Consistent Values; Flexible Business Model . . . from an interview with Mark Curran of Black River Produce

Black River Produce (BRP) delivers Vermont fresh produce, meat, and other value-added food products to over 2000 wholesale customers throughout Vermont, most of New Hampshire, and parts of New York and Massachusetts.

Mark Curran

What started out as two twenty-somethings wanting a better eating experience for themselves while skiing Vermont in the late 1970s, became one of Vermont’s premier socially responsible businesses.  In fact, it is their core value of serving the local market, both by importing and exporting food, that has ensured their success.  Mark Curran and Steve Birge fill a big gap in the local market by supplying the area with quality fresh fruits and vegetables and by bringing local produce outside the state.


Serve the community; serve yourself

“What are the best things to eat? Fresh fruit and veggies. Meats. Fish. Locally raised eggs,” Mark quipped. Back in the 1970s, with a used VW Bus and $600 between them, they hatched Black River Produce. Painting “Give Peas a Chance” on the side of the bus, they were in business, bringing fresh produce from the Boston wholesale produce market to Vermont during ski season.

Soon after, they also started supplying and delivering Vermont products both within the state and to outside markets. In 1977 a friend started a natural food store, but his customers complained about the vegetables. “I had another friend in Westminster, Vermont, who grew corn and tomatoes. I would go down and get my friend’s corn and tomatoes and bring them to my other friend. It made his natural food store kind of a farm stand without a farm,”  Mark shared how they began cultivating relationships with growers.  

“At the time, a lot of my business was tourist-related.  Iceberg lettuce was the mainstay at 98% of sales.  Green leaf lettuce was exotic.  Kiwi, watercress, et cetera was all exotic, and, because we liked the stuff, that’s what we delivered.”

In truth, it was not convenient for Mark to get fresh produce. From central Vermont, he or Steve would drive to Boston’s wholesale fresh produce market, then stop at local southern Vermont farms on the way back, sometimes even helping to pick.

“It was the corn thing,” Mark said of Vermont Sweet Corn, one of his favorites. “No one could compete against local growers, especially when it came to Vermont corn.  The sales for Vermont sweet corn in mid-July were amazing.  We could get people to come to our store because people knew we had corn that was picked that day.”

To help fill their van at the produce market, they contacted a few local restaurants for orders. Local chefs spread the word and within a year Steve and Mark were supplying more than 30 restaurants.


Consistency vs. flexibility

Over the years, Black River Produce has stayed consistent to its mission, vision, and values, while adapting its business model to the market.

Black River Produce spent a lot of time putting together their Mission, Vision, and Values Statements. “We did it in-house as we wanted to make sure it was us, part of what we do. Some things are harder, but being community-oriented, that’s easy to do.’’

Mission, Vision & Values “People read these!” Mark emphasized, talking about staff, suppliers, and customers who enter Black River Produce’s new state of the art facility.

Once, when money was tight, they were they were asked to carry dishwasher detergent. “That’s a big business for hospitals, etc,” Mark remembered.  “‘Why not put that on your truck?’ I was asked. However, we always returned to our Core Vision to be “the produce, seafood, and specialty food vendor of choice in our marketplace.”  Detergent and janitorial supplies just did not fit our niche.”


Soon after, they were trucking other local food products besides just produce. Mark remembered how it began: “Baba-a-Louies Bakery also started around 1977.  It was a small bakery in Chester where he (the founder and baker John Louis McLure) sold this amazing bread for 99¢ a loaf.  He wanted to have his bread in Ludlow as well.  One day I was at Kennedy Airport, headed to Europe.  John was taking the same flight to France where he grew up.  He went back to visit his Mom every November and May and, at the time, was closing his business for those months.  We got to talking and realized he could make the bread, freeze it, and we could deliver it while he was gone so he did not lose sales!”


The market catches up

Over the course of the past 20 years, the demand for local product changed to support what BRP was doing.  BRP was set up to get a variety of local food, both fresh produce and also value-added food products, to markets outside the state. In 1996, the business expanded to include fresh and frozen seafood as well as cut flowers.  Now they also include meat.

BRP’s diversification into transportation services (they don’t buy or sell the product, they are paid simply to transport) is how they started in Beefalo.  With Beefalo, they added straight shipping of local food to their business model. “We started transporting Beefalo for a rancher, charging him for delivery.  Next came the Bean guy.  I would get people to sell their own product, and I would simply deliver.  If after some time I felt confident with the product, I would add it to the BRP inventory.”

