SR is a Strategy, not an End Point . . . from an interview with Will Patten of the Hinesburgh Public House

“Go for it with the Heart and stay in for Market Reasons”

“I always roll my eyes when I hear socially responsible business people say they need to feel good about what they do,” notes the practical Will Patten, co-owner of the Hinesburgh Public House. “Socially responsible business practices are the smartest and most effective way to grow and sustain a business, regardless how you feel about it.

Kathleen & Will PattenWill is in a good position to give such advice. Having owned a number of businesses himself, worked for Ben & Jerry’s Homemade, and served as the Executive Director of Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility (VBSR), he has a big picture view of many businesses and has seen what works.

“Some business people may adopt socially responsible practices to please their kids or gain some publicity but those decisions are always short-lived. To be sustained, green choices need to be made for the good of the business. An owner must take a viewpoint that the business will do better financially by adopting SR strategies.”

“For example,” he says, using his current business, “it is hard to get employees to work for our restaurant given how far we are from Burlington. Our strategy is to institute open book management and profit sharing. It is better for us, and better for my employees. Environmentally, we searched all the options for garbage removal. We found that by simply separating our garbage, recycling and trash, our waste removal costs were significantly cut.”

SR has to make business sense
Will related the strategic decision of Villanti & Sons, Printers, a third generation shop in Milton, Vermont. “They decided to go to renewable paper and green inks, and they completely changed the position of their company. I was able to convince them to become a champion member of VBSR. They saw it as a wise repositioning of their company as they were able to get into the doors of larger socially responsible companies.

“Another example is Fletcher Allen Hospital who just won a national award for serving wholesome locally sourced food to patients. While the PR is always welcome, the outcomes have justified the investment of time and money. Patients are healthier, recover faster, when they eat good food.

Make money overseas and be a social activist
Starting with his natural food cafe decades ago in Rutland, Will instinctively created a socially responsible business using local foods, treating his employees well, and integrating with the community in which he had lived his entire life.

A serial entrepreneur, he then moved to opening one of Ben & Jerry’s original Scoop Shops. Completely dedicated to the SR principles and practices of the company, he started working in operations, becoming the Global Director of Retail Operations.. “I was working with “big business” and “big business people” in a way I could live with. It was great. The Scoop Shops were a center for political activism.”

He especially enjoyed the Ben & Jerry’s social enterprise vision. The idea is to partner with and donate to a nonprofit. “It was international and strategic philanthropy. All of this was in our mission statement, so it was strategized and taken seriously. The results of these efforts were publicly reported as equally important as our financial and product quality objectives.

Will’s experience at Ben & Jerry’s taught him that all businesses are organic, like everything else, and the more organically they are nurtured and grown, the longer and healthier their lives.

Drive business resilience across a state
His next life step furthered and pulled together all of his SR knowledge and experience. As Executive Director of Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility (VBSR) for five years, he helped the organization more than double in size to 1,200 business members representing 10% of Vermont’s workforce.

As an outspoken leader of Corporate Social Responsibility, Will wrote numerous editorials, and created other opportunities to enhance and increase the amount of socially responsible strategies embedded in businesses in Vermont. “VBSR supports the SR business model with its services, its conferences, and its lobbying. We bring people together to talk about it.”

At Will’s core is a way of thinking about the world as a whole, and experiencing it via Vermont. “Vermont is old fashioned – an old fashioned model in a new age world, and SR drives this. Real corporate responsibility: it’s a movement,” he said of the changing business climate. “Vermont is the most entrepreneurial state because there are so few jobs. Social responsibility is not a moral imperative, but a better way to run a company. Folks go in it for the heart and stay in for the market reasons. SR is a very prudent business strategy.”

Decoupling health care from employment is SR
During his watch with VBSR, Will supported the Vermont Legislator’s passing of the Benefit Corporations Law, as well as the first steps to decouple health insurance from employment. “The Vermont business landscape is on the cutting edge. One reason VBSR is the most prominent BSR in the country is due to the success of so many Vermont companies with SR missions. I have seen businesses change one aspect or another as it proved to be financially beneficial. I see businesses going ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Program).

“One interesting study is around health care and the decoupling of health care from employment. We now hear the Governor telling businesses to drop health care as we know it. Basing health care on employment is unsustainable. VBSR took the lead on that. It almost seems to be irresponsible,” Will remarked on the counterintuitive decision to not provide health insurance for employees.

“I am not going to offer a corporate plan for health insurance. I will invest in employees’ health, not their health insurance. I will contribute part of their salary through a health club membership. This is looking ahead, investing in employee health, not health insurance. Health insurance is a dumb investment. Flex time, mental health, physical health, that is looking ahead as to focusing on employee health to make sure they come to work every day.”

Measuring SR
“There are a number of tools that are helpful to business management, to help analyze SR results and help execute SR initiatives,” said Will. He spoke of VBSR’s SR Journey as a tool. “We need a metric to assist others through change. The Journey is a checklist for small businesses, a set of best practices to consider. It looks at various areas of impact: stakeholders, workforce, environmental footprint, supply chain.”

(Additional tools are available at Green America http://www.greenamerica.org, and BLab http://b-lab.force.com/bcorp/ BCorpRegistration.)

“Many are driven by business reality to SR. They stay with SR because of the bottom line rather than the heart. SR needs to drive the business. The younger generation is taking over. It is the future due to market realities.”

Will spoke about the importance of employee productivity, open book management, flexible time, and community support, especially to the younger workforce who is not willing to commit their entire lives to a company and only the bottom line as many of their parents did.

“Business strategy is driven by values,” Will continued. “What is the future you want? To get as rich as you can be? Wealth creation was the driver, it created laws. The world is changing. The bottom line is a foundational driver, but no longer the sole driver.

“If someone wants to turn their business more SR, I would ask, ‘Why?’ What is it that isn’t working? SR is a strategy. One does not achieve SR, it’s a perspective on how you operate a business. For companies that want to reinvent their culture, change their product lines, or survive hard times, it turns out that taking care of your people through SR practices may be the key.

Community support essential to restaurant’s success
Now, in his third retirement, Will is putting his theories to the practical test. He and his sailing partner wife, Kathleen, opened the Hinesburgh Public House in 2012. A bit older and wiser, they are working smarter to fulfill yet another dream, and again model SR practices. “I am trying to demonstrate what I spent 40 years talking about!”

opening night“I started the restaurant because Kathleen and I decided the town and community really needed it.” Dining in nearby a Bristol hang out, they saw people hugging each other and getting together because there was a place to gather and decided Hinesburg needed the same.

“So it was altruistic, which is stupid. But we were right, people in town needed a place to meet, have a glass of wine and hang out.”

“Another thing, we are a Community Supported Restaurant. Before we opened our doors, the community said they would support us and bought $45,000 of pre-purchased meals in subscriptions. In exchange, the first Tuesday of every month, we have a big dinner and half the sales go to some organization in the area. That was good marketing. Right away we had 75 prominent people in town who were invested in our success.”

These supporters also assisted in the evolution of the restaurant. “When we first opened and things were rocky, they gave us advice. We followed the advice and grew!”

“To deliver a reasonably priced good hot meal, the main thing is still a group of people who have to work as a team really really well. I hired my general manager because of his values. The importance of culture in a successful business is not to be minimized. I charged him with creating the culture that would be sustainable. He may not have all the horsepower from a straight business management, but he has the right values.”

“We have a five-part mission statement. One is to strengthen local agriculture. Another is to provide a gathering place for the community. We’re in the process of finalizing the language of the others. We have a Board of Directors with Bill and Kate Schubart as our Benefit Directors charged with writing a report on how we do with our mission statement. It will be public, it will be transparent, and it will be hard hitting. We did that every year at Ben & Jerry’s. If we succeeded at five goals and failed on two, the whole world would focus on those two. The main thing is to demonstrate how our mission and values are in line with our practices, and how that makes for good business.”

Parting advice — make your business more resilient
Global economic forces are requiring that we find new solutions for many new and daunting challenges. Resources – human, natural and financial – are increasingly limited and business people have to learn to conserve and protect them. Energy consumption, transportation costs and employee retention are examples of sky-rocketing business expenses. The most innovative and effective solutions to managing those expenses are called socially responsible business practices. Energy conservation, local sourcing and open book management are three solutions that have proven to be effective.

Will’s parting advice: “Socially responsible business practices that make a business stronger and more resilient are easily sustained. That will surely make you feel good.”

