Full Steam Ahead

Four Lab-tested Tips for Entrepreneurial Success

While Diane (Ducommun) Young loved growing up on a farm near Larrabee and working for  local veterinarians during high school, the odds of her returning to rural Iowa for a career weren’t good.

“In the 1980s Farm Crisis, you were encouraged to avoid a career in agriculture,” says Young (’91 animal science, ag microbiology).

As her career in foodservice quality assurance and purchasing took her across the nation, away from her husband and young son for days at a time, a career staying in rural Iowa began to look more attractive. Young left the corporate world and launched Foundation Analytical Laboratory in Cherokee in 2009.

Today, the 20 full-time employees and two part-time employees at Foundation Analytical Laboratory test everything from food products to regulatory water samples to co-products from the ethanol industry.

This isn’t your typical testing lab, says Young, whose team serves more than 800 customers, including 80 ethanol plants nationwide.

“The science of chemical and microbiological analysis is the backbone of Foundation Analytical Laboratory, but the art of human relationships is our lifeblood,” says Young, who is passionate about providing high-quality, science-based jobs in rural Iowa.

Four keys to success

Not only does Young encourage students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), but she emphasizes the “art of communication” (verbal and written) must be part of STEM to provide the STEAM for business success. This philosophy grew out of Young’s frustrations when she was a customer of various contract labs. “I had to follow up for results, and sometimes I wasn’t even sure the lab was providing good quality data,” she says.

Young vowed to do things differently and embraces four success strategies:

  1. Every customer is gold. One of Young’s first jobs as a crop scout taught her to provide high-quality, consistent service, no matter the size of the client’s operation.
  2. Think creatively. When a client asked Foundation Analytical Laboratory to test many samples for a certain time-consuming test and provide same-day results, Young agreed—and had to find a way to make it happen. Instead of using the standard blender system for sample preparation, Young purchased a paint shaker. The machine allowed the lab to handle 67 samples rather than six samples per day. “It’s essential to embrace the lost art of customer service,” she says.
  3. Don’t be afraid to be different. When Young worked in quality assurance for a foodservice company, Boston-based consultants advised her employer to get out of rural markets. This assessment, along with the consultants’ idea to compete mainly on price, didn’t sit well with Young. She says, “if you’re no different from the competition, why should anyone do business with you?”
  4. Focus on the triple bottom line. The three benzene rings in Foundation Analytical Laboratory’s logo represent the interconnections between feed, food and the environment, as well as the triple bottom line. “We strive to be the laboratory provider of choice, the employer of choice and the investment of choice,” Young says. “We’re a highly-educated group of hard-working, Iowa farm kids who do what it takes to get the job done.”

Inspiring the next generation

Many of these success strategies took root during Young’s years at Iowa State University, where professors including John Holt, Elsa Murano, Doug Kenealy and Bill Wunder influenced her career path.

“I absolutely loved my time at ISU,” says Young, whose husband Nate (’91 fisheries and wildlife biology) also is an Iowa State graduate. “It was challenging and taught me how to succeed wherever you are.”

The Youngs are proud their son, Zane, will earn his mechanical engineering degree from their alma mater in the spring of 2018.

“ISU gives you a lifetime of memories,” Young says. “Some of my favorites are my Rodeo Club and Block and Bridle activities, football and basketball games and developing lifelong friendships.”

Young introduces local students to Iowa State University degree programs that lead to STEM careers. She offers tours of Foundation Analytical Laboratory and has hosted titrating contests, pipetting contests and other hands-on learning opportunities for chemistry students from Ridge View High School in Holstein. She also is teaming up with the Cherokee school district to work with local fourth grade students.

“I want to help get more kids excited about science,” says Young, a 2016 Women of Innovation finalist honored by The Technology Association of Iowa. “As our business grows, I’m proud to offer internships to fellow Iowa Staters,” she says. “It’s even more exciting to offer competitive positions for people interested in living and working in our great state.”