BRP also started moved Vermont product out-of-state for growers. They were not involved in the selling, but in connecting Vermont producers to out-of-state buyers.  “We go to Whole Foods three times a week in Cheshire, CT with all this Vermont product,” said Mark.  Mark is clearly proud of his role in the Vermont community, and pleased to now be bringing Vermont produce to other markets.

“It is a balancing act.  BRP makes more money when we own and sell a product.  But rather than simply hauling air, it is better to cover the cost of the trip by delivering for someone such as Stonewood Farms.  Paul Stone raises turkeys and 98% of his sales are the week before Thanksgiving.

“On November 18th every year, we park an empty refrigerated tractor trailer at his farm.  We pick up and drop one off every day for a week.  Within five days the whole problem is solved for $9,000 – refrigeration, storage, etc.”

BRP’s delivery service helps many Vermont companies grow, both Vermont Soy and Vermont Fresh Pasta in Killington. For example, “Vermont Fresh Pasta has a 10-day shelf life. They wanted to sell in other places, but it was hard for them to deliver. Twice a week they would load up pasta from their basement and we would deliver. Once they had a bit extra, we started telling our restaurants about their product and doing a bit of developing their market on our end as they developed their market on their end.  They have their original accounts we deliver for, and we have the accounts we developed for them. For example, we were in the right place when the pasta buyer for Whole Foods changed and the new person wanted to buy pasta from various vendors. Our sales made up the difference for Whole Foods and established a new market for Vermont Fresh!”


Commitment to Vermont drives success

There is one other element embedded in BRP’s mission that has stayed consistent and served the company well — a commitment to Vermont.  Ironically, neither the mission statement nor the values statement names this and yet it is a consistent and core element of their success.

Originally from Pennsylvania via college in Boston, Mark came to Vermont for a winter.  He never made it back to school. “Steve and I knew we wanted to do something different. We did not move here to get rich. There were many people all moving through.  A lot of us stayed.  We had grasped on to the sense of community.”

At the time, there were six produce companies in Vermont, four in Burlington alone. Undercapitalized, Mark had no salary for three years. “We were 23 and had low expenses,” he smiled.  “We survived because we had the service.  We were delivering six days a week. We had transparency with our growers.  The other companies all sold out. We are the only local company now.  We were never really for sale.”

One of the key factors of BRP success has always been knowing their suppliers.  “We know them.  We play poker with them.  First we bought close to home; then throughout Vermont.  Next we moved into New Hampshire and Massachusetts.  It was a way to set ourselves apart.  We are part of a community in Vermont and we take care of that community first.”

Another difference has been that BRP services small orders of local produce while keeping their prices competitive.  “If you are The Equinox or Sheraton you can use raspberries from Sysco (one of the world’s largest food supply companies). Most restaurants are not buying cases of stuff.  They have small orders.  A typical order in Vermont . . . well, big companies do not do that very well. That’s where Black River Produce can make a difference.  We will fill the smaller orders with quality product.”

As a long time Board member for Vermont Fresh Network, Mark is knowledgeable about the produce scene throughout the state. “Restaurants are now struggling.  They say to us ‘Sysco’s peppers are $2 cheaper’, so then we match that price and they buy from us. There is not a big difference between peppers, but with cheeses there are. Once we agreed to the Sysco pepper price, they would then add on the local cheeses making a difference to their customers, and we could make up the $2 lost on peppers. Now with local meats we have another great success. Although we tried selling local meat seven or eight years ago, the mind-set was not there. Now the mind-set has changed which has made the big difference.”


Serving employees served the business

“Being in Vermont, we are socially responsible but don’t even think about it,” said the Board Member of Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility.  “We take it for granted.  They sort of joke about us:  ‘Oh, there’s the organic guys from VT. Oh, there’s the local guys from VT.’ For Black River Produce, being socially responsible turns our product. We have a local, native way of running the business and it is always socially responsible.”


Black River Produce leaders Mark Curran and Steve Birge

“We never made a conscious decision to be socially responsible with our employees, it just happened.  A large part of that is transparency in all aspects of our business. We are more transparent than most. For example, employees were just allowed to take whatever they wanted, until we got to 60 employees. There was a time we realized $60 of blueberries were going home for employee’s kids’ Cheerios.  We had to change that program. Given the numbers we shared regarding the profit loss from giving away $60 of blueberries a day, the employees understood. But, we had health care for all in the early 1980s and started 401(k)s as soon as we could in 1988.