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Socially Responsible Before We Had the Words. . . from an Interview with Hinda Miller, Author: Pearls of Sultana, Founder: Sultanas

Is someone a socially responsible actor if they work in business or politics without acknowledging social responsibility?  What about those who have taken social values — of equality, treating workers and manufacturers with respect, of caring for the environment — as a driver of their work before this field developed and the language of social responsibility or “Chief Sustainability Officer” or “corporate social responsibility” — were even in our lexicon?Hinda_Miller_010 copy

Hinda Miller is one of these people. Throughout her varied career in the private sector, as an elected official, then as a board member, author, and convener, she has stayed true to values that are the backbone of social responsibility efforts across industries today.  Thirty five years after she started Jog Bra, she now chairs the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Committee of board of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (GMCR).  Her committee produces an annual report with sophisticated measurement tools and a national model of sustainability.  But she started as a costume designer who decided to run for exercise.

Bring women into the running world

In 1977 Hinda, then an assistant costume designer at the Shakespeare Festival, was introduced to a new running buddy, UVM graduate student Lisa Lindahl, by costume designer Polly Palmer Smith.  In the late 1970s, running was not the sport it is today, especially for women.  Hinda and Lisa ran holding things together with their hands.  Lisa’s sister asked aloud why there wasn’t a bra for women runners. Along with Polly, the women started tackling the problem.

two jock straps JockBra“One night, magic happened!  We were putting things together from various bras when  Lisa’s soon-to-be ex-husband took up a jock strap and joked:  “Hey Look, Jock Bra!”  When the laughter subsided, the women, who did not consider themselves jocks, evolved the name into Jog Bra, and a business was born.

Their mission, vision and purpose:  “We believed that every woman, no matter age shape or form had the right to the benefits of exercise.  We were medium sized, we enlarged the respect for women of all kinds of sizes.  We had lot of respect for all of our consumers,” Hinda said.

At just 27, Hinda was going to bankers, all male loan officers and, she giggles in remembrance, “I was talking about bouncing breasts!”  With various loans and grants from friends, family, and one bank, Jog Bra was started.

Instinctively using SR operating principles

“We didn’t know about conscious values,” Hinda said of the business she and Lisa founded.   “We were passionate about the value, that it was made for women by women. We were feminists.  We knew this was an important piece of equipment.  We had the smarts to know they belonged in running shops. Women’s shoes and women’s shorts were just starting to come in at that time, too. We did it because that was who we were.

“Lisa and I were also very opposite, we had a lot of tension.  We didn’t know each other.  The thing we shared was a desire for personal growth, even if we yelled at each other,” Hinda remembered the fertile yet sometimes volatile time.  The two young women hired a consultant to assist and, in doing so, we created a list of principles we lived by.”

Operating Principles

Demonstrate gentleness, dignity, and respect.

Communicate with frankness, honesty and clarity; avoid blame and pettiness.

Keep agreements.

Assume good intentions.

Listen and be receptive.

Ask for help.

Avoid taking things personally.

Take risks; learn from what doesn’t work.

Take ownership for outcomes.

Attack problems not people; seek solutions.

“That’s how we operated the company.  We had it in our staff meetings. We even had it in our reviews,”  Hinda spoke of the developing company culture which was sometimes difficult when they were hiring representatives, once hiring 200 women at one time!  Inculcating a sense of values into so many new hires at one time can be daunting.  This focus on values, however, contributed to the success of the company.

Instinctively respecting manufacturers

“We manufactured with a factory in Puerto Rico.  I couldn’t find anyone here.  We called someone from a Women’s Wear Daily and who made swimsuits.  He was just coming out of bankruptcy.  We grew our business with him.

“As we got bigger and more prosperous, we got real toilets in the factory, as we grew more, we installed air conditioning.  It came from a sense of shared responsibility.   We created jobs for the Aquas Buenas mountain town women and these women put money into education, health and their kids,” Hinda smiled in remembrance.

“Years later when I ran for mayor questions were thrown at me; ‘Were the factories unionized?’  I don’t know. I saw how basic prosperity helped the local economy, and that was that.  We lifted the women because we got bigger and they took on more responsibility.  We created opportunity for people to have expansive jobs and create value.

“We actually hired whoever would work with us.  Men just kind of didn’t apply.  There was one man working in our warehouse who sued us for discrimination claiming we were prejudiced because he was a man.  Actually, we had proof he couldn’t count, and that is why he was fired.Jogbra Ad

“After 12 years, we could not do it together anymore,” Hind wound the story down.  “We were burnt out.”  Burned out, and successful with their goal of getting their fitness and wellness product to more people as it is now available nationwide through department stores.   Hinda was involved with the company from 1977-1990 in various roles, including President of a division for seven years, as Jog Bras was purchased first by Playtex and, after a series of purchases and mergers, finally by Champion.

Values continue to drive — in the State Senate

Hinda spoke with earnest sincerity of her 10 years as a Vermont State Senator. In this role, again, she was values driven.

Most significant to her is values based work on a number of issues including achieving state recognition of Vermont’s Native American tribes.  “It was a mess. They’d been fighting for some time for recognition,” Hinda related.  “I’m Jewish.  I understand. It is an identity issue.  If someone is not giving you the respect of your own identity, you fight.”

Co Chair of the Committee of Economic Development, she oversaw the creation of the Vermont Seed Capital Fund.  “I also had the Honor of moving the Vermont Benefit Corporation through,” Hinda spoke of the legislation establishing Vermont as the second state in the nation allowing a for-profit corporation to incorporate a social mission with that of its financial goals.  Her initiative was recognized with a Legislator of the Year award from Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility.

“I did not go in fighting for any particular issue or set of issues.  I went in thinking I could do well for women.”  And through a range of initiatives, she did.

Senator Hinda Miller

Senator Hinda Miller

Social responsibility comes of age — and Hinda is in the middle of it

Hinda meshed her business acumen with her Senate work when she joined Green Mountain Coffee Roaster’s Board of Directors in 1999.  She is currently Chair of their Corporate Social Responsibility Committee.

“I’ve been able to think about conceptual ideas, and how GMCR is such a leader in CSR thinking, programs, execution and measurement” Hinda spoke of her board work. “GMCR is now a model of sustainability, running quite a full program.”  From inception, the company’s purpose has been to provide the ultimate coffee experience from tree to cup.  At the same time, the Annual Reports show 30 years of developing CSR including composting coffee grounds and developing other earth-friendly programs.

“Now we are partnering with supply chain communities and documenting everything in transparent reports. It gets better every year,” Hinda shared her enthusiasm.  “Our pillars haven’t changed.  We are protecting the environment through many programs including sites getting to zero waste and creating a demand for sustainable products.  GMCR is the largest purchaser of Fair Trade in the world.  All of this started from that one value of treating people well.

“CSR Starts with basic values, as did both Jog Bra and GMCR,” Hinda continued. “When a small business wants to improve how they do things, it comes from the heart, like wanting to be a good citizen, . . .and you get profit. It doesn’t matter HOW you get into it, whether it is to save money or be a good citizen, there are so many ways to get into it.  Yet, it is funny.  I hear people on CNBC saying: ‘I didn’t really realize the economics of sustainability’!

“CSR reporting is a wonderful model for measurement.  How do you implement, measure, get stakeholders to agree?  GMCR added a lot of new employees in the last two years.  All new workers around the country were put through an awareness awakening.  That part is vital.

“In 2008 GMCR created a CSR Committee at the Board level.  We were proud of it.  There were only five fortune 500 companies who had CSR Committees at the board level, the governance level.  What I love about GMCR, is looking through the history of CSR Reports, one can see how it developed.”

Bringing women together — again

“In DAVOS, I was listening to women at the conference.  The research is so clear, when you lift up women, it lifts up the entire community. I think social responsibility has to do with bringing the men along.  We need everyone.  The hope is in the younger men.  We need our gracious sons to be there.”

These concepts, and more, are explored in her new book, Pearls of Sultana. “It is what I’ve learned about business.  It is talking about the spirit of us spirit mothers who lead with love and spirit wisdom: grateful, graceful, and practical.  We are part of the Shakti Feminine Universal Principle that deals with creation and change.  It is very powerful.”

Hinda came to the Sultana story from both being out in the world exploring in Turkey with her family, and from her personal interior voyage as well.  She heard a story about one sultana:  “She was the queen mother of sultan the omniscient.  She was co-regent, ruling from behind.”

