CELEBRATING FORTY YEARS
Fri Oct 09, 2015
Our 40th year in business will soon come to a close.
We had a party to celebrate. It was different from our usual parties. This time none of our beloved clients were invited. It was a party was for the people who do the work – our employees, our former employees, our subcontractors, and our other work partners.
We missed all those incredible clients with whom we have established such important friendships. But it was satisfying to honor and emphasize those who get up each day, go to work, and make it possible to do what we do.
It was a gorgeous day at the Tisbury Waterworks. Our FunCom group (the SMC party and event committee, which includes Siobhan Mullin, Betsy Smith, Jim Vercruysse, and Rob Meyers) had worked closely with Deirdre Bohan and Abbie Rogers to orchestrate the event.
Patrie Grace and her wonderful catering group, along with master barbeque man Tim Laursen (a former employee) had the place set up and done up for a magnificent feast. My son Pinto played music that set a sweet tone.
Before dinner, I said some welcomes, mentioned a few old stalwarts who weren’t there, and told a story or two. Then I invited others to ascend the hill and share stories and memories. A string of people took the mic– Richard Green, Tara Simmons, Jill Walsh, Billy Dillon, Pete Ives, Siobhan Mullin, Bill (Norton) Russell, Christina Platt, Eric Bates – for tall tales and rollicking sketches. Finally, Pete D’Angelo dramatized my own exit interview in the distant future – in his inimitable manner he sent the doddering old idiot (me) out the door.
A bit later photographer Wayne Smith assembled as many of us as he could and shot this picture.
We missed some people. Many old employees were far away and couldn’t make the trip. September is a time when many Vineyarders take post-summer vacations. Two major events were happening at the exact same time – a memorial service for Ernie Mendenhall (longtime West Tisbury building inspector and affordable housing advocate) and, remarkably, on the very same day Morning Glory Farm was celebrating its 40th anniversary, too! Sister companies from way back in 1975.
For those of us who were there it was one fine party – homey, collegial, friendly, tasty, and touching.
Onward to the next 40!
STILL GOES UP AND DOWN
Thu Sep 17, 2015
I went to the MV Hospital for an appointment. I ran into Sue, a woman I’ve known for many years. She used to own the camera store in town. I doubt it’s there anymore; can’t remember (are there still camera stores?).
In 1979 she built a passive solar house. We helped her with the design and we installed one of the ingenious monolithic Insulating Curtainwalls (ICW) that were made – in those days – by a Colorado company called Thermal Technology Corporation.
These shades were a form of “night insulation” – open in the day to let the sun in and closed at night to keep the heat in (these days, we have remarkably technical glass that does that, to a degree, without the shades, but in those days we didn’t). ICWs were made of a number of layers of reflective Mylar that rolled up tightly at the top. When rolled down the shade inflated through vents in the bottom, separating the layers with air spaces, and thereby providing good insulating value. The motorized shades worked automatically: a test tube simulated the glass so the sensor inside it knew when there was sunlight entering and activated the motor to open the shade; when the sun went down the reverse happened.
Sue reminded me that she had called me a few years ago to tell me that a worker who was replacing the glass on her south wall had inadvertently broke the test tube and sensor.
She asked me if I knew how she could get a replacement.
I told her that the company had gone out of business 30 years ago when the owner was lost in a rafting accident on a river in the Rockies. Sorry, I don’t think I can help; you may just have to operate them manually with the toggle switch from here on in. She wasn’t happy with that; she loved coming home from work on winter days after sundown and finding the shades already closed.
Then I remembered hearing that the co-inventor of this product, Wendell Colson, now lives in the Boston area. I suggested that she try to track him down and see if he had any ideas.
She found him.
Turns out he has a house on Martha’s Vineyard (there are only 18,000 buildings on Martha’s Vineyard, so how is it possible that half the people you run into either have a house on the Vineyard or know someone that does?).
Next time Wendell was here he and his wife went to see Sue. He scratched his head and furrowed his brow and finally said, “You know, I think I might have one of those sensors in my garage.” Next time down he came and installed it; now the shade is back to automatic operation.