“We didn’t think we were being socially responsible. We were just treating people the way we wanted to be treated. We are the same.  I say, ‘I work at Black River,’ same as my employees would say.”  BRP now has over 170 Employees.

“Diversity is a challenge for us, although we do have two people of color working here.  We’d like to have women truck drivers.

“Your parents set your moral compass,” the college philosophy major mused. “I was  brought up to do the right things whether it came to employees, customers, vendors.  My mother didn’t call it social responsibility, but my mother would be proud of what I am doing.”

Finding the balance between consistency and flexibility

Mark would say that knowing when to be consistent and when to be flexible wasn’t hard.  His mission, values, and vision stayed the same: bring fresh food to Vermont; but the products he carried, the states he went to, the stores he sold to, and more, changed and adapted and have varied and grown over the years.

True, the market caught up with his value to serve his community.  Could a competitor catch up?  Perhaps.  But the relationships developed over almost 40 years of doing business continue to serve him well.  His decision to stop skiing, settle in Vermont and serve Vermont mean that he is well positioned.  And, he still isn’t carrying laundry soap.

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 ( 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.  (

“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.

Julie Lineberger & Ellen Meyer Shorb

Social Responsibility in Times of Financial Crisis . . . from an Interview with Jan Blomstrann, President and CEO of NRG Systems

In 1987 NRG Systems formally acknowledged the effort Jan Blomstrann was contributing to the young company by bringing her on payroll.  Founded in 1982 by David Blittersdorf, the company’s main accounting system at the time was a proverbial shoe box of receipts.  Working as a nurse, yet intimately involved in the growing enterprise, Jan noted the need to create a balance sheet.

Ahead of its time in terms of producing instruments to measure wind capacity and capability, NRG business management systems lagged behind the creative engineering aspects of the company.  Jan decided to take classes at Champlain College learning about both business and computers, also in their neophyte stage in terms of small business accounting.

In the late 80s, Jan was not particularly interested in wind energy. “This was in the infant years of wind energy,” she recalled.  “At a trade shows there would be 50 people, all engineers very excited about how a gear box worked.”

In fact, when she spoke to people about what she was doing, the initial reaction was: “You’re doing what?  Making wind instruments?  Trumpets?  Can you make money on this?”

Nurse turned CEO implements SR policies instinctively    JanBlomstrann

She was interested, however, in creating a business organization and management systems to professionally run the company.  “I did like the business part:  accounting, hiring people, figuring out how we were going to offer health insurance.

Although she did not label it at the time, the policies that made the most sense to her were socially responsible.  “It was just the right thing to do, especially in terms of (employee) retention.”

“NRG Systems, by nature of the product, is contributing something greater into the world.  I don’t think I ever thought of (the employee policies) as ‘I’m going to do things in a socially responsible way.’  Things just sort of evolved.”

Those policies included a compensation package of both salary and profit sharing as well as other benefits based on their company values.  “Our core values go back ten years or so, when we first got mature enough to do a strategic plan.  We said; ‘Let’s write down how we have been operating for twenty  years, and document it.’  Those core values — Environmental Stewardship/Leadership, Fair Employment, Profitability, Integrity, Innovation, Dedication. Our core values were reflective of who we were.”

Her ambivalence to the company product changed as the business grew.  “In the late 1990s young people started sending in resumes,” Jan reminisced. “They said: ‘I don’t care what it is, is there a job for me?’” Jan was startled at the requests that were predicated not only on the wind industry, but by her socially responsible policies. “It was very infectious for the employees to see the success of the company.  We were contributing to a new way of being and doing business. Those years were very exciting.”

With the success of NRG Systems, there came a time to move out of their rented sheet metal building.  “We had a desire to create something that had a lighter footprint on the planet.  It was time for us to move, and we felt it would be nice to walk the talk.”  This impetus coincided with her being named President and CEO of the company in 2004.

Architect Bill Maclay was given a power budget and this mandate: create a building that performs well, feels good, and is inviting.  “The entire process led to a LEED certification that taught us along the way,” Jan remembered of her company headquarters.  “It was the fourth industrial building in the world to get LEED Gold.  All materials were sourced as locally as possible.  No off gassing furniture or carpet were specified, no formaldehyde, etc.”