Hinda is creating a group of Sultanas, bringing groups of women together to support each other.  “Why, in this time are we, the collective lucky we, able to expect 65 – 75 years of life? Why has our generation of women been given such health in these wisdom years?” Hinda queried.  “We are giving it back. I am imbued with a new feminism, an appreciation for the intuitive and for being very practical. We get things done, we’re warriors.”

Values drive SR

This is a theme we have seen consistently throughout our interviews.  Being “socially responsible” means playing out individual values at the corporate level — and this work is done by individuals that are living their values in their work. Hinda is a wonderful example of someone who has lived her values through various incarnations and, while not talking explicitly about “socially responsible”, very much being a role model and a change agent for the organizations and initiatives she was a part of.  Sometimes, action precedes a movement.

http://www.thesultanas.com

Julie Lineberger & Ellen Meyer Shorb

A New Business Model for Bookstores. . . from an Interview with Chris Morrow General Manager of Northshire Bookstore • Manchester, Vermont

“The whole industry is changing,” Chris Morrow acknowledged in his Northshire Bookstore office.   “The industry is certainly in turmoil, but things have shifted in our favor.”  Chris, whose parents started this Manchester, Vermont destination store, explained that over the last year and a half eBooks sales growth slowed considerably as print books solidified their base.

Chris Morros

Chris Morrow

Chris sees great opportunities:  “There is this opening to explore different business models.  Right now, we are the unpaid showroom for books. We do the marketing and get half the sales. The discovering of the books is still happening in the stores. It is interesting.”

Part of Chris’ driving force is his commitment to his employees, the community of book lovers, and the environment, all in addition to the financial bottom line: i.e. socially responsible business practices.  These practices will be the foundation to the shift in business model — in fact they may drive its success.

Monetize bookstores role as social change agents
“We need to create a business model around helping to move society in a direction it needs to move to.  We need better distribution of energy and goods, as well as retail manufacturing for local sustainability. We need to look at our use of resources and resource management. It is clear we need to get off of fossil fuels and away from our consumptive way of life.  It is time to get beyond consumerism as our way of life.

“I’m not a small store,” said Chris surrounded by enticing books and creative counterparts. “There will be some Mom and Pops that will stay around because they don’t need to take money out of the business. Other bookstores will have to be very diversified. There will have to be a conglomeration of products offered, such as print on demand. There will always be print bookstores, just like there are vinyl (record) stores; there will be boutique bookstores like that. The rest of us independent bookstores will have to diversify.”

The question is whether this diversification will be founded on local bookstores role as social innovators.  For example, Chris spoke of the idea of a preview night to support the mid-July SolarFest (www.solarfest.org) in Middletown Springs, Vermont.  “I am experimenting and trying to tie into this new business model using our marketing arm.  I can try to leverage that into also supporting SolarFest, in this case.  Where is the business model? That is what I am exploring at the moment.”

Chris created a panel on climate change, featuring activist Bill McKibbon. While the panelists were  all authors, it was more of a public conversation about climate change. “It is me being able to use the book store and access to the authors to highlight causes of interest to me.  I am extremely interested in environmental issues.”

In the past Northshire would invite authors to speak about their new books, there would be a signing, and the store would sell some books. Chris upped the ante to have events that are more issue-oriented.  “This is unusual for bookstores because there is no money in it,” Chris smiled. “It is getting harder and harder to run a bookstore, so our ability to do that sort of thing is lessening.”

The New York Times floated one idea to keep bookstores in the black — charging for author events.  Chris explained, “Bookstores spend a lot of time and energy getting authors here.  People come to the events and never buy the book.  It is a nice hour and a half out, and bookstores are trying to monetize aspects of bookstores in various ways.”

Creative ways to support employees — even under financial stress
“We’ve always had that sort of family business supporting the community through our employees.  In the past I spent a lot of time on the employee side of things, pushing the social responsibility mandate, and also expanding what we did in the community,” said of his past focus at Northshire.

“Strategically, I now run the company.  I have a staff liaison, but no HR department.  The Wellness Coordinator is really the point person for getting initiatives off the ground, such as the employee healthy eating initiative, an exercise machine in the building, a smoking cessation program, etc.  On the side, she also coordinates periodic storewide lunches, and a bunch of other small things around employee wellness.”

Northshire Bookstore employes 40 employees including the part-timers. Without the funds for a Sustainability Officer, it falls on the Wellness Coordinator to explore what type of initiatives the employees are interested in and put them together.  “In the past it was more haphazard, which is why I directed someone to coordinate it and get feedback.  There is a big squeeze on time and energy and I want every initiative to be valuable.

“We also have a Community Connections Coordinator.  She coordinates with local nonprofits such as a kids reading and nature program with the Equinox, etc.  We try to raise awareness through marketing Northshire Bookstore neighbor-to-neighbor.”

Chris finds the SR policies result in not only decreased turnover, but “a nicer environment for employees and an enhanced the workplace atmosphere, which is key.  The community-based work was always going on, we just enhanced it.  It certainly increased the bottom line, it drives sales.  The bottom line is how I manage the store in relation to the top line.”

“Employees are highly invested in a commitment to excellence and not necessarily within the social responsibility rubick.  It is about the books and a commitment to excellence in customer service.  They take pride in being able to read and communicate precisely about books, putting the right book in the right person’s hand at the right time.  There is a real art to that.  There is a real collaborative aspect to it.”

Although the image of the bookstore is not tied up in being a socially responsible organization, in fact it is a socially responsible business.  “We have people who take pay cuts to come work here because it is a good environment.  Physically and emotionally this is the hub of the town.  That is a big source of satisfaction for the employees,”  Chris noted that Northshire started out as an 1,000 square foot store, and over time, in very small increments, has grown to 10,000 square feet.Northshire Bookstore

“One of the luxuries you have as a business owner is shaping the business toward your own priorities,” Chris talked about his 1988 re-entry as an adult into the family business.  “I worked with my parents for a few years, they’ve always been involved in the community.  The term “socially responsible”. . . neither my parents nor our employees would not use that term, but that is what we do, who we are.  The store has always been active in community involvement.  With the environmental initiatives, that is definitely me driving the bus.”

Local imperatives drive state mission
“Book stores, historically, have been catalyst for change.  With big box stores and Amazon, we have been reinforcing the Buy Local message,” says Chris of his work establishing Local First Vermont.  “There are little Local First groups all over the country.”  There are a couple national organizations that are networks of all the networks such as BALLE (Business Alliance for Local Living Economies) on whose Board of Directors Chris served, and AMIBA (American Independent Business Alliance).

Chris became the Founding President of Local First whose members are local business owners, professionals, nonprofit leaders and government representatives who are committed to preserving the character and prosperity of Vermont’s economy, community networks  and natural landscape.

The Local First mission and vision is:     “To preserve and enhance the economic, human, and natural vitality of Vermont communities by promoting the importance of purchasing from locally owned independent businesses.  We envision a robust and sustainable economy fueling vibrant communities, built (in part) on the cornerstone value and practice of “buying local first”.  Local First is now a program of Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility.” Chris is a past member of the VBSR Board of Directors.  (http://vbsr.org/local_first_vermont/local_first_about_us/)

“What I did is an extension of what they Local First was doing at the state level.  Then I started new initiatives on my own.  I went to Oberlin College which has a very strong public service component.  I think some of it is related to that.  Any good bookstore is intricately tied into the community by its very nature.  Bringing ideas and entertainment to the area has always been important to us,” Chris explained.

SR is not a luxury, just part of what we do
“It certainly is easier to manage when things are growing rather than when you are just managing,” Chris spoke of the industry challenges.  “However, socially responsible policies are not a luxury, it is just part of what we do.  I am spending time to install a 16KW solar array on our roof through the Efficiency Vermont’s SPEED, a feed in tariff program.  We put in the solar and they buy the electricity at a set rate for 25 years.   I have had to fill out a myriad of forms, as well as spending time and money with the accountant to figure this out.  On the surface, it has nothing to do with running a bookstore, although we have a display in our sustainability section on how we are doing this.

“We are also monitoring energy savings and I think it will be a decent ROI (return on investment).  It will not be huge, but it will be worth doing, especially considering the other non-monetary aspects as well.”

