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.