Renewable energy industry stalls — SR policies challenged
“The entire renewable energy industry was on a steep growth curve from 2002-2008, when we built our addition.  Then, the crash affected our business, and the wind industry, as capital dried up, and no wind projects were being developed.  A year ago both the US and Chinese market further dipped at the same time due to public policies,” Jan explained.

After years of strong growth the wind industry stalled.  A world-wide recession, coupled with a Congress unwilling to work with the President in supporting renewables, made a comprehensive energy policy impossible. Jan noted:  “Renewables were left with a simple tax incentive policy.”  Financing dried up.  Projects stopped completely.

Quite suddenly, NRG Systems had to make serious, and extremely difficult, decisions. At the onset, it felt like the company was being ripped apart.  Jan found herself staying up nights.  “It nearly killed me to do what we had to do last year, especially letting people go. When a lot of profits coming are in, it can mask the more stressful aspects of running a business; it’s easier to be creative.”

“In the boom years,” she continued, “with the profit-sharing variable as a component of pay, sometime people earned 50% above base pay.  With the downturn, there were some quarters without any profit-sharing at all.  In these times both the loyal and cynical elements can come from employees.  Although the cynical element wondered out loud if management knew what they were doing, the loyal element buoyed NRG Systems.”

“For example,” Jan quietly told a story, “we had an older man in electronics.  It was a tough year morale-wise, and we were not making as much money.  He got a little discouraged and was going to get another job. We talked.  He thought about it and decided to stay.  I saw him a few days later and said, ‘Thank you.  I am so glad you decided to stay. I hope it will be a good decision for you.‘  His response:  ‘I could go to the other company and make more money, but my wife is sick.  If I stay here, I know I can go to her doctor’s appointments with her.’  People go through different stages in live and go through different things.  I want someone coming through the door happy to be here.”

“The soul of the company is still there,” Jan mused.  “Our values are still there.  In terms of the benefits, we need to get some of them back.  But, I am not looking for this just so I can benefit;  I want everyone to benefit as we grow.”

One example is the mental health of the company.  With the difficulties, Jan wanted to give the NRG Systems team an opportunity to process their stress as a group. “This fall, we brought in a consultant who works on happiness, leadership, and personal accountability.  I gave him the charge to give a recasting exercise.  How do we recast this time into a new intentional story?  How do we look at this time as a positive step in the evolution of the company?

“The entire staff was split into four groups and did this exercise.  I was not part of it so that everyone had a full chance to vent.  People expressed anger, frustration, doubt.  It was just therapeutic.  They all said they appreciated the opportunity to do so in a group supportive way.  It was a good chance to get it out.  The gossipy water-cooler conversations came down, and the faith in leadership is coming round.”

With creativity, SR values adhered to
Jan found herself questioning how to stay true to values during this transition, realizing that things could never go back to where they were.  She explored new initiatives to offer positive reinforcement and recognize people in ways other than cash with a constant wish to portray her sentiments:  “You are all valued, you are all here, we have a job to do together.  This is what we are going to do going forward to rebuild.”

“We prioritized and focused on doing what we need to do to keep what is most important, such as preserving 401(k)s.”  While maintaining NRG’s policy of Open Book Management, “I brought in the word “budget’”.  This is one way of keeping core benefits, and core values, while evolving the company as a whole.

In doing so, some green benefits stemming from the NRG Systems core value of Environmental Stewardship, had to be shelved.  Jan ruminated about the decision to no longer subsidize employee hybrid vehicles.  “I’ve had to take some of the benefits away. I could not do it anymore.  No one lost the benefit who already had it, but nobody new can access it.”

She also mentioned a change in the company holiday party where, in the past, a band had been hired.  This year, in recognition of all the musical employes, Jan smiled, “Two bands formed themselves and got up at the party!  It was all in house.  Although it was a little quieter, it was more fun!”

While some company policies had to change, there is great evidence that the company values of NRG have never been at risk.  As Jan said, “It does not cost money to have integrity.  There are values behind what we do that don’t go away such as community relations and corporate giving.  This is still an important piece.  We give away less, but our program is still there.  I really don’t think its an either or.  Neither is Flex Time.  It is easy to have flexible work hours regardless of bottom line.”

