From humble beginnings

Once a one-man operation, Quality Associates Inc. is now a major firm

April 29, 2007|by a sun reporter

The time, officially, to get from Houtzdale, Pa., to Maple Lawn is just four hours and change.

But it took Paul Swidersky six decades.

That he made it at all from the poor coal town in central Pennsylvania to luxurious Maple Lawn in Fulton, though, is remarkable.

But his improbable journey was not achieved without risks, setbacks and luck.

Perhaps more than anything, it was sheer determination that permitted Swidersky to escape the poverty and doubtful future of his hometown to end up with a multimillion-dollar business and expansive offices in one of the most fashionable destinations in Maryland.

"We're just so fortunate to be where we are today," said Swidersky, 61, who lives in the Woodmark neighborhood of Ellicott City and is the founder and chief executive officer of Quality Associates Inc. "We have never forgotten our beginnings."

The beginnings of Quality Associates were meager: A one-person consulting firm on federal laboratory and clinical practices with one client and first year revenue that barely broke $30,000. Today, it employs 85 people and has annual revenue of $12 million.

But QAI's success is all the more remarkable, considering Swidersky's beginnings.

He was the last of nine children born to Frank and Blanche Swidersky. The family lived in a four-bedroom house that was built in the 1800s and served only by an outhouse until the late 1940s.

"We were a poor family," he said. "It may seem like tough times, but it wasn't."

In Houtzdale, most of the girls left school early to seek work or help around the house, but Blanche Swidersky completed eighth grade - the highest grade the school offered - and was the only girl from her class to graduate.

Frank Swidersky finished fifth grade and went directly to the mines at the age of 11. He lost a leg when a coal saw being operated by another man struck a rock, sprang to the side and sliced through his knee.

Despite their limited schooling, Swidersky's parents were insistent that their children receive a good education.

"They never pushed us in any direction, but the thing that they did push was education," Swidersky said. "My father didn't want any of us working in the coal mine."

That advice, he acknowledges, did not always resonate fully.

"I was a B student with probably A potential. I didn't work to my potential," he said. "I would come home from school and put my books down on the washtubs out in the entrance area and picked them up again on my way out to school the next morning. I wasn't always studying."

Swidersky graduated from high school in 1964 but was at loose ends. He was interested in college but didn't have a career in mind, and there was the nagging matter of tuition.

He earned money by working a job for a year in a cigar factory, churning out Tiparillos. Swidersky occasionally gave his father a box. His father enjoyed a cigar on Sunday afternoons and on special occasions.

Swidersky enrolled at Penn State's Altoona campus as an electrical engineering major, just as his youngest brother, Ronald, had.

"I don't think I knew what my interests were," he said. "I sort of followed in my brother's footsteps. But engineering was an up-and-coming field in the '60s ... You knew there was a career there."

He was selected for specialized summer courses on air-pollution control, which ultimately not only landed him a job but also resulted in a profound career change.

The University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore was preparing to conduct studies on humans by exposing them to pollutants, and it needed someone who had studied pollution and also had a technical engineering background to support operations of the exposure chamber and the equipment.

Swidersky was hired upon graduation in 1967 with a two-year associate degree.

He initially repaired and built electronic equipment needed for the research project. But Swidersky increasingly became more interested in the "pulmonary physiology side of the work," or the evaluation of the respiratory system, than in his engineering tasks.

After three years, he enrolled in classes to learn the field, which permitted him to assist in the testing the university was conducting.

"I loved the research," he said. "I was learning a lot more. It was a whole new world - the biology of the person. We were learning how the lungs were affected by certain pollutants, by cold air, by certain drugs."

That same year, 1970, he married Linda M. Vanderhoof, who was an intern at the university and whom he had met two years before.

Their first son, Paul Christian, was born in 1972, and Scott was born two years later.

Money was tight in those days.

"Unfortunately, as a nongraduate-degreed person at the university, it's pretty hard to go anywhere on a career basis," Swidersky said. "If you're not a Ph.D. or physician, it's very difficult. ... The university salary just wasn't cutting it anymore."

His wife was working, and Swidersky took two jobs to make ends meet.

Swidersky realized it was time "to find another job with more potential."

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