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Strong businesses, strong communities

Feature, Management | April 1, 2011 | By:

When small businesses give of their time and resources to build better communities, everyone profits.

Gunther Williams’ family business, Idaho Sewing for Sports Inc. of Grangeville, Idaho, was hit hard by the recession. But laying off employees didn’t sit well with him. It seemed counterproductive to let skilled employees go in order to save the business, he says. So in January 2010, as work began to pick up, Williams took what some might consider a radical action—he brought back all of the company’s furloughed employees full time, with a twist.

“I decided we needed to do more in the community,” he says. “We changed our model of giving back, if you will, which had been writing a check when we could afford it. I had a hard time doing that when my own people had trouble buying groceries. I brought everyone back to work and said, ‘Let’s go out into the community. I’ll pay you to do that.’”

Williams’ employees each now spend up to four paid hours a week volunteering in the community. Some help out in their child’s classroom, others at the local food bank, and one employee with a passion for American history is helping a museum transcribe historical documents. Business has rebounded as well, but Williams is committed to allowing each employee four hours a week to volunteer in the community, even if work reaches capacity. While it’s too early to see how this plan will affect his business, he views it as an investment in his employees and the community they live in, as opposed to an expense.

“We’ve always had the idea around here that the purpose of the business was to bless the lives of our employees,” he says.

Theories and practices related to corporate citizenship, corporate social responsibility, community involvement or just plain volunteerism by business owners and their employees go well beyond “it’s just the right thing to do.” Many small business owners in the specialty fabrics industry take the approach that what benefits the community benefits the business, including TCT&A Industries CEO Kevin Yonce, MFC, IFM, CCP, of Urbana, Ill.

“If you want a strong community and a strong industry, you are responsible for making it that way,” Yonce says. “You can’t leave it to someone else.”

What’s in it for me?

When Paul McCartney penned the couplet “In the end, the love you take / Is equal to the love you make,” he surely didn’t have business-community involvement in mind. But several industry leaders sing a version of those lines when discussing the rewards their company receives from activities that benefit the larger community or industry.

“There are things that people are going to do out of the kindness of their hearts and not expect anything in return, and that is great, that’s giving at its ultimate,” says Pat Hayes, CPP, founder and chairman of Fabric Images Inc., Elgin, Ill. “But for the small business owner, just fighting to keep his head above water and looking at it and saying, ‘I just don’t have the time,’ my response is find your niche, find where it is a win-win situation for everybody, and then delegate a certain amount of time that you’re willing to commit, because it will pay off tenfold.”

Bud Weisbart, IFM, vice president of A&R Tarpaulins Inc., Fontana, Calif., prefers the phrase “shared value” to refer to practices that companies engage in that benefit both the business and the larger community and industry. To those business owners who would say “profit first,” Weisbart would respond, “investment first.”

“I don’t think that profitability is incompatible with shared values and shared responsibilities and shared capabilities,” Weisbart says. “I think that’s really an unfortunate limitation we put on ourselves.”

By achieving productive involvement in the community, businesses raise their level of respect in the community and industry, he says. “Respect leads to relations, and relations lead to direct benefits to the company.”

Scott Massey, president of Awning Cleaning Industries, New Haven, Conn., says his approach to community involvement has evolved in the last few years. Previously, if someone came through the door asking for some kind of community assistance, he would respond if the business was in a position to do so. Now, he takes a proactive approach, seeking out the kind of community involvement he wants his business to engage in, and in the process raising his company’s visibility in the community.

“Some would say it’s ringing your own bell, but we don’t have a problem with that if we are doing something good,” Massey says.

Find the win-win

One approach to community engagement is to find needs that match the skills a business has to offer.

“Our philosophy is keep your eyes open, actually look for cool, quality things to do within the community, and angle them in with what you do anyway,” Massey says.

For Awning Cleaning Industries, that may mean, on a local level, cleaning an awning for a homeless shelter pro bono or providing free banners to community organizations. On an industry level, he’s initiating conversations about how to send less outdoor fabric to the landfill. For example, he constructs tarps out of old fabric and gives them away; other materials can be collected, shredded and turned into other products. In December, Massey revamped several donated shade fabric panels and an old tent for a New Haven animal shelter to provide shade in an outdoor exercise area—and received a lot of press coverage when the grateful shelter contacted local media. “We got jobs from that,” Massey says. “We’ve got people coming to us saying, ‘You’re the kind of company we want to work with.’”

“In a time when bad news is prevalent, if you can come up with some good news, you are going to get noticed, and it’s not that hard to do,” he says.

Yonce’s motivation for community involvement stems from his belief that a strong community contributes to a strong business. He estimates that he devotes about 10-15 hours a week to various organizations, from the Rotary Club to an area food bank to the University of Illinois men’s basketball booster club.

“I have grown up in a community that I absolutely love, and work in an industry that I had no idea I would enjoy this much,” Yonce says. “I don’t understand people who can take from their community, their industry, and not give back to it.”

For Hayes, one of the win-win situations for his business is workforce development. When Fabric Images relocated to Elgin, Ill., Hayes quickly found himself immersed in workforce development through the local chamber of commerce and the city’s economic development council to ensure that he had access to a highly skilled labor pool. This has led to a long-term project, promoting and expanding the WorkKeys® certification program that measures the basic skill sets of job seekers.

“I look at it and ask, ‘Am I benefiting the community?’ Absolutely I am, but in the end I’m benefiting myself and my company, because I’m going to be able to get better people,” he says.

A&R Tarpaulins is also committed to labor development by offering internships for students from high school to graduate level. Several of those interns have stayed on with the company, including the company’s head engineer.

“That’s very specifically related to the kind of support we provide to the development of young people,” Weisbart says. “Smaller businesses like ours have difficulty incorporating new people into their organizations. Paid internships give kids an opportunity to study and grow, and give you as a company the opportunity to mentor people within your business culture.”

The measure of success

One of the dilemmas of community involvement for businesses is that there are few measures by which a company can objectively evaluate return on investment. Massey considers the time and resources he devotes to community involvement to be a slice of his overall advertising budget, and he says it has more than paid for itself.

“It’s a conscious effort to do better with the money you are already spending, and you might even find out that you get more for your money if you do it well, because it’s a local investment,” he says.

Hayes says that the world was opened up for him once he became involved in community development, networking with business, government and nonprofit leaders who he would otherwise not have known. It’s something for which every business owner needs to make time.

“When you say you don’t have time for it, you’re saying you don’t have time to figure out how to make more money by knowing other people in the community who might be looking at things that all of a sudden could turn into something that could be of benefit to you,” Hayes says. “That’s being narrow minded.”

Weisbart says that rather than attempting to measure shared valued on a case-by-case basis, owners and managers should reflect on larger questions: Are we growing? Are we healthy? “It’s much more important that you get this sense of the progress you are making,” he says.

Jill C. Lafferty is editor of InTents magazine.

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