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

CSR Wire

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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

A New Business Model for Bookstores. . . from an Interview with Chris Morrow General Manager of Northshire Bookstore • Manchester, Vermont

“The whole industry is changing,” Chris Morrow acknowledged in his Northshire Bookstore office.   “The industry is certainly in turmoil, but things have shifted in our favor.”  Chris, whose parents started this Manchester, Vermont destination store, explained that over the last year and a half eBooks sales growth slowed considerably as print books solidified their base.

Chris Morros

Chris Morrow

Chris sees great opportunities:  “There is this opening to explore different business models.  Right now, we are the unpaid showroom for books. We do the marketing and get half the sales. The discovering of the books is still happening in the stores. It is interesting.”

Part of Chris’ driving force is his commitment to his employees, the community of book lovers, and the environment, all in addition to the financial bottom line: i.e. socially responsible business practices.  These practices will be the foundation to the shift in business model — in fact they may drive its success.

Monetize bookstores role as social change agents
“We need to create a business model around helping to move society in a direction it needs to move to.  We need better distribution of energy and goods, as well as retail manufacturing for local sustainability. We need to look at our use of resources and resource management. It is clear we need to get off of fossil fuels and away from our consumptive way of life.  It is time to get beyond consumerism as our way of life.

“I’m not a small store,” said Chris surrounded by enticing books and creative counterparts. “There will be some Mom and Pops that will stay around because they don’t need to take money out of the business. Other bookstores will have to be very diversified. There will have to be a conglomeration of products offered, such as print on demand. There will always be print bookstores, just like there are vinyl (record) stores; there will be boutique bookstores like that. The rest of us independent bookstores will have to diversify.”

The question is whether this diversification will be founded on local bookstores role as social innovators.  For example, Chris spoke of the idea of a preview night to support the mid-July SolarFest (www.solarfest.org) in Middletown Springs, Vermont.  “I am experimenting and trying to tie into this new business model using our marketing arm.  I can try to leverage that into also supporting SolarFest, in this case.  Where is the business model? That is what I am exploring at the moment.”

Chris created a panel on climate change, featuring activist Bill McKibbon. While the panelists were  all authors, it was more of a public conversation about climate change. “It is me being able to use the book store and access to the authors to highlight causes of interest to me.  I am extremely interested in environmental issues.”

In the past Northshire would invite authors to speak about their new books, there would be a signing, and the store would sell some books. Chris upped the ante to have events that are more issue-oriented.  “This is unusual for bookstores because there is no money in it,” Chris smiled. “It is getting harder and harder to run a bookstore, so our ability to do that sort of thing is lessening.”

The New York Times floated one idea to keep bookstores in the black — charging for author events.  Chris explained, “Bookstores spend a lot of time and energy getting authors here.  People come to the events and never buy the book.  It is a nice hour and a half out, and bookstores are trying to monetize aspects of bookstores in various ways.”

Creative ways to support employees — even under financial stress
“We’ve always had that sort of family business supporting the community through our employees.  In the past I spent a lot of time on the employee side of things, pushing the social responsibility mandate, and also expanding what we did in the community,” said of his past focus at Northshire.

“Strategically, I now run the company.  I have a staff liaison, but no HR department.  The Wellness Coordinator is really the point person for getting initiatives off the ground, such as the employee healthy eating initiative, an exercise machine in the building, a smoking cessation program, etc.  On the side, she also coordinates periodic storewide lunches, and a bunch of other small things around employee wellness.”

Northshire Bookstore employes 40 employees including the part-timers. Without the funds for a Sustainability Officer, it falls on the Wellness Coordinator to explore what type of initiatives the employees are interested in and put them together.  “In the past it was more haphazard, which is why I directed someone to coordinate it and get feedback.  There is a big squeeze on time and energy and I want every initiative to be valuable.

“We also have a Community Connections Coordinator.  She coordinates with local nonprofits such as a kids reading and nature program with the Equinox, etc.  We try to raise awareness through marketing Northshire Bookstore neighbor-to-neighbor.”

Chris finds the SR policies result in not only decreased turnover, but “a nicer environment for employees and an enhanced the workplace atmosphere, which is key.  The community-based work was always going on, we just enhanced it.  It certainly increased the bottom line, it drives sales.  The bottom line is how I manage the store in relation to the top line.”