SR will build the model
Chris will continue to make these choices as he opens a second location in nearby Saratoga, NY, right on Broadway.  “It is booming over there, the fastest growing county in New York.  It is a college town with a strong local base,” he enthused.  His excitement was palpable as he shared plans for his new shop.  “The National Endowment for the Arts expounds on how important reading is to education,” Chris noted the support from NEA.  “Education is a foundation for a fulfilling life, for community vibrancy, so it is a big part of our mission to promote reading to kids.”

Chris said he will stay focused on changes in the book industry, reacting to them, and shaping them to Northshire’s advantage.  He, with others in the industry, will be looking for the business model that keeps bookstores at the center of their communities, there to knit communities together and promote social change.  If anyone can do it, Chris Morrow is a top contender.      http://www.northshire.com

Julie Lineberger & Ellen Meyer Shorb

An Interview with John Caldwell, Managing Director, Paradigm Properties

Paradigm Properties is one of our favorite stories because it is a traditional business, a property and asset management company, which started a service for their tenants called “Community Connections” to coordinate and provide volunteer events and donation drives.   Other property management companies saw the value of connecting and serving tenants like this and ultimately a separate nonprofit, Building Impact, was spun off to do this work for Paradigm and their competitors.   John’s story of how this happened, and how important it is to still serve community, is a good one.

SONY DSCKeep your values on your paperweight
John admits that he did not see this coming.  While his CEO, Kevin McCall, is a “classic liberal do-gooder”, John describes himself as more conservative, but with Christian values.  He  says that any social program “can’t get in the way of the company’s primary mission”, but if managed carefully, giving back to the community enhance the mission and the profitability of the company.

This mindset is what started Paradigm on an unlikely route.  As Kevin McCall, the CEO tells the story, one day a woman selling pies to raise money for the nonprofit Community Servings asked McCall if she could pass out fliers in one of his buildings, advertising the pie sales.  Her request sparked an idea.  Why not tap into Paradigm’s office buildings on behalf of multiple nonprofits?  What if Paradigm were to coordinate and offer an attractive menu of options for companies and individuals to serve their community?

Throw in some entrepreneurial zeal
Thus Community Connection was created in 1998 as a tenant appreciation program in buildings owned and managed by Paradigm Properties. The  building-wide volunteer events and donation drives were, at first, a simple gesture for tenants who leased space in the office buildings that Paradigm Properties managed.  Community Connection events, such as business attire drives and charity bake sales in the lobby, were meant to bring community involvement right to people’s doorsteps–to harness the collective energy, resources, and goodwill of companies and individuals that spent so much time in these very office buildings. By connecting over 20 nonprofit organizations with the community of companies and individuals in the buildings, Paradigm brought together people who wanted to play a greater role in making their communities stronger.

John would say that it wasn’t easy.  There was a period where “it wasn’t gelling.  There was a leap of faith quality about this.”  But by 2003, other property management companies had begun to imitate and work with Community Connection.   The annual impact of Community Connection was estimated at $300,000.  Paradigm had gone from selling pies to running a large scale volunteer operation.

Give away value
Paradigm found there was a great return to Paradigm in running Community Connection, but as it grew and other companies became involved, the question arose of whether to spin off this effort as a nonprofit that served multiple companies.

On the one hand, Community Connections provided tremendous value to Paradigm.  Press releases about CC “mentioned us in the same breath as our bigger competitors.”  The program demonstrated to tenants that Paradigm cared; about them and about the community.  It differentiated Paradigm in the marketplace.  “It opened doors, gave us talking points, enhanced our reputation and helped build our brand,” said John.  It built camaraderie among tenants and managers and among the employees of Paradigm.  It even became a hiring and retention benefit.

So why spin it off?  John says they had to face the greater good of the community whose nonprofits would be well served by having multiple property management companies working together.  It was hard to let go of the CC, “they were the fun people”, but it was the right thing to do.

Paradigm spun off Community Connections as the nonprofit “Building Impact.”    Building Impact expanded beyond the buildings owned or managed by Paradigm Properties and now partners with 15 real estate firms across greater Boston. These firms serve 47 buildings, helping over 575 companies and 20,000 people volunteer, donate, and connect to the community, right in the buildings where they work and live.

John admitted he is still conflicted about setting up Building Impact separately.  But, he said, “We can still go to third party owners and talk about Building Impact.  It is a powerful example of how we build relationships with our tenants.  While we haven’t quantified this, we know that it has made a difference in the bottom line.”

Re-invent again
Paradigm continues to live by the value of “do well by our community.”  For years they have had a  program called the “24 hour Club.”  They give each employee three 8-hour days to volunteer.  If they volunteer on a weekend, they get to take a day off during the week.

For a while, Paradigm found that the employees were either using this for volunteer work they were already doing, or just not using their three days.  Management then doubled down on support, encouragement, reward and even consequences.  “We started to talk about how important this is.  We instituted benchmarks (tied to using these volunteer days) at the end of every quarter and in the semi-annual review and said this could impact you monetarily.  We use this program in our initial interview and say, Just want to make you aware of this program that you will be expected to participate in.”  John said that it needs to be part of the DNA of the people who want to work with Paradigm.  “It’s a huge plus for 20 and 30 somethings.”

John mentioned one employee who was not active until she suffered from postpartum depression herself.  Now she is involved in an organization that works with new mothers.

John is quick to admit, “We’ve erred too.  At times we’ve emphasized it more than we should.  There needs to be a balance.  It can’t conflict with profitability.  We continually emphasize that synergy.

“We also need to align our volunteer work with our corporate mission.  We need to spend more time selling and celebrating.”  John is not letting grass grow under his feet, he is building, working, refining, and continuing to build mission into his work, a continual process of re-invention.

Do well by our community
Paradigm had a terrific experience with the power of connecting tenants to nonprofits and facilitating community change.  They started in their own buildings, grew to serve other companies, spun off a nonprofit, and then focused on their own volunteers.  In the process, they found they made a difference, in the community and in the success of their business.

Ellen Meyer Shorb

Leading From Any Chair – An interview with Jed Davis, Director of Sustainability, Cabot Creamery Cooperative

Our blog posts to date have covered individuals who own their own company or work at the highest levels.  This interview is one of our favorite stories as it originates with someone who might best be described as “aspiring to the C-Suite.”  Jed is a terrific example of what one orchestra conductor calls “leading from any chair.[1]”

More broadly, this story illustrates the role middle management can play in successfully weaving sustainability into the fabric of modern businesses.  While there are many excellent examples of charismatic, iconic leaders who bleed green and lead from the front, they remain a minority (albeit a growing minority) across the business landscape today.

So if sustainability is to become the norm, leaders must emerge from within, not just from above.  These new, mid-tier leaders must have a deep seated vision, dogged patience, and an extraordinary ability to work through and with others.  In the particular case of Cabot Creamery, this approach shows terrific promise for evolving the historic dairy farmer cooperative into a sustainability-driven enterprise poised for future success.

From Director of Marketing to Director of Sustainability
In 2007, Jed Davis was Director of Marketing for Cabot Creamery Cooperative, best known as makers of “The World’s Best Cheddar.”   Cabot, which dates back to 1919, is owned cooperatively by 1,200 dairy farm families in New England and upstate New York.

That summer, David Hill, Cabot’s SVP Sales, had returned from a sales call where he was asked, “What is your Sustainability Program?”  This sounded very different from the oft-asked, “Are you sustainable?” Cabot routinely interpreted the latter as an opportunity to discuss the many benefits of cooperatives, including working landscape, strong rural communities and providing award-winning dairy products.

Roberta MacDonald, Cabot’s SVP Marketing, tasked Jed with developing a Sustainability Program.  Jed brought some perspective as Cabot’s longtime liaison to organizations such as Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, but this presented an exciting, new learning curve.  Roberta and senior staff endorsed seeking outside counsel as well and Cabot turned to Mark McElroy from the Vermont-based Center for Sustainable Organizations for guidance.

Work on fully developing a Cabot Sustainability Program continued.  By February of 2008, Jed went to Roberta to let her know he was spending 50-75% of his time on sustainability issues.  By March, it was 100%.  In early April, Roberta brought the situation to Rich Stammer, Cabot’s CEO.  He approved of creating a new, full-time position called Director of Sustainability.  Roberta supported Jed taking the role, but all agreed it meant Jed needed to leave Marketing, feeling that sustainability and “spin” needed to be comfortably separated.

