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.”

VALUES

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.”

blackriverlead

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

Advertisements

CSR Wire

CSR Wire just picked up our article!

http://www.csrwire.com/blog/posts/1234-from-ordinary-to-extraordinary-5-ways-to-become-a-socially-responsible-business-mid-stream

Enjoy!

Fast Steps to Make the Ordinary Business Extraordinary: becoming a socially responsible business mid-stream

Dear ReWiring Followers – This month’s post is a draft of an article we are shopping around.  Any suggestions are most welcome!  E & J

Fast Steps to Make the Ordinary Business Extraordinary: becoming a socially responsible business mid-stream

by Julie Lineberger and Ellen Meyer Shorb

Do you have a successful business, make good money, yet still unsatisfied? Perhaps there is a quiet fire in your belly gnawing at you, wondering: “Is this all there is?”

Cliff Cort of Triumph Modular decided to stoke those embers and rewired his business to create significant positive change not only in his own business, but in his industry as a whole. Cort wanted to build a legacy, he wanted to do something creative, and he wanted to make buildings he was proud of.  While running a successful modular construction company, he latched onto the idea of offering Green Modulars (energy efficient and built with non-toxic, renewable materials).  Fast forward ten years and now Cort is at the forefront of green modular buildings and making an impact around the world.  In addition, he transformed the industry from formaldehyde boxes to non-toxic good design!

But what if you are hauling trash?  Making cheese and milk products in Vermont or managing properties in Boston?  Can you sell Apple products or vitamins or trucking services and make a difference in the world?  Can an existing companies go SR/green?

What is a socially responsible business?     SR businesses don’t evaluate or drive their business strictly on the financial bottom line, but rather a number of factors, including:  environmental footprint, employee engagement, and connection to the community in which they do business.  All SR strategies must be financially viable.  In fact, our research shows that SR strategies add to the bottom line.

Ordinary businesses can go SR mid-stream     We’ve spent the last three years interviewing companies with ordinary products and services about making the change to be driven by SR principles. These are not companies that were created to sell a green product, nor to serve their local community nor produce their product with minimal environmental impact.  An increasing number of existing companies are changing how they do business and finding that doing so breathes new life, competitiveness, and efficiencies into production and market differentiation.

Strategies to re-orient an existing business      How do you change an existing business to make it socially responsible?  In talking to businesses across the country and across industries, we found 5 common and effective  steps to “make an ordinary business extraordinary”:

• Stoke the Fire in Your Belly     “Believe in what you’re doing, stick to it, hang in there.”  This is not a simple group of aphorisms. The first step to rapidly make your ordinary business extraordinary is to WANT IT, to want to make a business that is much wiser and responsive and profitable.  This means listening to yourself, tapping into your own hunger, fueling the fire in your belly.

Jan Blomstrann entered NRG Systems, a wind energy measurement device company, as a bookkeeper.  Inspired by instituting SR human resources and supply chain policies that transformed her company, Jan transformed the company of which she is now CEO.

When Jan began, she was interested in creating a business organization and management systems to professionally run the company:  accounting, hiring people, figuring out how to offer health insurance.  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.  In the late 1990s young people started sending in resumes. 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.”

• Be a Champion or Hire One     In an existing company, deep changes need a champion to educate and get buy-in from a variety of stakeholders.

When Ford Reiche owned Safe Handling in Lewiston, Maine, he spent two decades following the climate change debate, but made no changes in his trucking and transportation company until he met Andy Meyer.  Andy was switching careers and wanted to make a difference in the environment; Ford saw his hunger and aptitude and hired him as his first “Chief Sustainability Officer.”

Meyer dug in, spent a lot of time on the floor, in the warehouses and docking garages and, with Ford’s support, initiated a sweep of initiatives that engaged the employees in thinking about how to save energy, thus saving the company money.  Meyer started a program of noting good ideas and accomplishments on small steps with dollar bills at staff meetings. It was at once such meeting that an employee presented his research on a sign that requested people not to turn off a light switch.  As it turns out, the light had been left on for three years and no one knew why!

