Elaine Swafford
We're really doing something good that helps everybody, and we can feel great about doing it.

Russell Shelton was in law school at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville when he decided to change courses and follow a passion of starting a business related to sustainable development.

"I was in law school but I realized that I didn't like living in the moral ambiguity that comes with being a lawyer sometimes," he said. "I appreciate law, but sometimes what is moral is not legal and what is legal is not moral."

BBB Torch Awards

Accountability Measures, winner; Federal Bake Shop, honorable mention

Southern Energy Water & Air, winner; Hullco Inc., honorable mention

Marion Environmental, winner; Jake Marshall Service Inc., honorable mention

Lawson Electric Co., winner; Whirlpool Corp., honorable mention

CADAS, non-profit winner; Chattanooga Kids on the Block, honorable mention

Five years ago, Shelton started Southern Energy Water & Air, which offers water and air purification systems and other services. On Wednesday, his Chattanooga company was one of about a half dozen winners of the Torch Award for Marketplace Ethics from the Better Business Bureau of Southeast Tennessee and Northwest Georgia.

"We're really doing something good that helps everybody, and we can feel great about doing it," Shelton said.

The company's so-called "green home improvements" also include energy auditing and consulting, weatherization and insulation, solar installation and LED lighting improvements.

Today, the business has about 30 employees and hit $1.4 million in 2017 sales, he said. This year, the company expects to top that revenue figure, Shelton said.

"They double every year," he said.

Shelton said his parents are from Chattanooga and he calls it home, which is why it seemed like the best place to start the company. He likes the innovation ecosystem which has developed in Chattanooga, he said.

"It helped tremendously," Shelton said. "I try to be involved in the same organizations which do the same thingand help our society to be more sustainable."

He recalled that the business literally was started by himself out of a station wagon. Asked why the company has grown, he attributes it to integrity.

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In this Aug. 23, 2017, staff file photo, U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., speaks during the annual Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce Meeting at the Chattanooga Convention Center.

"If we provide real satisfaction to real people, we're going to be successful," Shelton said. "In doing that, you have to do it with integrity or it's nothing."

At the BBB annual meeting, U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., gave an update on a couple big projects going on in Chattanooga, such as the city's partnership with Oak Ridge National Laboratory, including ties with EPB.

He said the links with ORNL, which has opened an office in Chattanooga, leverages Oak Ridge's super-computing and and advanced manufacturing expertise.

Fleischmann also noted that work is continuing on completion of a new Chickamauga lock to replace the crumbling 78-year-old lock.

Dr. Elaine Swafford, the Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy executive director, told the group that she sees herself as a businesswoman.

"I just happen to know the academic and business operations of schools," she said.

One of the responsibilities of the academy is to prepare students not only academically, but with the so-called "soft skills" along with those that Swafford calls "hard-wired skills of honesty and trust."

"We're training students to operate in an honest, ethical system," she said.

Swafford said that one of the BBB's encourages is service excellence, which she likes.

"Service excellence means you make the customer want to return but, better yet, bring others with them," she said.

Contact Mike Pare at or 423-757-6318. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.