My colleagues and fellow owners Deirdre, Rob, Siobhan and I just returned from a conference in Boston called Local Sustainable Economies. It was a national gathering, hosted by the Sustainable Business Network of Massachusetts, of people and organizations working to localize economic activity and encourage the long haul shift from the extractive economy of the present to a generative economy of the future.
On January 12th, my wife Chris and I went to see my 95 year old father in Palo Alto CA. He had recently fallen and hit his head. I had been to see him after the accident and he seemed to be doing well. While i was there he and I had a long conversation with his doctor, Scott Wood.
My Dad, who just weeks before had been attending grand medical rounds, playing tennis, and leafleting for Bernie Sanders on University Avenue, was suffering from some cognitive losses, but he was lucid and clear. He told us in no uncertain terms that if this thing got worse there would be no hospital – only hospice, no food and drink, and comfort. We agreed. His doctor commented, “I’m with you – when I go I want plenty of morphine and ice cream, and the ice cream’s optional.”
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.
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.
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.
Not long ago a former client died. I received a letter with a copy of her will. She left some funds for South Mountain to do two community projects – one to help the Vineyard affordable housing effort and another to do an educational demonstration about solar energy.
The amazing thing: she was not wealthy at all. In 1980, when she was 59 years old, we designed and built the first home she ever owned – a sweet little subsidized passive solar earth-bermed house in Vineyard Haven for Madeline and her dog.
We were excited to receive this bequest. It enhanced our company charitable and pro-bono commitment: each year we give 10% of our net profits to charitable organizations, and an additional 10% to pro-bono work and in-kind donations.
Giving away money is fun, it’s rewarding, it makes a difference, and there’s never as much to give as we wish. Many deserving needs go without.
We have a foundation (the South Mountain Foundation, now 13 years old), a policy regarding charitable contributions and pro bono work, and a small committee to implement. The committee consists of four of our owners, Derrill Bazzy (chair), Betsy Smith, Ken Leuchtenmacher, and myself.
The first section of our policy describes the purpose: “South Mountain Company donates funds and services to reflect the values and interests of the Owners and employees of SMC. This is one aspect of our commitment to our community and to social change.”
We distribute the majority of our funds to local organizations, with a strong emphasis on Affordable Housing, Local Food, and Renewable Energy. The same is true of our in-kind donations. The remaining funds are distributed to organizations in the following categories: Conservation & Environment, Schools & Children, Health & Social Services, Arts & Culture, and Global Poverty Relief. We also keep a set-aside for emergency disaster relief efforts.
We generally target organizations with limited resources rather than those with good fundraising departments and large budgets. Our funds can be most effective that way.
In FY 15 (just concluded) we donated approximately $39,000 in cash. Our largest donation was to the Island Housing Trust. Our pro-bono and discounted work this year went to the MV Public Charter School, the Vineyard Playhouse, the Aquinnah Cultural Center, Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, the Island Grown Initiative’s Thimble Farm, the Farm Institute, and others. Some of this was design work, some was for feasibility studies, and some was construction materials.
The SMC Foundation can also accept and redistribute donations of cash and/or property. We welcome donations from living persons and estates (like Madeline’s) for designated purposes consistent with company values.
Here’s what we did with the two Madeline bequests:
• We designed several versions of a prototype high quality, high performance, zero energy affordable home. We agreed to donate these plans to anyone doing affordable housing as long as they agree to pay small fees for quality assurance – so the houses get built as they’re supposed to. Five houses (three of those subsidized and permanently affordable, for the Island Housing Trust) have been built from these plans to date. More are in development. Here’s a rendering of one.
• We commissioned a kinetic sculpture by Tim Laursen called SunBird which is powered by the sun (and by a hand crank, so we humans can see how how feeble we are compared to sunlight!). Soon to be installed in a highly visible location and un-veiled! Here’s a photo of it at its current test site.
But mostly the Foundation exists to distribute a part of our profits. Someone once said, “As I give, I get.” This part of South Mountain’s work is about helping to improve both peoples’ lives and the community from which we get so much. It’s one of the ways we give . . . and get. We are grateful for the opportunity.