“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.
Will 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.”
“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.”
“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!”
“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.”