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.”

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

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

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