The connections you make in college often shape the rest of your life. Union College alumnus Jeff Peterson is proof of that. Thanks in part to the educational and personal bonds he formed while attending Union, the 1987 graduate is now a shareholder and executive manager in a number of companies supplying chemicals, metals, equipment and logistical services starting from a base outside Nashville, Tenn.
After graduating from Union College and then earning a Juris Doctorate from the University of Nebraska, Peterson practiced law for five years in Colorado and then seven years in Tennessee before joining Palm Commodities International, a privately held supplier of specialty chemicals and metals used in the electronics, battery manufacturing, catalyst materials and surface finishing industries.
“We don’t make iPhones, build satellite batteries or refine petroleum, but we produce and sell a number of specialized materials that are used to produce these products and many others,” explained Peterson.
Peterson, his longtime business partner and their management team have acquired other related companies in Chicago, New Jersey and Tennessee, including Novamet Specialty Products, Apex Material Technologies, Wegener Welding, LLC and Music City Logistics.
These separate-but-connected companies produce nickel, cobalt, copper and rare earth solutions and powders for use by chemical companies or other producers of industrial catalysts, coatings, batteries and airplane parts, and the electroplating and mining industries, among others. The group of companies also provides customers with equipment, other distributed products and logistical solutions; and offers reclamation and recycling of metal-containing solutions to turn otherwise wasted metals into new products.
Peterson acknowledges that his position requires a variety of skills and education that aren’t typically found together, especially not when it comes to choosing a pre-packaged college degree. Instead, it was while enrolled at Union College that he found he could unite his varied interests—accounting, science and business—into a personalized degree which ultimately led to a personalized career path.
Peterson, an Omaha native and Platte Valley Academy graduate, enrolled at Union College in 1982. He started out working toward a business degree with an emphasis in accounting, and added math and science courses including calculus, general chemistry, general biology and organic chemistry in the mix.
It was through Union’s guidance services in his second year of college that Peterson discovered he had an interest and aptitude in law. Union’s handbook offered him the flexibility to connect seemingly unrelated fields to create a personalized degree that allowed him to earn a Bachelor of Science degree from Union that uniquely fit his career path and enabled him to move across town to complete a Juris Doctorate at the University of Nebraska.
Even during this new phase of his education, Peterson lived close to Union’s campus and stayed affiliated with the school and his college friends. It was during law school that he met his future wife, Shelly Johnson, who was attending Union at the time.
After graduation, he and Shelly married and moved to Colorado, where Peterson practiced law in Fort Collins and then Denver. Five years later, he accepted a job offer at a law firm in Nashville, Shelly’s hometown. Shortly after his arrival in Nashville in 1993, Peterson met Bill Fields at the Boulevard Seventh-day Adventist Church in Madison, a suburb of Nashville, and began providing legal services as an outside attorney for Fields’ growing chemical business, Palm Commodities International.
Peterson liked the combination of business, science and law involved in the operations, and he joined with Fields in 2000 on a full-time basis as an officer of Palm and a shareholder in a new venture they founded, Sulfuric.com, selling metals and chemicals over the Internet.
Eventually they merged the online business with Palm Commodities International and grew that business together. From its base, they made acquisitions of other industrial operations in Tennessee, California, New Jersey and Illinois.
In his current position, Peterson travels extensively to see business contacts and work with his team. He travels across the United States, Asia and Europe, and admits that traveling is a mixed blessing. “Spending so much time in airports and away from family is a sacrifice,” he said, “but it’s also very rewarding to be with our customers, suppliers and team members and gain the perspective of seeing how the rest of world lives and how the materials our companies create are used across the planet.”
Still, family connections keep Peterson rooted, despite his hectic schedule. Peterson and his wife, Shelly, are parents to 16 year-old twins, Austin and Ashley, who attend Madison Academy in the Nashville area. Peterson, who fondly remembers his own academy and college days, is grateful his children have a chance to get their start with the loving staff offered in the Adventist school system. “I appreciated how my education grounded me, opened doors and set the stage for lifelong relationships. I hope my children have a similar experience,” he says.
Peterson says the foundation for his career was laid in both the science building and Division of Business at Union, and he credits the hours he spent in both areas for opening doors to a career where he could pursue his interests and give vent to his entrepreneurial spirit.
“I am a product of Union’s science and business programs, and what I learned in those classes fits my job perfectly,” he said. “I’m running commercial enterprises that are scientifically-based and heavily regulated. My education at Union helped me put those areas together, and it prepared me for what I do every day.”
The connections Peterson made with Union’s faculty and staff inspired and influenced him as a student, helping to create the person he is today. “We had so many good teachers at Union, but I was especially influenced by Grover and Joy Barker, Drs. John and Lilya Wagner, and Dr. Chuck Freidline,” he says. “They were great instructors and teachers, took extra time with students, shared their personal lives, and were solid Christian examples,” he said.
Like other science majors, many of the memories that Peterson still holds dear from his college days happened in Jorgensen Hall. “Taking chemistry from Dr. Freidline was the highlight of my science studies,” he said. “He had just started at Union and was overcoming a serious medical problem, yet he was a wonderful teacher with a strong sense of humor. His work ethic and kind disposition were inspiring to many of us, and he will be missed.”
Peterson laughs when he remembers his reaction when Dr. Freidline encouraged him to continue taking science classes despite Peterson’s evolving interest in business and law. “He told me to work on a chemistry minor because I may want to work for a chemical company one day. I remember asking him, ‘Why would I want to do that?’” Peterson recalled. “Now here I am, working in an industry that deals with chemicals and metals, and I’m so glad I have the background I do. I probably should have pursued the extra classes as he suggested.”
Recently, Peterson’s Union connection helped him find the ideal candidate for a job opening at one of his companies. On a trip back to Union, Peterson was introduced to Ryan Peters, who is married to Taleah Valles Peters ’10, a recruiter for Union. “I had been looking and praying for the right person for the job, and it seemed God put him right in my path,” he said. “A few weeks later, Ryan and Taleah were moving to New Jersey so he could start his career as an engineer at Novamet.”
Peterson still keeps alive his connections to Union College. He maintains a relationship with Dr. Lilya Wagner and his close friends from college. From time to time, he has stopped by the campus to see the changes over the years. “I’m always amazed by how the campus has grown and developed in the years since I’ve graduated,” Peterson said. “The school’s commitment to investing in improving their capabilities is obvious to everyone who sees the changes.”
He adds that he’s especially excited about the investment in the future the school and its supporters are making through building the new science and math facility. “As a former student for whom the science program at Union helped lay some critical blocks in the foundation for my career, I want to support the continued investment in that area to better equip future students with an improved learning environment,” he shared.
For Jeff Peterson, like many other graduates, the decision to enroll in Union College continues to impact daily life long after graduation. The personal relationships, career decisions and business connections made while at Union help alumni shape their lives and their world.