Jed took a long view of his work.  He had in mind a five-year plan to make Cabot a sustainability leader.  Importantly, he knew he could not do it alone, nor could he become the “sustainability police.”  So he began to make the case internally, listen to the naysayers, create quantitative and qualitative measures, and developing a support network for himself that both informed and inspired.

Make the case internally
It seemed to Jed that Cabot’s business approach, on a day-to-day basis, was quite consistent with the principles of sustainability, perhaps in large part due to its cooperative heritage.  Still, the concept of Sustainability was not well-understood within the organization and was new to the radar screens of the CEO and the senior management team.   As a result, what Jed had in a title, he lacked in specific direction and commitment.  Jed needed to build support.

One of the key, original allies ended up being the farmers themselves, in the form of the cooperative’s Board of Directors.  Each voting member of the cooperative’s board is a farmer himself or herself.  Collectively they voted to support and fund a project with the Manomet Center for  Conservation Sciences to create a sustainability scorecard for use on dairy farms.

What the board articulated very well was that they felt underserved to engage in conversation with their key stakeholders – from neighbors to local and regional officials and beyond.  Intuitively they understood that in many ways, farmers are the original leaders in stewardship, but they lacked the vocabulary of Sustainability to have that conversation effectively.

They also recognized that to have a fruitful conversation about Sustainability, they needed to have measurements that spoke to their economic and social impacts, as well as their environmental impacts.  Since farming is an occupation for less than 2% of the population, the farmers on the board were seeking a way to thoughtfully answer a question they were hearing more and more often: “Why is your dairy farm important to our community?”

Jed began working closely with Manomet in crafting a scorecard, based largely on prior work Manomet had done in the forestry industry.  Very shortly it became obvious that this project had implications far beyond just Cabot and, in fact, on the scale of the entire dairy industry.

A year into the scorecard project – now called the Vital Capital Index for Dairy Agriculture – the leading, national dairy industry trade group, Dairy Management Inc., agreed to take on and fund the project while continuing to work closely with Cabot, especially on beta-testing the concept with farmers.  Elevating the project to a national standard reflected positively on Cabot’s pioneering work, while also advancing national efforts towards a more sustainable dairy industry.

Listen to the naysayers
At the same time, Jed knew he had to engage the senior management team.  Rich Stammer, Cabot’s CEO, was thoughtful about Sustainability but was looking for proof.  Rich is an extremely intelligent leader, but hardly one who would be confused for one of the more iconic, green leaders.  Cabot’s CFO, Ed Townley, admitted that at the time, he thought sustainability “was a crock.”  Jim Pratt and Ed Pcolar, SVP and VP of Operations, respectively, were focused squarely on the financial bottom line; much less on the social, economic or environmental bottom lines.  Jed began to work with each of these key allies.

At a pivotal meeting with senior staff, Jed and Mark McElroy were presenting the nuts and bolts of proposed Cabot sustainability metrics using context-based sustainability.  CEO Rich Stammer, whose doctoral degree is in agricultural economics, challenged an assumption about using per capita as an allocation method.  As the meeting broke, Jed’s heart sunk, only to rebound moments later as Rich came back into the room, clearly thinking deeply about the problem.  He asked Mark and Jed to rework the calculations to provide allocation, instead, by some measure of added value.  The resulting approach – a denominator that reflects contributions to economic value – was later dubbed The DeStamminator and has become a hallmark of Cabot’s efforts to advance context-based sustainability.

Create quantitative and qualitative measures
Jed also worked closely with Ed Townley, the CFO, to make sure that the sustainability metrics under development properly incorporated financial realities of the business.  Ed himself proactively sought confirmation externally by asking key retail customers, “What are you doing with respect to sustainability?  Do you have expectations of your suppliers?”  Their answers led him to understand that sustainability was much more of a priority in our supply chain than he previously imagined.

In terms of organizational structure, Jed’s position was embedded in the Operations Team, reporting to Jim Pratt, SVP Operations.  Here Jed’s focus turned to engaging key members of the Operations Team.  Initially, Jed arranged meetings with key managers and supervisors and “interviewed” them as if for a story about Cabot and its sustainability practices for a fictitious magazine, Sustainable Dairy.  The results were amazing.  Stories emerged that revealed true pockets of innovation within the organization at one extreme, and at the other extreme, as Jed noted, “I felt like maybe I was speaking Italian” based on the glassed-over expressions that met him.

From this exercise, Jed had a better idea of who was ready to go, as well as who needed help starting the engine.  For those in motion already, the focus turned to sharing best practices across the company.  Amazingly, it proved over time that others, once their “engines” were fired up, have become among the most progressive managers in terms of piloting sustainability efforts.

With tremendous support from Ed Pcolar, VP Operations, a creamery Green Team was created.  This inter-disciplinary, cross-functional team was set up to meet monthly and identify projects that fell within the realm of sustainability in Operations.

Environmental bottom line topics like solid waste and energy quickly emerged from within the group and soon projects in both areas were yielding bottom-line results to the tune of six-figures.  Senior management took note, even highlighting some of the efforts at that year’s annual meeting of the cooperative, so that the farmers could hear the progress.  The Green Team became emboldened by its own success.  Importantly, Jed doesn’t lead the Green Team but serves only as an advisor/cheerleader.  The team is led by one of its members.

Jed used these allies to build the case within Cabot that there was an extraordinary opportunity to adapt the way Cabot does business – to use Sustainability as a lens through which any and every employee can review their work and impacts and from that observation, choose a path of continuous improvement.  Properly executed, this approach yields something for everyone, from employee satisfaction, to bottom line gains, to environmental impact reductions.

Create a support network
At the same time as Jed built unlikely allies, listened to the naysayers, and used independent quantitative and qualitative measurements to make his case, he developed a support network that sustained him and leveraged the work of Cabot.

Two key groups emerged
The first was a yearlong fellowship through the Sustainability Institute called the Donella Meadows Leadership Fellowship Program.  Jed was chosen as one of 20 fellows from across the globe who met in person four times over the year for one week apiece.  The program, based on the work of former Dartmouth professor Dana Meadows, co-author of the seminal Limits to Growth in 1972, focused on visioning, reflective conversation, and thinking in systems.  Cabot supported Jed in this fellowship, an experience that had a monumental impact on his development as a sustainability change agent.

Jed also sought to network with other sustainability officers.  A casual network, nominally called the Northeast Dairy Sustainability Collaborative, was created with Cabot and Jed’s counterparts from Ben & Jerry’s and Stonyfield.  It was a unique opportunity to have three dairy brands with different product categories (cheese, ice cream, and yogurt) but  similar sustainability aspirations and social intentions work together.  The Sustainable Food Lab, an organization to which all three belong, facilitates two to three meetings a year for the group.

Leadership without authority
What I found powerful about Jed’s story is how he is exerting leadership without being in charge.  Rather, he is imbuing in others a desire to change the way Cabot does business– by educating, showing competitive data, driving internal statistics, and holding up a mirror to the organization.  Some individuals at Cabot are driven by the cost or competitive advantages.  Many have also been influenced by the sense of doing the right thing.  Jed would say the instinct to do the right thing has always been a deep-seated value of Cabot: a sort of Cabot karma.

Because of this, what Jed brings to Cabot is a natural fit.  That being said, here is one guy with a lot of ideas, some eloquent language, and a healthy measure of elbow grease that has made a tremendous difference.  One can truly lead from any chair.


[1] The Art of Possibility, Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander, September, 2000.

9 October 2012 – Ellen Meyer Shorb

ReWiring Success is leading a workshop 8-10 February at the Rowe Camp and Conference Center

Make the Ordinary Business Extraordinary:  Change the World thorough your Work – a workshop lead by Julie Lineberger & Ellen Meyer Shorb

Do you wish that your work was aligned with your spirit? Are you committed to your career, but want to make the world a better place? What if you, no matter what position you hold in your company — owner, sales rep, driver — could make your business more successful by using strategies that improve the environment, your community, and the employees of the company?

You can.  Join the quiet revolution that is taking place around the world as businesses discover that they can make money and make a difference for the environment, community, and employees. This workshop will be a laboratory for you to learn what others have done, get up to speed on some practical options, and chart your own plan.

