magical part I get from my mother,” Erion said. “Magic happens, but you’ve got to work at it. You can’t conjure things.”

This philosophy is one of the reasons Erion has always gravitated toward programs like the SBA 8(a) Business Development Program. When her business was getting off the ground, Erion consulted with Portland SCORE to help her understand the ins and outs of entrepreneurship. In 2007, she enrolled in the Portland Community College Small Business Development Center’s Level 3 Business Management course, and in 2012 she joined the SBA’s Emerging Leaders program.

As a woman working in a male-dominated field, Erion isn’t opposed to seeking help from others who know what it’s like to create a successful business.

“I grew up in a family that had businesses,” Erion said. “My grandpa had a family business, a trucking company and a sawmill. My dad was self-employed and my mom started a business … and I started my first company when I was in high school.”

Even at a young age, Erion gravitated toward her grandfather’s peers — the World War II veterans who combined a hard work ethic with dreams of success — so approaching these types of business veterans through SBA courses seemed natural to Erion.

“It’s free and you get to sit around talking to all of these older people who know things,” Erion said. “You need to respect other people’s experience and put it in your own context. Use the pieces that work for you.”

When she speaks at small business or woman-owned-business events, Erion always tries to leave the crowd with the message that being successful does take a great amount of work and effort.

“In today’s world, you have to hunt for it,” Erion said of achieving success as a woman entrepreneur. “Use the tools you have and be the hunter. I’ve said it in so many of my speeches: if you’re not the predator, you’ll be the prey.”

When she speaks to other women — especially those who are working in traditionally male fields like construction — Erion tells them to be confident and know what they want to achieve.

“Ninety percent of the time, I’m the only woman standing at a construction site walk,” Erion said. “If I show fear or submissiveness or am unsure about anything, I’ll get pummelled.”

LKE is a family owned corporation, and Erion works with her husband, Jim, who has a construction background. The couple lives in the Columbia River Gorge, east of Washougal, on a piece of land Erion fell in love with the moment Jim showed it to her more than 26 years ago.

“I’ve been infatuated with the Gorge since I was little,” Erion said. “Crown Point … was the first place I went when I got my driver’s license and I drove all the way to Maryhill Museum in the 1968 Mustang I built in high school. I fell in love with the Gorge then.”

Jim, who had always loved Archer Mountain — located on the Washington side of the Gorge, just across from Erion’s beloved Crown Point in Oregon — showed his then-pregnant wife “an abandoned, creepy house” in near Archer Mountain in 1992 and Erion knew that’s where they would raise their family. The couple’s daughter, Kimberly Madilina, is now 26 years old and often helps the family business by taking photographs of restoration sites and enhancement projects.

“We’re still remodeling that house 26 years later, but I love it here in the Gorge. And the Washougal and Camas community is fantastic, so I have no complaints,” Erion said.

Having worked on hundreds of environmental restoration and enhancement projects over the past decade — restoring sensitive salmon habitats to their natural state throughout the Pacific Northwest, building fish-friendly spillways for sediment retention on Mount St. Helens and conserving wetlands and estuaries all over the western United States — Erion said there aren’t too many projects on her bucket list.

“Except Steigerwald,” she said, referring to the Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge located only a few miles from her home and business, on the eastern edge of Washougal’s city limits. “I want Steigerwald so bad.”

When she thinks about the future and about her most recent award from the SBA, Erion goes back to the idea that it takes more than just one person to make a company thrive.

“There is no ‘I’ in team,” she said. “In construction, people come and go, but the people here (at LKE) really believe in restoration work. They’re not just ditch diggers. And the awards are nice. I collect them, but it really takes a village to (earn them). It really does. These awards are for everyone on my team.”