The amazing thing: while all the glass in front of the shade has long since fogged and been replaced, the Curtainwall, which goes up and down twice each day, is still relentlessly operating, with no maintenance, no breakdowns, no repairs (except the damaged sensor) after 36 years.
That’s a pretty long time for something to work. Anything. Even humans don’t generally go that long without repairs, even though we’re pretty well designed too.
THE SMC EQUITY JOURNEY
Thu Jul 30, 2015
I recently attended the Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy in Worcester MA. Worker co-ops from around the country were represented. As I listened to people relate their struggles to align values with business, it made me think of our good fortune with one aspect of our company: our owners’ equity fund.
In 1987 SMC transitioned from a sole proprietorship to a worker cooperative. Part of the re-structuring was a commitment to profit sharing – we would distribute 35% of annual net profits as cash bonuses to each employee, based on hours worked. The purposes: to share the wealth (of which there wasn’t much at the time) and to partially mitigate our hierarchical wage scale.
In addition, our new by-laws called for the distribution of annual dividends to internal capital accounts for each of the co-op owners. Generally, these distributions were (and are to this day) roughly 50% of the remaining net income after profit sharing.
The internal capital accounts are paper accounts; they do not have cash in them. They are an obligation – the company owes the money to each owner/employee when that person leaves the company. Continue reading »
PEOPLE WHO DO STUFF
Fri Jun 05, 2015
I walk into a just-completed house to have a look around. I’m alone, it’s quiet, I move slowly. It’s the only way to really see. Stand in one place and look at everything visible from that spot. Move to another. Gaze at every nook and cranny.
Look for beauty. Look for alignment. Look for flaws.
Examine each intersection of wall, ceiling, and roof planes. Look at every window – the trim around them, the feel of the sills, the views through them. Interior views too; what do we see at the end of the hall?
Check the daylight in the room. Is it balanced, is there too much glare or contrast? Should there have been a window in that corner?
How are things positioned? Why is that fixture just a smidge off center over the dining room table? That’s an unusual place for a doorstop, but I guess it’s okay.
Our clients will move in two days later. I try to imagine them experiencing the results of a year of decisions. Some were easy. Some were agonizing. What will the space feel like all clean and shiny and complete? I remember conversations with them standing here months ago when it was dusty and raw and partial.
It’s a small, carefully detailed, highly crafted house. Our clients are observant, discerning, strong-willed. The place looks pretty good. Houses are never perfect, of course, never even close. But I don’t see anything seriously wrong at first, except the kitchen faucet. It’s a tall gooseneck, and it’s noticeably crooked. Too crooked. I fool around with it, mess with the nut that holds it tight, wonder why it’s like that, and wonder how to fix it.
I have no idea how to do it.
Back in the office, I write a glowing e-mail to our project architects, our foreman, and our carpenters. I mention the faucet (I put that part in parentheses). Greg, the architect, writes back, ” That’s no problem. We’ll take care of it.” Nice. That’s just what I would say to a client if they were to see it and bring it to my attention. Just what I would say, not knowing how to fix it, but knowing that someone will know. Not knowing, either, if it would be a big problem or a little problem. Just knowing it needs to get done.
At times like this it’s pleasing to be part of a company that consists of a large group of people who know how to do stuff, who know how to solve problems, who know about remedies and fixes and tricks and adjustments. I may not know who knows, but I know that someone in the company knows – whatever it is – or somebody knows how to find out. It’s almost like The Company Knows.
It could be a question about wood, or codes, or building science, or ventilation, or cleaning, or design, or color, or doorstops, or just about anything – the topics are endless.
We look for answers. We try to find solutions. We try things out.
Picasso once said, “God is really only another artist. He invented the giraffe, the elephant, and the cat. He has no real style. He just goes on trying other things.” That’s what we do. We just keep trying other ways to make better houses. Other ways to make a better company.
We do things. We make things. We change things.
As I walked out of that sweet little house that day, I spotted a particularly nice joint on the porch where the reclaimed fir post meets the plate. As I looked at it, I stumbled clumsily on the threshold and tore the screen in the screen door ever so slightly. I mentioned that in the e-mail too.
We break things. We fix things.