• Build Unlikely Allies     After 13 years with Cabot Creamery, Jed Davis was an assistant in the Marketing Department when he became filled with the idea of making the dairy cooperative more environmentally sustainable.  It took him three years to convince Cabot management, but now the cooperative is being honored as a leader in the industry and individual farmers are greening their own businesses.

Currently Director of Sustainability, Davis worked across the Creamery to reduce solid waste.  When Cabot controller Ed Townley first heard of Davis’ socially responsible goals, he rolled his eyes.  Then Townley ran the numbers and realized the value of SR ideals both in terms of employee retention and reduced costs.  He quickly joined forces with not only Davis, but Ed Pcolar who actually went with the trash hauler to the dump to count trash!  After that experience, Pcolar had all departments weigh their solid waste and figuring out how to recycle just about everything.  A few years into their initiative, the Cabot Creamery CEO was given an award for being an iconic leader!

• Implement Low Hanging Fruit First     New Chapter Sustainability Manager Sara Newmark drew up a business plan to bring the Brattleboro, Vermont, company to its national leadership in sustainability. She initiated New Chapter’s sustainable policies with simple recycling, and in purchasing.  Although she had created a business plan for the initiative, she saw a need to implement a few visible changes to start and then inspire others to follow.

She and company owner, Barbi Schulick, asked all the department heads where they could make green improvements, then followed up.  An early and simple change was to check who was using recycled paper.  As it turns out, different departments were sourcing their paper from different places.  While recycled paper was more expensive than some were using, when all the departments switched to recycled paper, the bottom line expenditure for paper was less than had been previously spent.

Each department created goals and metrics to measure their results.  An overall matrix for goals that included Fair Trade sourcing, carbon footprint, solid waste, and energy use was developed. The company then celebrated the department that  recycled the most and who saved the most.

Little by little, day by day, they wove sustainability into the fabric of everyday work, getting it into everyday conversation. They didn’t see changes right away, nor get immediate satisfaction, but SR values started to become part of the way New Chapter does business. Now sustainability is who New Chapter is.

• Evaluate ROI from Multiple Angles and Share     Casella Waste Systems Vice President Joe Fusco noted the coming changes demanded of his industry. Fusco says that they went from “hauling trash” to “managing resources.” Formerly any byproduct of a business was carted away to a landfill. Scraps of lumber, plastic, metal, packaging and food byproducts, all went to the equivalent of a cemetery to be buried.

Casella entered the recycling business and began to track repurposed resources.  They celebrated with employees at each step by measuring and reporting out the difference they were making in environmental, community, employee satisfaction, and financial bottom line.

To assist in measuring what matters on a SR level, companies may use evaluation mechanisms such as the B Lab Impact Assessment (http://b-lab.force.com/bcorp/AssessmentReg) or Green America’s Certification Process, Green Gain, (http://www.greenbusinessnetwork.org/green-business-certification/how-can-your-business-get-certified.html).  Such Corporate Social Responsibility Reporting, or Benefit Corporation Analysis, gives fodder to celebrate successes with the entire company.

Going SR mid-stream is harder and easier than simple change management     In interviewing these companies, we asked ourselves, ‘Is this traditional change management?  Are the strategies that we have outlined above the same that a company would have to use if switching a product line, expanding overseas, or consolidating three factories?’  In fact, the differences are important.

Going SR/green is a challenging transformation for a company to make because the field is still being created.  In some cases, measurement tools have to be created industry by industry.  Cabot Creamery joined with other dairy companies to design industry metrics and tracking, evaluation and reporting mechanisms.

Last, measuring financial success can be more difficult.  The tie to employee retention and SR strategies is not always a clean nor direct causation.  Payback terms may be longer than traditionally calculated.  The metrics for success are not always an existing part of reporting systems to investors, shareholders, and owners.

