Editor's Note: This is the final article in a seven-week series by Nathan Springer that chronicles in-depth the lessons from a course at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business on how to become a social intrapreneur -- someone who makes change for good from within the enterprise.
The easiest part of the journey to the top of Mt. Sustainability for most is the first step. A green team here, a public statement there. The harder part is the many, many steps between the first and the last. Social intrapreneurs that want to learn what it takes to continue the journey can take a cue from a little known Midwest manufacturing company that is well along the path to sustainability -- Cascade Engineering.
Today we conclude this series on the stories, lessons, and tools from the class on Social Intrapreneurs in the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. Over two months, Professor Jerry Davis and former student Chris White showcased successes and tools of intrapreneurs that I wrote about for professionals. The series concludes with a company that is transforming the first steps up the mountain into enterprise-wide integrity. Cascade Engineering is a middle market Midwest manufacturing company that is small but successful in large part because of sustainability.
In an era when macroeconomic forces have decimated America's manufacturing in the Midwest, Cascade is thriving according to CEO Fred Keller who presents to students in the class. The company, founded in 1973 to produce injection molding plastics for automotive, now has 10 manufacturing sites and 1,200 employees. In 2009 and 2010 it grew by 20% year-on-year.
Cascade's nearly four decades of manufacturing and sustainability began with commitment to a Triple Bottom Line (TBL) policy. "Our stated purpose for existing as an organization is to have a positive impact on society, the environment, and be financially successful," says Cascade's Dave Barrett, a 37 year veteran who leads talent development. The company is the only manufacturing B-Corp, a legal status that commits it to a triple bottom line, and the largest until Patagonia certified last December.
The company has honed many tools and processes along the way including a system for experimentation. "I think if you pitch a project based on making a positive impact and it doesn't cost very much money and maybe even makes money, to me that is a compelling argument," says CEO Keller. Such experimentation has helped it enter new markets such as waste hauling, renewable energy products, and even consumer products.
One recent experiment is the Pink Cart, a bright pink rolling refuse cart that gives $5 of the sale from each unit to breast cancer awareness. "You want to be able to start small, to test it and have the hypothesis," says Keller. The cart project is gaining momentum as it increases company sales, which recently surpassing 50,000 units. One municipality already committed to use them for 100% of its waste bins.
Part of experimentation for Cascade is learning how to fail. Several training programs that support the company's goal to be the employer of choice in the region were built on previous failures. "We tried to do a work to work program with Burger King but found that there were too many barriers," says Keller. The company launched two different initiatives to bring people out of poverty and off welfare in the mid 1990's that were unsuccessful for different reasons.
"We needed to improve our support and understanding of people in poverty, we needed to ‘empathize' without sympathizing with a new group of folks that were well intentioned but needed to learn new skills," says Keller. Their reviewed of the process revealed a need for targeted just-in-time skills training in addition to education of current employees. The third launch was a success. The program is now nationally recognized and blossomed into initiatives for previously incarcerated workers, veterans, and neighborhood job security.
Training and education does not end with new workers. Integrating sustainability throughout the enterprise requires ongoing education of employees at all levels. "Fred taught his ‘sustainability' class to a significant number of leaders," says Barrett, the talent development leader. "We continue to educate all leaders and many floor employees through a class titled ‘Introduction to Sustainability'." Speakers present to engineers about Design for the Environment and internal teams are tasked with identifying ways to train employees in new skills related to the company's triple bottom line mission.