ALL IN A COMPANY MEETING
Wed Dec 23, 2015
We began our recent year-end company meeting by reviewing finances, work completed, work ahead, affordable housing projects in the pipeline, solar sales and installations, and a variety of compelling and not-so-compelling metrics and indicators.
It has been a very good year, as were the two that came before. A robust trifecta. One of our younger employees, Ian Gumpel, asked why we’re doing so well. Great question. I mumbled a few dis-jointed explanations that didn’t quite add up. Later I thought more and the next day I wrote a brief addendum to everyone that said in part, about Ian’s question, “As a friend of ours, Devon Hartman, once said, ‘The key to making a company work is getting all the wood behind one arrow.’ We are making great strides toward doing just that. Sometimes it doesn’t seem so; the alignment can be obscured by the drama and upheaval of constant change. But it becomes clear through the lens of our triple bottom line performance.”
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BOTTOM LINES REACHES THE SUMMIT
Tue Nov 17, 2015
The first Bottom Lines Business Summit is over. It will not be the last. It was a peak moment after several years of work with two friends and colleagues, Paul Eldrenkamp and Jamie Wolf, to design and build a new program for the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association (NESEA).
On a beautiful fall day, more than 100 NESEA members gathered at Smith College to celebrate two years of Building Energy Bottom Lines, to hone business skills, and to consider the future of this exciting endeavor.
Bottom Lines was launched in 2014. The premise: the NESEA community has done a superb job of sharing technical and policy information for decades, but we have done less to promote and inform the craft of business.
Today, Bottom Lines consists of three peer group networks; each includes +/- 10 Northeast architecture, building, design/build, and renewable energy businesses. A fourth group is currently in formation.
In the opening plenary session Heather Thompson, of Thompson Johnson Woodworks in Maine, grilled my two fellow Bottom Lines founders and me. She asked us “What was the longing – the need – that led you to commit time and energy to the creation of Bottom Lines?” The three of us agreed that it was a sense of urgency – the notion that if we are serious about making positive change, we must elevate the craft of Triple Bottom Line (people, planet, profit) business practice and distribute business know-how to the next generation.
Business is a force. We ought to pay equal attention to the craft of business as to technology and building science. We need to build strong businesses as well as great buildings; in fact, we are unlikely to succeed at one without the other. The intention of Bottom Lines is to offer a place for deep business introspection with trusted peers to expand the leadership skills and capacities of every member.
Attendee Kevin Ireton, former editor of Fine Homebuilding and now a contractor and freelance writer, summarized it well, “It seems only appropriate that NESEA should help those who care so passionately about sustainable buildings to stay in business. The first rule of lifesaving is: ‘Don’t drown.’ You could say the same thing about NESEA members trying to save the planet. We can’t help anybody if we can’t stay in business.”
Bottom Lines aspires to do more than keep us afloat. It inspires us to rise above the surface of day-to-day business necessities to help each other navigate the complexities of effective business practice that serves all stakeholders, that minimizes environmental impact, and that produces sufficient profits to allow us to do these things well.
Back to the Summit.
As the day unfolded, participants attended workshops about Branding, Business Technology, Living Wages, Leadership Skills, Financial Management, Big Transitions, Design/Build Project Delivery Methods, and Measuring Carbon Footprints.
Let’s look at snapshots of some of these:
• Amy Glasmeir, a professor of Economic Geography and Regional Planning at MIT, teamed with builder Dan Kolbert for What’s a Living Wage? Participants used a prepared spreadsheet to determine the impact of true living wages on the cost of a project.
• Peter Taggart of Taggart Construction led Accounting and Financial Management for Building Professionals and came at accounting as a “creative endeavor” that’s not so dry as we often make it out to be.
• Mel Baiser, Ben Kelley, and Brad Morse tackled Technology to Help Operate and Manage Your Business. They pointed out that “technology is, at best, a facilitation tool and not a savior” that “systems can engage people by externalizing that which often remains internal to one person or a few” that “technology is key to bringing young people into our industry” and that “tech tools for our industry need to seriously evolve – there are great development opportunities.”
• In my Big Transitions workshop I pointed out that change is situational but that transitions are psychological – if transitions are to be rewarding rather than stressful they must be consciously and effectively managed. People shared their own business transition experiences – in the realms of ownership, succession, rapid growth, job changes, management structure, and new endeavors.
• Jamie Wolf and Bruce Coldham led the Design/Build workshop participants through the entire beginning-to-end project workflow process – to help us improve project delivery methods, communication, understanding of the various roles of participants, and optimization of service to clients.
• The Carbon Footprint workshop leaders – Kate Stephenson, Declan Keefe, Jacob Deva Racusin, Rachel White, and Marc Rosenbaum – examined different ways of quantifying environmental impact in our businesses and projects. They demonstrated the difficulty of measuring impacts, but stressed that the things that we measure are the things we can manage – and improve.
Plenty of content throughout the day. Plenty of interaction. Plenty of humor (Ben Mayer from SunBug said, “The spirit and humor in the group has a magnetic quality. I must have laughed out loud 20 times.”).
The closing session was a series of Pecha Kucha presentations by four companies who have hosted Bottom Lines gatherings at their places of business. Their images and commentary conveyed the complexity of the experience – the sense of accountability, the generosity of their peers, the fear of exposure and subsequent joy of learning, the unlimited potential for progress in our enterprises.
Steve Silverman of Valley Home Improvement chaired the conference. He spoke about what Bottom Lines means to him: “It means I am surrounded by kindred spirits; smart, passionate, caring people who share a common thread of craft, small business and beyond. It means I have trusted companions in the often lonely world of a sole proprietor. BL accelerates my rate of business and personal development. It fosters openness and sharing. And it gives me a measuring stick.”
And Kate Stephenson, the executive director of Yestermorrow Design/Build School (NESEA’s partner in Bottom Lines), had this to say “After a great day at the Summit, I ran into an acquaintance on the way out the door who I had invited to come. He looked at me and said ‘Kate, this is exactly what I have been seeking for the past ten years.’ To me, it was a great example of what Jamie calls “finding your tribe” and the opportunity Bottom Lines can offer to practitioners who often feel they are alone in the wilderness.”
It is tribal. It is a culture of sharing. It’s also a big investment – of time, money, courage, and commitment to transparency. But Bottom Liners seem to agree that the value far outstrips the investment; the risk is low.
The Summit marked the end of the beginning of Bottom Lines. The future is bright. I recently spoke at the national conference of the North American Timber Framers Guild. I mentioned Bottom Lines. A Seattle architect who works with the Northwest EcoBuilding Guild (a Northwest version of NESEA) approached me after the talk. “Do you imagine that this is something we could do regionally, here in the Northwest?” he asked.
“Absolutely,” I responded. “The template for success has been created. It can be used anywhere, by any group of people who want to explore the art and craft of business, and what it takes to be a truly effective Triple Bottom Lines business in today’s world.”
Ultimately, this is about increasing our capacity to do work that matters. Someone recently said that the best young minds of our current generation are devoting themselves to figuring out better ways to get people to click on ads. We need these people to being doing work that matters. Bottom Lines promotes that philosophy and ability.
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.