COSTA MESA — Until March, Jamie R. Trevor was a partner-in-training in the industrial cleaning business her husband, Steven, started 12 years ago.
She was Trevor Chemical & Engineering Inc.'s bookkeeper, marketing manager and office manager who ran the corporate office in Costa Mesa. He was its technical genius, salesman and service manager, who flew his staff in his single-engine plane to job sites around the country.
It was an ideal arrangement until a fatal accident 11 weeks ago. Steven Trevor was en route to refurbish generators aboard a Navy ship in Virginia when his Cessna 210, apparently out of gas, plowed into a snowy field near Denver. Trevor, 37, was killed instantly; his three passengers--all Trevor Chemical employees--survived.
The unexpected death of a founder usually indicates turbulent times ahead, especially for small businesses, said Kenneth L. Kraemer, a UC Irvine management professor. This is because small companies are far more dependent upon the enterprising spirit, technological skills and drive of its founder, he said.
The passing of leadership means that ties with clients can be weakened and the successor must re-establish relationships or lose the business to competitors.
Understandably, Jamie Trevor was numb with shock for days afterward.
"I knew I had to take the reins of the company," said Trevor, a former spokeswoman for Allergan Inc., the pharmaceutical giant in Irvine. "We had an important business to run, and (Steven) would want it to continue."
Since September, when she assumed some contract negotiation responsibilities and sales efforts, Jamie Trevor has learned the technical aspects of the business by going to job sites.
While it was easy assuring clients--about a dozen utility companies and the Navy--that Trevor Chemicals is still in business despite the demise of its founder and chief project manager, it took longer for Jamie Trevor, 37, to establish herself as the company's chief executive.
Trevor Chemicals operates in an industry that remains largely dominated by men. Steven Trevor was widely respected by his clients, and Jamie Trevor is not a technical expert like her late husband, who invented an industrial machine-cleaning process called electrosolve service.
"The hardest thing was understanding the technical operations of the company and how all of the knowledge that my husband had is intertwined to establish a firm and warm relationship with our customers," Trevor said.
Steven Trevor, who was a social ecology graduate of UCI, had taught his employees how to operate the company's pumps, which spew chemical solutions at high pressure to unclog dirt from industrial motors and generators, and its special vacuums, to suck up chemical waste for recycling.
In the last year, demand for the company's services increased, and Steven Trevor had accelerated his training of two senior technicians to become project managers of the 12-employee firm, which his widow said will help maintain the company's technical strength.
Sales of Trevor Chemicals grew to its highest level, $2.2 million, in 1991.
Later this year, Trevor said the company will branch out to provide service for commercial ships, and she plans to explore the overseas market.
"I haven't traveled since March, because I had to hold down the fort, but I am planning to visit Washington this summer and stop in and get acquainted with the Navy folks," she said.
After graduating from UCI in 1977, she worked as a technical writer and clinical researcher and, in 1982, joined Allergan, where she was in charge of its continuing-education program before she became its chief spokeswoman seven years later.
At Allergan, she saw the importance of a well-managed service support program, and she learned to lobby politicians in Washington.
"That background helped me to understand how products and services are marketed and how to deal with the U.S. government in obtaining payments for our products and services," she said.
Jacquie Ellis, executive director of the Irvine Chamber of Commerce, has known Trevor since the 1970s and expects her to succeed.
Trevor fought off Hodgkin's disease--cancer of the lymph nodes--at 18 while a biology major in college. She continued her studies even during radiation and chemotherapy treatment, and missed only a semester during her three-year treatment.
"Jamie is a survivor, and she has one of the most positive outlooks on life that I've ever seen," Ellis said. "She just thinks that there isn't any obstacle you can't overcome if you have a positive attitude."
Two weeks ago, Trevor was elected the first female president of the 13-year-old Irvine chamber, which is the largest city chamber in Orange County.