Julie Lineberger and Ellen Meyer Shorb have conducted dozens of interviews for their book and blog ReWiring Success: Socially Responsible Strategies that Work. Based on what they have learned, they train, consult, and coach individuals and businesses on how to use socially responsible strategies to take their business to the next level. For this workshop, they’ve created a vibrant and hands-on experience where you will tap into your deepest hopes for playing an active role in making the world a better place through your work.

Come get inspired. Get up to speed on tactical options to use in your business — open book management, socially responsible sourcing, community engagement, and the like. Then draft a plan to make it happen in your own workplace — and continue to be in touch with the workshop team once a month for six months following.

Whether you are part way down the path to building a business with heart, or are finally listening to that rumbling in your soul that tells you it is possible, this workshop will encourage, inspire, and enable you to do it.

Julie Lineberger is the co­founder/owner of LineSync Architecture, a green and sustainable firm that has garnered numerous awards for design, energy efficiency, and business management. A former chair of the Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility Board of Directors, she teaches Organizational Behavior and Socially Responsible Business Management at Southern Vermont College. She has Masters degree in International Education from Harvard and has managed projects for the UN Development Program, the International Rescue Committee, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and various other NGOs throughout the world.

Ellen Meyer Shorb is a principal of Blue Sage Partners, a strategy consulting practice that works with visionaries to build teams to get things done. She holds a Master in Public Policy from Harvard and an MBA from Stanford and has taught leadership at Northeastern University, using the Adaptive Leadership model developed at Harvard. Before consulting she was a senior manager for several nonprofits in the fields of international relations, affordable housing, and community development.

 

Deriving Joy from Socially Responsible Manufacturing. . . from an Interview with Allen Arseneau, co-founder JOIGA: Manufacturing for All

Can you drive your business with a social mission in an industry that does not reward for social purpose?  Allen Arseneau thinks you can, and he’s doing so by manufacturing goods in China.

Allen grew up poor and ended up with a good education and career.  As a manufacturing engineer and now a business owner, he identifies with the workers on the floor of his factory in China.  In fact, he has a vision of a manufacturing community that supports workers.  

At the same time, Allen believes that work should be joyful.  So he named his company JOIGA (a coined word that sounds like “joy” and can be pronounced equally well in English and Chinese) and is building it with the mission of “fostering innovation throughout the US and improving the lives of factory workers in China and across the globe.” 

JOIGA provides soup-to-nuts high-precision manufacturing, from product design to the actual production of products to helping their clients sell those products into retail outlets.   JOIGA is currently expanding their design capabilities, as well as adding a merchandising division so that they are better able to help their customers sell products into large retailers.  At the same time, JOIGA is committed to improving the lives of its factory workers, by actively providing housing, counseling, healthy food, and a career track for its employees.   If JOIGA’s initial results are any indication, socially responsible manufacturing will sell itself.

Breaking Ground In Manufacturing
     Allen started out as a process engineer with a medical device company in Europe for about one year, before moving back to his hometown of Boston, where he worked as a process engineer for a pharmaceutical company.  After graduating from Stanford’s business school, he was recruited to Las Vegas to help tennis superstars Andre Agassi and Stefanie Graf build a lifestyle company that provided healthy living options, through real estate, fitness clubs, and healthy food offerings.  “I was hired to help Andre and Stefanie build their business.  However, all employees there were required to spend time volunteering within their network of social and philanthropic ventures.  That was the most fulfilling, and moving, part of my work.  Andre and Stefanie are all about philanthropy; they support a charter school in one of the worst parts of Las Vegas and I got a chance to visit and work there. I love Andre and Stefanie’s mission.  They are wonderful people and are doing wonderful things.

However, I still felt that I could be doing more.  I wanted to know that I was making the most of all of my skills and education, and at the same time making a significant difference in the world.  I guess I was at odds with myself, I was part of a social mission in Vegas, but I was left not feeling complete.  So when the economy began to crash, I left Las Vegas, and moved back to my hometown of Boston.”

The work being done in the charter school resonated with Allen.  He had grown up in a low income, single mother home in Boston, MA. His family received food assistance and he was the beneficiary of welfare programs on occasion, and GlobeSanta.  “There is no question that without government assistance, and without the much-needed guidance that I got from my big brother (Big Brother Association) or from the local YMCA programs, I never would have gotten out.”  Allen left home at age 16, made his way to Northeastern 1.5 years later, and eventually, to Stanford Business School.  Allen, now himself a parent of 5 year old Shauna, wanted to give back.

The opportunity presented itself two years ago. Allen joined a company that produced biometric locks and safes.  Allen and a key executive of the lock and safe company looked at all potential revenue opportunities,and discovered underutilized factory space.  There appeared to be an opportunity to build a business larger than just locks and safes.

One of the brothers running the original company, another Northeastern engineer, Sheng Deng, joined Allen to start what was first named Manufacturing Integrity Partners.  Sheng is a Chinese-born American that came to the US at 12 years old, and now spends most of his time in China.  “After six months, we proved we could make the business work.  Then I introduced the idea of a social mission.  I look at the factory workers and see myself in them.  I want them to be happy people.  Sheng is supportive, but I am driving this part of the mission.  It is very counter to what is done in China these days, but we love what we do, and our workers are very happy because of it.”

Creating Healthy Factory Communities
While JOIGA often utilizes a network of factories to produce various products, the one factory it does own is different.  When customers visit China, they are often disappointed in what they find in factories.  Typical factories in China are dirty and dark, and there are few smiles.  Our factory is a very different place.  Our factory has open doors, windows that let in a lot of light, and people are smiling.

We look at ergonomics, a clean work environment, protective equipment, on-the-job training, and culture. It is so important to us that our workers enjoy their work, and our proud of what they do on a daily basis.  And as we grow, we want to share our standards and culture with our partner factories.”

“People are having fun.  We are helping our workers be happy, and productive.  They are paid more than a fair wage.  There are bonuses based on profit-sharing.  We purposely rotate people through various functions for variety and ownership and to move workers up in skills.  Some workers take the initiative to learn so many skills, that we promote them to floor managers, in which they also take on a mentoring role for other workers.  We want our workers to stay with us. As we grow we’d like to see them grow with us.”

“There are other companies that have built nets to prevent workers from committing suicide, we do coaching instead.  Sheng spends part of every day on the factory floor.  He consciously provides counseling on the factory floor.  He asks, ‘How are you doing?  How is your wife, your family?’  Our workers have many daily stresses in their lives.  We’re trying to be very respectful and caring.  If people need time off, we give them time off and plan for it.  It’s communication.  It’s family.”

JOIGA improves a worker’s typical living conditions by paying for their rent, and bringing in a chef for lunch and dinner.   “You’ve heard of how hard it is for workers to get home more than once a year during Chinese New Year, so we’re looking at how to make it possible to go home more often.  If we can make it work for us, why not?”

“It makes business sense.  Our retention is way up.  We make deadlines, our workers rally together, it is incredible.  Our workers stayed until past midnight one time to make a deadline.  So we take people out for karaoke and drinks.  I bring them chocolate from the U.S.  When I am in China, I spend time on the factory floor.  I don’t mind getting dirty or tired.  I like the fact that I can work side-by-side with these guys, as long as I don’t get in their way”, Allen says with a laugh.  “The first thing I do when I get there, is go around and say hi to every worker, shaking their hands – no matter how dirty those hands might be.  I want our workers to know that we really are one big family.”  

“I envision growing JOIGA into a much larger organization than we are today.  I am looking into building a healthy and vibrant community of workers by leasing, purchasing, or building additional factories in China, and potentially around the world.  There is a brand new factory that is being built right now that is literally next door to our current site that we are looking at expanding into.  We would like to offer our workers a lifestyle that keeps them and their families happy and healthy.  I am committed to improving the lives of our workers and of their families in both the short-term and the long-term.  We are also expanding the services that we offer our clients by adding additional design services, as well as building relationships with retail outlets around the country.

Young Customers Value Social Mission and Sell the Company
      JOIGA has a somewhat different business model, which initially attracted a younger clientele who appreciated the socially responsible mission, and were excited about the ability to simply manufacture in China – an opportunity normally available only to established retailers.  However, JOIGA’s clientele has since expanded to include entrepreneurs both young and old, as well as larger retailers, who are enthusiastic about the social mission and excited by the ease of manufacturing well in China. 