“Employees are highly invested in a commitment to excellence and not necessarily within the social responsibility rubick.  It is about the books and a commitment to excellence in customer service.  They take pride in being able to read and communicate precisely about books, putting the right book in the right person’s hand at the right time.  There is a real art to that.  There is a real collaborative aspect to it.”

Although the image of the bookstore is not tied up in being a socially responsible organization, in fact it is a socially responsible business.  “We have people who take pay cuts to come work here because it is a good environment.  Physically and emotionally this is the hub of the town.  That is a big source of satisfaction for the employees,”  Chris noted that Northshire started out as an 1,000 square foot store, and over time, in very small increments, has grown to 10,000 square feet.Northshire Bookstore

“One of the luxuries you have as a business owner is shaping the business toward your own priorities,” Chris talked about his 1988 re-entry as an adult into the family business.  “I worked with my parents for a few years, they’ve always been involved in the community.  The term “socially responsible”. . . neither my parents nor our employees would not use that term, but that is what we do, who we are.  The store has always been active in community involvement.  With the environmental initiatives, that is definitely me driving the bus.”

Local imperatives drive state mission
“Book stores, historically, have been catalyst for change.  With big box stores and Amazon, we have been reinforcing the Buy Local message,” says Chris of his work establishing Local First Vermont.  “There are little Local First groups all over the country.”  There are a couple national organizations that are networks of all the networks such as BALLE (Business Alliance for Local Living Economies) on whose Board of Directors Chris served, and AMIBA (American Independent Business Alliance).

Chris became the Founding President of Local First whose members are local business owners, professionals, nonprofit leaders and government representatives who are committed to preserving the character and prosperity of Vermont’s economy, community networks  and natural landscape.

The Local First mission and vision is:     “To preserve and enhance the economic, human, and natural vitality of Vermont communities by promoting the importance of purchasing from locally owned independent businesses.  We envision a robust and sustainable economy fueling vibrant communities, built (in part) on the cornerstone value and practice of “buying local first”.  Local First is now a program of Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility.” Chris is a past member of the VBSR Board of Directors.  (http://vbsr.org/local_first_vermont/local_first_about_us/)

“What I did is an extension of what they Local First was doing at the state level.  Then I started new initiatives on my own.  I went to Oberlin College which has a very strong public service component.  I think some of it is related to that.  Any good bookstore is intricately tied into the community by its very nature.  Bringing ideas and entertainment to the area has always been important to us,” Chris explained.

SR is not a luxury, just part of what we do
“It certainly is easier to manage when things are growing rather than when you are just managing,” Chris spoke of the industry challenges.  “However, socially responsible policies are not a luxury, it is just part of what we do.  I am spending time to install a 16KW solar array on our roof through the Efficiency Vermont’s SPEED, a feed in tariff program.  We put in the solar and they buy the electricity at a set rate for 25 years.   I have had to fill out a myriad of forms, as well as spending time and money with the accountant to figure this out.  On the surface, it has nothing to do with running a bookstore, although we have a display in our sustainability section on how we are doing this.

“We are also monitoring energy savings and I think it will be a decent ROI (return on investment).  It will not be huge, but it will be worth doing, especially considering the other non-monetary aspects as well.”

SR will build the model
Chris will continue to make these choices as he opens a second location in nearby Saratoga, NY, right on Broadway.  “It is booming over there, the fastest growing county in New York.  It is a college town with a strong local base,” he enthused.  His excitement was palpable as he shared plans for his new shop.  “The National Endowment for the Arts expounds on how important reading is to education,” Chris noted the support from NEA.  “Education is a foundation for a fulfilling life, for community vibrancy, so it is a big part of our mission to promote reading to kids.”

Chris said he will stay focused on changes in the book industry, reacting to them, and shaping them to Northshire’s advantage.  He, with others in the industry, will be looking for the business model that keeps bookstores at the center of their communities, there to knit communities together and promote social change.  If anyone can do it, Chris Morrow is a top contender.      http://www.northshire.com

Julie Lineberger & Ellen Meyer Shorb

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

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

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

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

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

Nurse turned CEO implements SR policies instinctively    JanBlomstrann

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

http://www.nrgsystems.com

NRG Systems Headquarters • Photo by Carolyn Bates

NRG Systems Headquarters • Photo by Carolyn Bates

Julie Lineberger

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

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.

                     

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Julie Lineberger