Pushing an Industry into Sustainability . . . from an interview with 
Cliff Cort, President
, Triumph Modular Buildings

Cliff Cort is on to the world wide trend of modular building, with his very own twist. He notes that while the US market is sluggish on modular, buyers in other countries have wholeheartedly embraced the construction system. “There is less disruption to the site. It is quick. All over the world, people are wanting modular.” His twist to focus on “highly designed” and sustainable modular may be the game changer the US is waiting for.  As Cliff says, “Green is old news now.  The building code is making green the law as of late.”

Being an effective entrepreneur is about staying on the market edge. Cliff built Triumph Modular Buildings, and is now creating a piece of the company that is on that edge, by going highly designed green. Realizing the modular industry was made up of structures that had not changed in 30 years, Cliff decided time was ripe for change. “I knew everything was barely legal. Yes, all modular classrooms are built to code, but nothing more. They were the cheapest possible things – windowless classrooms. It was disgusting. I knew there was an unbelievable opportunity to raise the bar. The school systems have been getting what they asked for which is the least expensive alternative.”

The Importance of a Champion

In 2006 an architect from Germany, then working in Maryland’s Montgomery County school department, started a design competition in the United States. Familiar with modular construction in Europe, she knew America was lacking and needed to put together better buildings.

Cliff and his associates entered and won the competition for a green and energy efficient modular classroom design. They flew down to Washington, D.C. for the award. At that point, it was just a design. Cliff wanted it to be a reality. “My daughter was going to the Carroll School, so I asked: ‘How would you like to be the first one in the country to have a green modular classroom?’

“Steve Wilkins was the head of school and there was no precedent for what we were proposing. No one in the country had seen any green relocatable classrooms. It opened the eyes of all the dealers and manufacturers in the country.”



It IS Possible to Push an Industry


“There is this green movement coming. Sitting in front of a bunch of mobile modular industry folks, I was pushing them. The market did not push them.

“I knew I was in trouble with them because they were looking to maintain the status quo and maintain their existing assets. They were very protective of their legacy mobile buildings and classrooms,” Cliff explained.

A turning point came when the Executive Director of the Modular Building Institute said Cliff was right. “We have to embrace the green movement,” concurred Lori Robert from NRB Manufacturing, Ontario, Canada, and Vice President of the Modular Building Institute Board of Directors.

Cliff then created a green modular building that Harvard University used as a child care center for 18 months as they renovated another structure. “It won all these green awards including recognition from the Massachusetts Chapter of the US Green Building Council.  One judge said he voted for it because it sat softly on the earth.”

The trend continues. “We are looking into new prototype modular classrooms now.  For example, the Sprout Space classroom below is designed by one of the largest architecture firms in the world, Perkins+Will.  We hope to be able to deliver it nationally for a compelling price.  The financial result of our green projects have yet to pay back any big results, although word of mouth works and we have been invited to work on interesting projects lately.”

Expanding with Ideas and Energy


“People in schools are now starting to ask for green. Finally they are asking for green modular classrooms, addressing what we have been working on for years. It truly is transforming the industry. We have built the best temporary classrooms in the country two years in a row now. They are green, sustainable and relocatable.”

Cliff is abundant with ideas, some of them really radical in the opinion of the current industry. “I am trying to be relevant to the movement.”

Cliff also has ideas for modular power pad, a modular off-grid solar internet cafe type structure pictured below.

“You need to take risks to innovate.  I offered a group of people in my office to take the test to become LEED accredited and proficient.  I said anyone who got it by January 1, I would give a $10,000 bonus to.  Sure enough, the one who passed the test left the company a short time after.”

Cliff is fast paced, continually thinking, continually revising, pushing his company into the future. He is, in fact, challenging the entire industry.

Julie Lineberger

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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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

vermontcountrystore.com

Julie Lineberger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Casella Waste Core Values: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                     

casella.com

Julie Lineberger