Traditionally, manufacturing in China has been an inaccessible option to many entrepreneurs and companies alike because of communication issues, and quality and intellectual property concerns.  JOIGA has not only created a model that has minimized risk in working with factories in China, but has also bundled services that will ultimately help its clients be more successful in the long-run.  “In fostering innovation, we want our customers to feel they can in fact innovate.  They don’t have to be paralyzed by the fear of failure; we are here to help them every step of the way.”

“Our customers love our social mission.  They want to talk about it.  Our customers then advertise us because they want to talk about us and our mission.  It’s a huge market differentiator.  We’ve done minimal marketing, most of our business has come from word of mouth.”


Social Mission Drives Higher Quality    Allen is clear:  there must be no sacrifice on quality for the social mission.  JOIGA can only succeed if it continues to place a high value on quality.  Not surprisingly, Allen and Sheng have found that the more they put into their workers, the higher and more dependable the quality.  “It makes business sense to do what we are doing.  Manufacturing must be efficient.  We are proving we can make manufacturing socially responsible and fun.  Initially it cost us more money, but our retention went up and our labor costs went down.  We do this without passing along the cost of our social mission to our customers – our customers benefit because our turnover is low, quality is high and consistent, and prices are competitive. JOIGA has proved to me that SR can be profitable.”



Changing Conditions through Manufacturing (rather than boycott)
     Diana Hudak, who lives and works with Allen, told a story that summed up the work JOIGA is setting out to do.  “I spent a year not buying products from China because of how workers are treated.  But I realized that I was just one consumer.   When I joined Allen, I saw that we could actually change the lives of workers overseas.  We could make a difference in an individual’s and a family’s life.  I couldn’t do this by not buying things from China.  There are a lot of ways in your work life that you can leverage changes that impact the whole world.  That is what I am doing here.”

Allen ended our interview with these words “I am living my dream.  I get to help people right here in the US build competitive companies that will grow and eventually hire more people, and at the same time, I am improving the lives of our workers in China.  I can’t tell you how happy this makes me.  I have high hopes for JOIGA.  We really do make dreams come true.”

Partners Allen and Sheng  http://www.joiga.com

Ellen Meyer Shorb

Product is Not the Mission . . . an interview with Don Mayer, CEO, Small Dog Electronics

Don Mayer returned his draft card to the Selective Service with a letter, as an act of civil disobedience.  He then called the FBI  asking why they hadn’t come looking for him. Similarly, Don has always worked in the business world with an eye to how to make the world a better place.  He continues to ask the hard questions about his company and the impact it can and should have.

Are there some lessons we can glean from Don that would apply to businesses switching mid-stream?  Don would say, “Yes!”

Mission
Early on Don learned the “product is not the mission.”   He lived with the Dreamers in North Wolcott, Vermont, a farm community that tried to grow 100% of their own food for a year. When the community moved to West Virginia, he stayed on the farm and started North Wind Power, a wind energy company.  He and his co-founders hoped that windmills would solve the energy crisis of the 1970s.

One day he found himself in a room with uniformed Navy personnel, giving a presentation for North Wind Power Company, and had what he called an “out-of-body experience.  I looked at myself and wondered what I would have thought of myself when I was a draft resister if I could have seen myself in that room.  I realized I would have done ANYTHING to avoid being there and being a defense contractor.”

From this experience he took the lesson that the “product is not the mission.  It’s more important that you build a company with a responsible social mission.”  His current company, Small Dog Electronics, sells Apple gear out of Waitsfield, Vermont.  Its mission is to “create amazing products to improve people’s lives.”  The website says:  “We are a socially responsible company, which means we have a multiple bottom line.  The effect we have on our environment, community, customers, and employees is just as important as maintaining our profitability.”

Don believes you can and should measure all these parameters, not just profit, but Small Dog’s impact on people and the planet.

People
On the importance of how you treat the people that work for you, Don says that in every company he has run (up until a few years ago and the advent of direct deposit) he delivered paychecks by hand, with a handshake, and a thank you.  “One day at North Wind Power Company, we couldn’t pay.  There was still the handshake, still the ‘thank you’.  All the employees worked another three weeks until we could pay them.  It became apparent that respecting employees was a smart business strategy.”

Small Dog Electronics offers dog health insurance to its employees, allows dogs in the workplace, has exercise facilities and a book group.

The flip side to that, is the relationship with customers.  At Small Dog Electronics, “We use a net promoter score to measure customer satisfaction. (We read a book on this together in our company book group).  We survey every customer, every transaction.  One question we ask is, ‘Based on this transaction, would you recommend Small Dog Electronics?’  There is a 10 point scale.  8,9,10 are promoters; 1,2,3 are detractors.  By department, we inform staff how their total NPS score is doing.”

Planet
But how does a small company in rural Vermont make a difference in the environment?  With respect to its own energy use, Small Dog has recently installed a large solar photovoltaic array that powers 100% of the electricity of the South Burlington Store and a good percentage of the Waitsfield location. They have also installed a FreeAire cooling system for the server that uses outside air to cool.

Beyond Vermont, Don says, “We partner with companies that have working conditions that we support.  As we become a larger player, we have more influence.  For example, we have leather cases for iPads being made in China.  We ask about the content of the dye, the tanning process, the hours employees are working.  The packaging on the paper had a PET coating (a polyester film) and we had them change it to oil, which is more environmentally benign.  I said, ‘I want the most environmentally safe packaging you can come up with.’  We have a guy in China that teams up with the producers.  Because we’re bigger, we get more attention now.”

Another initiative that has impact beyond Waitsfield are eWaste collection days.  In 2006, Small Dog held a Free eWaste collection day on Earth Day. “We received 50 tons of computers, TVs, and other electronics.  The next year, we took in 150 tons.  Then 175.  Now Apple completely funds both Small Dog’s four annual eWaste collection events in Vermont and New Hampshire and weekly pickups of eWaste at each of the company’s locations. And manufacturers are paying for recycling. We got a lot of publicity within Apple.”  The collection of Ewaste is now free at all of Small Dog’s stores.  In 2010 Small Dog lobbied and had the best eWaste law in the nation passed in Vermont.

Profit
So what about the bottom line?  “You have to decide what kind of business you want to be. You can be a good corporate citizen.  But you need to build a business focused on more than profit and have to figure out how to do this.”  Granted, Don says, it’s easier for some businesses to do this than others.  Many companies have low profit margins.

Small Dog has a wide array of ways in which it, as a business, draws its customers, employees, and suppliers in, and tries to make a positive impact on the world.  “On our website, we list eight or nine charitable organizations, human rights, women, gay, dog welfare. If customers donate, we match customers donations to the maximum extent of our annual charitable giving budget.  When Haiti had the earthquake in 2010, we raised $35,000 in 48 hours for Doctors Without Borders.”

He gives the most credit to companies that build a socially responsible business mid-stream. “I’m more impressed with the local gas station owner who wants to be sustainable.  If you’re already in business, making the leap is difficult.”

Build the Business with a Socially Responsible Mission
What resonated in our interview with Don is that any business, with any product or service, can be run in a socially responsible manner.  It is the mission of the business, rather than the product itself, that determines impact in the world.  This impact beyond profit can be measured:  employee commitment, customer satisfaction, dollars raised, clean manufacturing, tons recycled, etc.  In fact, the many ways to measure how the “people” and “planet” missions are only growing.

Don exudes possibility.  With Don it is clear that an ordinary product can have an extraordinary impact.

smalldog.com

Ellen Meyer Shorb

Teaching others How to Teach to Fish … an interview with Geof Brown, Vermont Country Store Head of Human Resources and Philanthropy

Even companies whose origins lie in authentic socially responsible values find their community involvement looking different today than it did decades before. Staying true to their roots, while evolving to meet modern needs is the story of The Vermont Country Store (VCS) and its successful philanthropy program. Issues of employee engagement, local community involvement and humility were all carefully considered and rewired to update VCS programs under the watchful eye of Geof Brown.

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VCS, a multi-generational family owned business, enticed Geof to seek a position where he could truly make a difference in the lives of employees and in the communities where they live and work. After a 20 plus year career in human resources and change management, primarily in the retail sector, Geof followed his creative passion by establishing an inn and event business at the Williams River House at Fox Chair Mountain Farm in Chester, Vermont. VCS, however, provided Geof the opportunity to serve as the company’s Head of Human Resource and lead their commitment to local community-focused Philanthropy.