On the other hand, markets and consumers are increasingly hungry for products and services that are made and distributed with a social conscience.  We now have a language for SR, the “multiple bottom line” (planet, people, profits), “green”, “sustainable”, etc.  The companies we talked to found that going SR engaged and retained employees.  Resourceful ideas came from employees.  Consumers were more attracted to companies with a social conscience.  Energy savings and recycling saved the company money.

Perhaps most difficult to quantify, but most clear to those engaged in these transformations, is the fact that the employees and owners feel personally revitalized, engaged, and committed due to the conversion of companies to run in a socially responsible way.  This intangible but powerful benefit can greatly propel a substantively significant change in business tactics.

This is an opportune time to go SR     Ten years ago, making this kind of conversion would have been more difficult.  An advisor on the board of an architectural firm recently admitted that 15 years ago she dismissed a strategic priority of the firm to be “sustainable.”  Now the firm says, “We were green when it was just a color.”
There is momentum, a cultural change in the market, and a hunger among owners and employees to continue doing what they do so very well, but to positively influence the world, the environment, and their community, as they do so.  While converting to be a socially responsible business can be logistically, culturally, and politically challenging, it is, hands-down, a smart business decision.

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.”

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

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

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

Bring women into the running world

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

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

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

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

Instinctively using SR operating principles

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

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

Operating Principles

Demonstrate gentleness, dignity, and respect.

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

Keep agreements.

Assume good intentions.

Listen and be receptive.

Ask for help.

Avoid taking things personally.

Take risks; learn from what doesn’t work.

Take ownership for outcomes.

Attack problems not people; seek solutions.

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

Instinctively respecting manufacturers

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

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

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

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

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

Values continue to drive — in the State Senate

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

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

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

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

Senator Hinda Miller

Senator Hinda Miller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bringing women together — again

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

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

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

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

Values drive SR

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

http://www.thesultanas.com

Julie Lineberger & Ellen Meyer Shorb

Development with Heart & Soul . . . . an interview with Melinda Louise Moulton, CEO, Main Street Landing

In 1982 Melinda Moulton and her partner, Lisa Steele, were two women on a journey to redevelop the Burlington waterfront.  They created an environmentally and socially responsible mission that guided them through 30 years and 250,000 square feet of built environment on Burlington’s Waterfront.  This is a powerful story about the courage to listen to your heart and soul to lead a business to true, lasting, as well as financial, success.

Their first attempt in the early 1980’s failed for a variety of reasons, but most compelling was the fact that it was too big to succeed and did not receive the community’s support.  Melinda remembered: “We knew it was not the right way to develop land, and we knew that there was a better, more socially responsible and sustainable way to develop the waterfront.  The failure of our first attempt allowed the phoenix to rise from the ashes which carried with it our social and environmental beliefs and a burning desire to succeed.”

Melinda and Lisa changed tactics, leading with heart and soul to create “a place for all people” with a focus on social justice and the environment.  They renamed the company Main Street Landing and created a mission that followed their beliefs and their values. “We interviewed architects and told them our simple mission: We care about people, the environment, and we need to make money. By 1988, we had written our sustainable mission. Our activist culture transformed into Main Street Landing,” Melinda reminisced.

“I still have blood on my hands from crashing through the glass ceiling.  Construction and development were primarily the work of men.  As women, we had a hard time being taken seriously.  We had to do the work and show other developers that we could do what 22 other attempts in 75 years never achieved: bring commercial development back to the blighted Waterfront.  It took two women to do it, and we did it with appeals and legal battles and disbelief. Most other developers did not believe we had what it took, we had to prove ourselves time and time again.  Fortunately, this was a driving force for us.

“Creating an environmentally sustainable development was the right thing to do. We did it with enormous emotion and drew from gut feelings and reactions.  The entire process was quite instinctive.   It was all about doing what felt right, everything was the feeling. For example, when we interviewed architectural firms our questionnaire said: Do you enjoy working for women? Are you happy? Who are you as a person? Do you care about the environment and social justice?  Do you consider yourself to have a big ego?”

