National Small Business Person of the Year faced adversity, illness

There's just not much that can get in Jeanna Sellmeyer's way.

She is the CEO of Asset Group Inc., a contracting company that provides construction and environmental remediation services. She recently was named the 2009 National Small Business Person of the Year.


Her award came partly because of the success of Asset Group and partially because of her ability to overcome challenges. Sellmeyer ran her company while having a brain tumor, dealt with business catastrophe after Sept. 11, 2001, and broke into a new area of business with disaster relief. Not surprisingly, her peers and employees adore her. 

Sellmeyer doesn't fit the mold of a typical CEO. Jennifer Fogg, president of Asset, described her as one of the most humble people you'll ever meet.

"Her signature is to wear jeans to work," Fogg said. "Every day, it's a battle between jeans, khakis and a suit. But she'll always justify wearing jeans to a business meeting."

Sellmeyer and Fogg traveled to Washington, D.C., last month for Small Business Week, where the announcement of Sellmeyer's award was made. Sellmeyer nonchalantly described her encounter with President Obama.

"He's very charismatic," she said. "He's a lot skinnier than I thought, really fit."

Small Business Week celebrated the hard work and daily efforts of small businesses in order to compete in the market. Although Asset would like to recognize its recent success, the demands of running a small business are high, Fogg said.

"We live, eat and sleep our work," she said. "Although we would like to stop and celebrate, we haven't had a moment."

Sellmeyer's assistant, Alison Scott, described her as extremely hard working, selfless and good-hearted. She said Sellmeyer differs from other CEOs because of her laid-back attitude at the office and her extreme work ethic.

Two small dogs, Punkin and Pokey, accompany the boss to work, working as office guard dogs.

"I've never seen anybody come in an office with two dogs or driven somebody to the airport, tires squealing, with five minutes to spare because she worked up until the last second," Scott said.

Sellmeyer began her career by teaching asbestos courses and doing some environmental consulting while still in college at the University of Central Oklahoma, she said. After graduating, she worked for a Dallas company that was doing a project in Oklahoma City at the time. A year and a half later, she decided to quit and start her own business because she didn't like the way the company treated its employees.

"It starts and ends with the employees," Sellmeyer said. "We work hard and we play hard. Our mission is to have fun."

In 1990, Sellmeyer created Asset, a company that originated in environmental remediation but grew into construction and disaster relief as time went along. The company has done environmental oversight work for many clients, including Tinker Air Force Base, Fort Sill, the Air Force, the Army and the Navy, Fogg said.

In the course of building her company, Sellmeyer was diagnosed with a brain tumor in December 1998 after a series of headaches. 

"You never think about dying," she said. "My first thought was, 'Holy shit, I don't have a will,' and then it was, 'How do we sustain the company?'"

Her dedication to Asset didn't alter after the diagnosis. Sellmeyer said doctors would get irritated with her because she would put medical consultations on hold if she had a business meeting. Throughout the treatment process, her main concern was always the company, she said. She worried that if something happened to her, she would leave her employees with no plans on how to keep going. After surgery and a quick recovery, she was back to work, earlier than what doctors recommended.

Due to inspiration gained while she was ill, Asset started the 8(a) program in 1999, which is a Small Business Administration program that helps small, disadvantaged business to better compete against larger ones in the marketplace.

Once the company got going on the 8(a) program, all of the marketing was focused on getting federal jobs for the company, Sellmeyer said. But after Sept. 11, the contracts for federal work were delayed.

But luck changed for Asset after Hurricane Katrina. The company got into the emergency response field, providing New Orleans with supply fuel, vans, forklifts, generators and other items to sustain a base camp after the devastation, Sellmeyer said. Asset performed construction work in New Orleans, including the Navy Chapel, which was the last chapel the Navy ever built.

Part of the success in disaster relief was the company's ability to take out huge loans from a trustworthy bank, Fogg said.

"We had to tell them that we needed $6 million, we need it tomorrow, and we're going to spend it all," Fogg said. "But, we paid it all back."

The success of it all led to the 2009 Small Business Person of the Year, but true to her humble nature, Sellmeyer said she wishes the award wasn't all about her. She said no one person can achieve the award on their own and that many people " including her employees, advisers, bankers, attorneys and customers " were all part of the honor. "Jamie Birdwell

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