One particular change, Jan is very disappointed about.  “We brought in a chef in 2006 or 2007 and provided lunch four days/week.  During this transition, I had to take as much cost out of our budget as possible. I would love to put that back in.  I keep asking myself, ‘Is there something else I can do to make sure everyone gathers at noon and has that benefit?’

“Previously, no one was using cars.  Everyone would collect at noon and there was a company conversation.  Productivity-wise it was unbelievable.  Meeting was productive.  Now we’re back to people getting in their cars for lunch, or eating at desks.” Jan ruefully concluded.

“It is easy and enjoyable to offer such policies when you are profitable and growing and things look great.  It’s more difficult when it’s not.”  Jan is looking to create changes that are not only for now, but the long term health of NRG Systems into the future.

Market stress re-orients business; SR still foundation
Jan’s words conveyed her long term thinking and belief in the future:  “The past is the past. Don’t think that if a certain contract comes in, it will go back to the way it was.  We need to create a new future for ourselves.  New things might happen, but in a new way.”

“We’re in a real transition phase as a company.  I would describe us as a company that grew quite steadily, we had a tremendous record.  It was exciting and fun to be in this business.  The ability was there to provide a great experience for employees.

“The last couple of years have been a huge wake up call. We are about half the size in terms of revenue and 25% smaller in terms of staff.  There’s had to be a real refocusing on what does it mean to be in business and what does it mean to be a good business?  I am asking that question of myself.  A few people were not there in the beginning and now see a company that is much more serious and much more stressed.  Where is the room for Social Responsibility?

“How do I take this company to the next stage in a much less privileged way, and emphasize the social responsibility aspect?  How do I make sure we continue to evolve?  I don’t think it’s an either or.  I think a lot of those things we did in those years contributed to our success, our intellectual level, institutional knowledge.  Keeping people improves institutional knowledge.

“The company is now a smaller group, working hard.  Policies were put into place that, once things turn around, a smaller group will see the benefits of.  The structure is still all there.  The morale and feeling about the company will turn around.

“There is the story to tell that we went through hard knocks, had to let people go, but we survived as a group and will continue.  By letting go of things of the past, we will be far more careful; lots of lessons have been learned along the way.  We are a smarter and better business than we were three years ago.”

Several years in, after fully establishing the values and policies of the company, Jan started feeling a connection to what NRG Systems was producing as well as the business administration of the company: “I started getting excited about wind energy when we talked about distributed energy, all the things that start to make it more than a machine.  And wind energy doesn’t put out belching smoke!”

“Fast forward today, it is in my blood and who I am.”  Good thing for NRG Systems, the blood flows both ways.

NRG Systems Headquarters • Photo by Carolyn Bates

NRG Systems Headquarters • Photo by Carolyn Bates

Julie Lineberger

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

ReGreening a Company after Expansion . . . 
from an Interview with Sara Newmark, Director of Sustainability at New Chapter

New Chapter natural supplements and vitamins started early in the 1982 with co-founders Paul and Barbi Schulick preparing herbal remedies in the back room of a redwood saltbox nestled high in the Black Mountains.  They combined natural ingredients to create a pure product.  When New Chapter became a brand known for organic vitamins and supplements, consumers assumed it was green throughout, the avant garde of green and sustainability.  In truth, however, over the years of rapid growth, certain aspects of good stewardship were overlooked.

Enter Sara Newmark, daughter of Paul’s college buddy and then CEO Tom Newmark, who started her New Chapter career as an event planner.  In 2006, just shy of a year with the company, she sunk her incredibly infectious energy into a new role as Sustainability Officer. “Developing the Sustainability Initiative should have been easy, given the nature of our products.  However, with the day-to-day crazy busy growth we were experiencing, sustainability in terms of the entire company was never examined,” Sara remembered.

“We needed to catch up with our reputation in the marketplace.   We didn’t use 100% recycled boxes as it was expensive and the people in charge of purchasing weren’t aware of how important it was to mission and brand.  Now we’ve changed all the paper and boxes we use.”

Sustainability Initiative Slow Start
            With the CEO’s blessing, Barbi and Sara embarked on a Sustainability Initiative.  Barbi had a unique position in being both a co-founder and the wife of the other co-founder.  Sara had her own complicated relationship with the company.  Very successful in her position, she was still the CEO’s daughter.  Politically one would assume this to be a great asset, in fact it turned out to be a double edged sword.