Lisa and Melinda were all about focusing on the things that mirrored their values and beliefs.  They wanted to make sure that everyone would love and appreciate their work and know that they cared about how people wanted to experience the waterfront.  Melinda noted, “Everyone in Vermont has a special feeling about the Waterfront, and we wanted to tap into that and have them understand that although we owned the property, we felt more like stewards of the property.  Their opinions mattered to us.  The waterfront belongs to everyone, and we needed to be sensitive and open to that reality.”

Over the years Melinda and Lisa have been able to show that doing the right thing was also profitable.

When it came time for construction, Main Street Landing continued to follow their instincts when interviewing construction firms. Melinda remembered her thinking at the time: “We’re going to hire the sub-contractors based on trust and mutual respect, and a guarantee that they can meet our budget.  We won’t go out to bid. The architectural and engineering team is going to meet weekly with the construction subs and work on the construction drawings together in order to meet budget and create the best project possible.

“We said: ‘there is mutual love and respect between us – we all trust one another, and we want to work with you to create the best project possible and keep our numbers in line with our budget.  That’s what made it successful.” That, and the very smart, detailed business mind of Melinda Moulton checking out all ‘facts’ that any consultant, architect, builder or other consultant put forth. Working exhaustively long hours, Main Street Landing continued to do business on its own terms in order to honor their mission.

Trusting one’s gut means facing ongoing challenges and risks. After the successful redevelopment of Union Station, CornerStone, and the Wing Buildings, a mix of commercial, residential and retail buildings on the waterfront, they focused on the Lake & College building. Lake & College was developed with green construction goals for corporate, retail and a Performing Arts Center spaces.  (http://www.mainstreetlanding.com/waterfrontredevelopment/ main-street-landing/).  Main Street Landing also built a train station to support the return of rail to Burlington. Melinda lobbies for rail and is still awaiting its return.

In February 2005, however, they were still without tenants for Lake & College, and worry began to seep in. One blustery day, Jeffrey Hollander, then-CEO of Seventh Generation, called to see the space. “The wind was blowing, there was ice on the concrete floor, we walked up to the fifth floor, and the wind was just whistling and howling. Jeffrey said, ‘I think this is it. I want to rent 30,000 square feet!’” Melinda recalled her astonishment.

With Seventh Generation as a lead tenant, Main Street Landing began, in Melinda’s words, “creating a loving community that embraced and supported the tenants.  We nurture businesses to grow and succeed. We decided to allow dogs and babies, and encouraged a policy of ‘no whining’.  Our leases are mutually respectful, simple, and easy to understand, and our lease terms can be as short as month-to-month.  We also focus primarily on local businesses, start-ups, and nonprofits.”

“It’s all about the energy,” Melinda continued talking about the culture and the environment created among Main Street Landing tenants.  The Lake and College building is certified LEED Silver (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design). “Unfortunately LEED does not recognize the social mission. The Green Building Council should take into consideration points for a socially focused development agenda.”

Melinda Moulton and Lisa Steele created quite a legacy with their unorthodox development and business acumen, yet they are still pushing envelopes and ceilings. Involved in nonprofit work that supports the environment, education, the arts, and social justice, Melinda revealed, “Both Lisa and I are more radical now than we’ve ever been. My time is running out. I have maybe 20 years, 30 if I’m lucky. I want to work with people to dig deep, evolve, and understand the normal process, the ‘101 of Development in this Country’, needs to change.”

Melinda’s final advice for developers and business owners: “It’s important to make money, no doubt, but more important is doing the right thing, following your heart, and using your mind, and insuring that you care about the Earth and its inhabitants – if you do that – the bottom line will be successful – and you’ll sleep well at night.”

http://www.mainstreetlanding.com

Julie Lineberger

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