The Vermont Country Store’s roots in Vermont go back eight generations, and family values still play a fundamental role in dictating how the Orton family maintains close ties to the community. As Geof explains, “The Orton family, along with our CEO Bill Shouldice, provides proper sponsorship to our philanthropy program around our core values: authenticity, commitment to product, commitment to employees, commitment to the community, and being sustainable financially. We leverage all of our resources — funding, product and volunteerism — to maximize the reach of our program and model our values.”

One founding value of VCS is giving back to the approximately 65 communities in which its employees live and work. ”There is a desire on the part of the Ortons to be humble in their giving – it is who they are at their core. They feel a responsibility to share their success with their communities, but do not seek publicity for their generosity,” Geof said. “They know that when our communities are thriving, so does our business. The Ortons have been ‘paying it forward’ long before it was a catch phrase. They embody the generosity of spirit and independent thinking that make Vermont a special place.”

Under the leadership of VCS Board Chair Eliot Orton and CEO Bill Shouldice, Geof and VCS’s Philanthropy Coordinator Ann Warrell, have implemented and improved the company’s philanthropic programs, so that they address contemporary community needs and employee interests. Over the past several years, VCS has started to share what is working for them outside their four walls in order to inspire other Vermont businesses to do the same.

Employee Engagement and Local Giving
Geof and Ann explored two key issues that were intimately linked — how to increase employee engagement while making more of a local impact. By using these two principles as drivers, they were able to enhance existing programs and provide new offerings, and in so doing, maximize their existing philanthropic funding, while increasing employee involvement.

Community Teams
One of VCS’s most successful programs is its Community Action Team (CAT) model, in which teams of employees lead philanthropic giving efforts.

“Eliot’s direction was to make any giving program be grass roots,” Geoff said. “He and Bill Shouldice instituted CAT teams to ensure that the majority of our funding was given through employee-centered decisions and hired an individual to coordinate their activities. Today, we bring our four CAT teams together semi-annually to share ideas on their grant-making decisions and other initiatives,” Geof said. CAT teams can also support non-profits through volunteerism. “CATs spend time helping when it’s their hands that are needed most. This flexibility helps them address real needs at a grass roots level, which is in keeping with our mandate,” Geof notes.

“With the success of the program, we kicked it up several notches to educate teams about working within guidelines and allocating resources according to established priorities. Keeping these priorities in mind, they can independently decide to fund local non-profit organizations in amounts up to $5,000,” Geof explains.

“In the past two years, we have completely maximized all available funding resources. Now we are working on a web-enabled system to more efficiently track and process grant requests. All of this furthers our focus on maintaining momentum and encouraging philanthropy within our CAT teams and with all our employees.”

Dollars for Doers
“VCS had a traditional matching donation program for many years. However, it was not being used to its fullest capacity, as the matching donation funds were never fully utilized,” Geof said. “We realized that people did not have personal funds to donate, but were volunteering all over the place.

“We came up with a program we call Dollars for Doers where we match an employee’s volunteerism with $10 per hour for each hour worked. We are always trying to think about how to do things in a more practical way, which is in keeping with our values,” Geof continues. “Volunteerism is in the spirit of our employees. This is a way we can empower them, while we serve to strengthen our community.”

Manager Contributions Program
With the success of these programs, VCS also wanted to reinvigorate its existing manager donations program to reward personal community involvement. “Under the old program, managers were able to direct a certain amount to the local charity of their choice. We upped the ante by creating a two-tiered program that rewards personal involvement. We are willing to double what managers can give if they serve on a board, do community service, or create a personal giving pledge. This gives them more of an incentive to become involved, and model community involvement to their employees, which, in turn, inspires more involvement,” Geof explained. He participates by serving on the Manchester Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors.

“We encourage our managers, and all employees, to recognize the more complex needs of the community. We believe our philanthropy program pushes everyone toward becoming involved in ways they never did before. These actions create experiences and knowledge that serves both the community and VCS.”

Good for Others is Good for Us — in Geof’s Words
“The intersection for VCS and philanthropy is that we seek to build employee retention by empowering all employees to volunteer, and by rewarding their efforts through our matching programs. This is something that distinguishes VCS from other larger businesses in our region, and makes people want to stay with the VCS family,” said Geof. “The Ortons’ commitment to community, and the way we are able to put those values into action, is consistent with being a sustainable company.”

The Vermont Country Store isn’t interested in fitting the definition of sustainability. Instead, they are focused on doing the right thing — for their customers, their employees, and their community. They know that keeping their values in the forefront is all the guidance they need to ensure that they will continue to be successful and able to give back for generations to come.

VCS wanted their philanthropic work to be real and practical, not just an ideal, and an important milestone was for staff and managers alike to become more engaged. By reworking their philanthropic programs, and motivating employees, VCS has been able to put their philosophy into practice. By selectively sharing and speaking out, VCS is serving as a model for other Vermont businesses, inspiring them to teach how to fish, which is a win-win situation for all.

vermontcountrystore.com

Julie Lineberger

The Risks and Advantages of Socially Responsible Change: from a conversation with Mary Powell, Green Mountain Power

The executive offices of Green Mountain Power used to occupy 3,000 square feet on the top floors of a three story, glass building.  Now the current CEO, Mary Powell, has a stand up desk facing the front door occupying about 15 square feet.

It is a wonderfully stark image of a profound internal transformation.  In 1998, Green Mountain Power was a traditional, publicly traded utility facing bankruptcy. Now it is a financially sound, environmentally breakthrough utility providing 25% of Vermont’s energy.

The question that hung in the air as we talked to Mary Powell, the dynamo that drove this transformation, was, “Is this a classic case of a strategic realignment in the face of crisis – or are there lessons to be drawn from a traditional company reaching down to its core values and adhering to socially responsible principles in order to drive success?”  The transformation of Green Mountain Power shows how driving change through socially responsible (SR) principles can be both harder and easier than a traditional business turnaround.

When Mary came on board in 1998, under then-CEO Chris Dutton, she entered a company that had, “an arrogant reputation.  It was a big, stuffy area utility.”  She felt, “If we want to be saved, if we want customers to pay more money, we have to transform ourselves into a company worth saving.” Dutton agreed.  Mary and the senior team drove a change process that trimmed the fat in the organization reducing officers from 14 to 6 (now 4), employees from 340 to 200, square footage from 89,000 to 25,000, and the Executive area by 90% to 300 square feet.

Mary and the senior team clarified Green Mountain Power’s core values:  GMP would be the low cost, low carbon, incredibly reliable energy provider for Vermont.  “The neat thing about our values is that they align a lot with the State’s values.  We were looking at what key stakeholders want.  Vermonters want green and free.  Once you get that fly wheel spinning, it is amazing where it can take you.  We are becoming a renewable energy company.”

As with any change process that upends a company this dramatically, the changes engendered fear and pushback.   In the case of GMP, and other companies where SR principles drive change, Mary faced an additional layer of suspicion and politics.  Renewable energy was, and is, political.  There were factions opposed to renewable energy because of its perceived high cost, and/or because they didn’t believe in climate change.  On one side were the true green, anti-nuclear folks; on the other, the hard core Vermont Yankee supporters who wanted GMP to use nuclear power forever.

Fortunately, when Mary was made CEO, Dutton characterized her well; “fearless as she embraces change and new thinking.”  Mary said, “Courage is not the absence of fear, it is the presence of fear and the willingness to walk through it.  At times it was terrifying on a personal level.”

Mary contends that because driving change with SR strategies draws on deeply embedded values, it is powered, supported, and ultimately successful because individuals want and believe in this re-orientation.   “There were really smart, funny, committed, caring people.  Some who had strong environmental values, but they were over here in a pocket.”

Thus, Green Mountain Power, in committing to “low carbon”, aligned itself with a broad customer base that went beyond the naysayers and was able to leverage this market differentiation.  “Our vision was just about our customers and our vision for our customers.  The comment that ‘this is just a marketing ploy’ is not true.  It is really about our values.  We really want to see an energy future that is clean and green and renewable.  Have you seen another utility try to do a windfarm?  Tough decisions, but important ones, if a company is values-based and focused on the values of the majority of customers they serve.”

Taking a traditional, publicly held utility green faced some political landmines.  At the same time, it drove the current success (the wind project will greatly increase the size of the company) by tapping into a powerful customer value for clean, green, and renewable.   Driving a company to the next level with socially responsible strategies can be more risky and, at the same time, facilitate and ensure a profound transformation.

greenmountainpower.com

Ellen Meyer Shorb