“The combination of the CEO’s daughter and co-founder’s wife created some benefit and some liabilities.  The CEO gave the directive to top leadership, but we weren’t taken seriously. We had to fight to have it ingrained throughout the company,” Sara noted.

The two solicited the counsel of Liz Bankowski, a member of the New Chapter board who had run social issues for Ben and Jerry’s 20 years ago.  “She worked closely with us. It was Barbi, Liz, and me.  No one took us seriously.  It was not a company-wide decision to hire us as the sustainability team, which hurt us in the beginning.”

Sara, Barbi and Liz developed a sustainability matrix and presented it to the company at a staff meeting.  The matrix included all aspects of sustainability such as sourcing green materials for packaging, energy usage, carbon footprint, volunteerism for employees, workplace issues, community involvement, et cetera. “We said: We are going to start by going for the low-hanging fruit, internal changes.  We started with solid waste, purchasing and our employees behaviors.”

Low-hanging fruit – purchase of office supplies (pens, rulers, copy paper)
          The team started with something they thought would be easy:  office supplies.  “We decided to work inter-departmentally, and not house information within the sustainability office. I would be a resource, do the research, but the work would be housed within departments.”

“In other companies, you have to go through a VP for Purchasing.  At New Chapter, we didn’t.  All employees were allowed to order what they wanted though our Operations department.  I completed an audit of all purchases, compared prices and sustainability (recycled products, local sourcing, etc) creating spreadsheets that could be helpful.  Although some of the sustainable material prices were more expensive, taken as a whole, we could save money because we had never coordinated our purchasing of these items before.  It appeared that everyone loved it.”

However, not everyone did.  As there was no buy-in from Operations from the onset, the changes seemed imposed upon the department.  “It took many months to get buy-in from everyone.  In hindsight, it would have saved so much time to get leadership approval and work with Operations on the project rather than hand them an ‘easy to use’ spreadsheet.”

Challenges and the Slow Path to Sustainability
         “We then met with middle management.  We asked all the department heads: ‘Where can you make green improvements?’  We followed up.  They said they understood, but sustainability was always a separate item, pushed to the bottom of the pile of things to think about.

“Little by little, day by day, we started weaving sustainability into the fabric of everyday work, getting it into everyday conversation.” Sara noted how each new initiative that surfaced “We didn’t see changes right away nor get immediate satisfaction, but things started getting ingrained and started to change. Now sustainability is so part of who we are.

Sara’s Guide Points for Sustainable Sustainability:
Leadership needs to be Engaged:  Sustainability needs to be a leadership decision, something that leadership wants to see done.
Be a Yellow Light:  Relationships are the key business issue. Sara learned to not be a red light, a business stopper, but to be a yellow light, to get people to slow down and look at what we were doing. By working with people, adversaries can become allies.
Embed Metrics into All Reporting: Each department needs one or two metrics to measure, it needs to be part of the reporting structure.  Each department needs goals, and metrics to measure those goals.  For example, New Chapter now has KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) that each department has to meet quarterly.  We developed a matrix for goals that include Fair Trade, carbon footprint, solid waste, energy, opportunities, etc.
Find a Cheerleader: Sustainability efforts need a cheerleader, someone to keep accomplishment lists and publicize individual efforts within the company.  It can be a Sustainability Officer, but it does not need to be.
We save some money, we spend some money.

Need for a Sustainability Officer?
          A CSO (Chief Sustainability Officer) is not necessary for every company, in Sara’s opinion, although a champion is.   “Someone who knows how to ask the right questions and need to want to  interact interdepartmentally.

Sara, herself, is a good project manager who can identify a project and know what needs to be done to complete it. And for a company New Chapter’s size, with its commitment to sustainability, it works to have a separate department dedicated to these issues.  ”For years I was talking the talk, but not owning it, because I knew what was happening day-to-day at New Chapter, and we were not yet living up to where I thought we could be.  Now we are.”

New Chapter’s current brochure has a detailed list of the sustainability practices they now have in place. “We’ve done the work, integrated this into our fabric, reached the tipping point, and are not doing business as usual.  But,” Sara’s eyes twinkled. “we’ve just started!”

Julie Lineberger

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.


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!”

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.


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.

Julie Lineberger

The Value of Values: from a conversation with Joe Fusco, Casella Waste Systems

Casella Waste Systems is changing how people think about waste. Another company goal is to empower all employees to be great. How does a business redefine its industry, empower its employees and make money all at the same time?

Through visioning processes and conversations at Casella Waste, led by Joe Fusco and others, members of the organization started thinking from 10,000 miles out. The company looked to India and China, seeing a large number of people moving into the middle class. They realized the finite nature of the world’s resources, and the business opportunities that present themselves with the realization that what is thought of as waste are actually resources. Formerly any byproduct of a business was carted away to a landfill. Scraps of lumber/plastic/metal, packaging, food byproducts, all went to essentially the equivalent of a cemetery to be buried. “Resources are precious, even plastic,” enthused Joe. “We needed to figure out how to use resources that we have been placing in cemeteries.”

To get there, John Casella, chairman and CEO of Casella Waste Systems, fully supported Joe’s efforts to empower employees starting with values. Using a strategic planning process, the company decided upon basic company values such as “Service” “Constant Improvement”, and “Responsibility”.

To deepen the business‘ commitment, coupon books were printed (see below), empowering employees to explore and use these values. A Constant Improvement Coupon, for example, allowed an employee to fix any problem for a customer or the community up to $250. The initial reaction from the CFO ”bordered on panic”, however the actual change for the bottom line was positive.

“Getting people in the company talking about values gets them to talking about the future. It facilitates our business leading the evolution of the waste industry,” noted Joe. Fifteen years ago, the waste industry was in crisis, similar to where the publishing industry is today in 2011. Redefining “waste” as “resources”, Casella led the evolution of the industry.

“It is about organizational change,” Joe reflected. “It was an industry making money by filling landfills. The new paradigm is to think of waste as a resource. Recycling is a relatively new industry. We now have farmers using organic digesters to create energy, an entire new industry for them.

“It is also about leadership development, how we treat each other, how we talk about difficult things, how we institute cultural change. Often meetings are filled with people trying to grasp their emotional needs. We try to develop leaders who don’t care who gets the credit; we try to develop people who can start solving problems. Are we going to put energy into getting emotional needs met, or into solving problems? We want business meetings to focus on the best possible solution for a problem. That is the goal of our leadership development program — get people away from engaging in extreme personality issues, get them to focus on a solution to the problem at hand.”

Joe studied with, and now partners with, the Bell Leadership Institute in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. His goal question for Casella’s leaders: “How great are you at making the people around you great at solving problems? An employee’s job is to solve the problems of our customers. . .thus we need to enable employees to be great.

“There is a shortage of these people in the world, those who can make others great problem solvers. We tell our leaders, ‘Your job is to make everyone you touch today great, including our customers, because of the way you do your job.’

“We develop leaders whose job it is to create a place to take chances by making money and doing something that is really good, socially responsible, even though we don’t use that word. People look to define themselves by what their company DOES. People who come to work don’t want to bleed for a spreadsheet. They want to bleed for something they feel passionate about, such as doing good for the world.”

Casella Waste Core Values: 

Mission  Every day we help create better people, businesses and communities by helping them to protect and enhance our environment and natural resources.

Vision  Our long-term vision is to build a highly sustainable and profitable company by transforming traditional solid waste streams into renewable resources.

Integrity. We thrive when we do the right thing. We believe there are enduring principles for everything we do and we strive, in our deeds, to meet or exceed those standards.

Innovation. We prosper when we learn, understand and improve. We invest deeply in creativity, autonomy and the willingness to take risks and embrace change. We look for opportunities to improve everything we do, from our everyday operations to reinventing the way the world manages its resources.

Service. We win when we help others. We are willing servants. We are sensitive to needs and are eager to be a resource to everyone around us, being generous with our time, talent and energy.

Teamwork. We’re more effective when we work together. Our impact is consistently stronger when we respect, support and view each other as partners and value our diversity of backgrounds, insights and opinions.

Responsibility. We succeed when we balance our freedom to act with a sense of accountability. Our work bears the greatest fruit when exercised within a framework of disciplined boundaries, and with an urgent sense of purpose and ownership.

Trust. We excel when we assume the best in each other. Mutual respect and an open, honest environment mark our interactions with others. We acknowledge each other’s contributions, we practice active listening, and we deliver on our promises.


Julie Lineberger