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Get Ready for Local First's Fifth Annual Sustainable Business Conference

Local First will host a half-day conference on March 27 from noon to 5 p.m. at Aquinas College on sustainable business. Speakers, breakout sessions, a Local First member business expo, and a closing reception will make up this fifth annual Sustainable Business Conference

According to the press release, Local First Communications Coordinator Seth Galligan says this conference is for "anyone who wants to be connected with the sustainable business movement and wants to build a network of relationships with the leaders and innovators." 

Keynote speaker Steve Cochran, VP of King Arthur Flour, is excited to come to Grand Rapids for the event. 

"It'll be fun to be a part of," Cochran says. "I think the reasons why (Local First) asked us are fun, and something a lot of people don't know about."

King Arthur Flour, founded in Boston, Mass., but now headquartered in Norwich, VT, is 233 years old -- the oldest flour company in the U.S. Since 2004, Cochran says King Arthur has been 100 percent employee-owned, also known as an ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan). In an ESOP, the company provides the employees with stock ownership, as opposed to the stocks being traded by outsiders. 

"The simple way to describe what an ESOP is as a type of retirement account according to the IRS, similar to a 401k, where all the stock is from one company," Cochran says. "Employees receive stock just from working. They don't have to buy it. The company contributes to the account for you."

Cochran says some companies do it for tax reasons, other from a political point of view. But King Arthur does it, Cochran says, because they believe that it supports the community. 

"Our primary community is our employees," he says. "The next (community) beyond that, if you think in concentric circles, is the area where we live. At an ESOP, instead of working for a company where stockholders who live thousands of miles away are getting the benefits of success, we're sharing them with the people who are there every day, who have a vested interest and ability to affect how we're doing. We think this supports our community and makes us a sustainable business and, taking it to the other extreme, makes us a better company."

Employees at an ESOP are perhaps more inclined to fix problems, make suggestions, and go the extra mile in their work, because every improvement is a direct benefit to them. King Arthur has approximately 300 employees, but most of this growth has been recent. When Cochran started at King Arthur in 2007, there were about 150 employees. 

King Arthur went to 40 percent employee ownership in 1996 before making the full transition in 2007. Cochran says this is a fairly common practice. He also says the company maintains a typical leadership structure, but that part of their strategy is respecting each employee's talents and what they're responsible for. "We're very open book, and we try to be open to new ideas and ask for input from all levels," he says. 

King Arthur was also a founding B Corp, and uses this status as a measurement tool. "If you decide you're interested in more than the bottom line and you want to have a triple bottom line, and your other two metrics are society and environment, how do you measure yourself?" Cochran says. This kind of thinking, he says, is how the idea of B Corps came to be.

Cochran says being a B Corp is also a good way to measure yourself against other companies -- not necessarily in a competitive way, but as a means of seeing what you can learn from other companies and to find like-minded partners. 

On the homefront, Rob McCarty, managing partner of marketing and branding firm The Image Shoppe, will also be speaking at the conference. Originally a company of three working from their respective homes, Image Shoppe now has 11 employees and an office on Diamond and Wealthy in Uptown. 

McCarty attributes their success as an agency to the relationships they build with customers. "We don't lose clients very often, and we don't turn people over," he says. "We build real relationships. We work with our clients to understand who they are."

McCarty says he'll be talking about "casting the vision" at the conference. "I think vision is making a comeback," he says. "We're getting to a time where people do care about where you're going, and it's good to be able to tell people, especially the people who work with you, where you're going and what your company is going to be in 10, five, or three years -- to have something to believe in and something that's achievable." 

McCarty says vision can definitely help support a sustainability initiative. "People get caught up in thinking that sustainability is just about hugging a tree," he says. "There has to be a thought about liking the tree, but that's not what sustainability is. It's finance, it's how you interact with your community… there are bigger pieces."

For McCarty, sustainability is practice-based. A sustainable company is a good steward in its community, and supports the people and organizations that make up that community. It's composting, recycling, keeping employees and taking care of them, and being fair. The Image Shoppe volunteers at events, participates in community activities, and provides design and strategy support for nonprofits. "Wherever your business lands on the street, you're a leader in that community, whether you like it or not," he says. 

McCarty feels that neighborhoods can fall apart when businesses fall apart, and that cities cannot have those kind of disasters happen again as they have in past decades. He thinks an organization like Local First provides a commonality, and a thread that can provide local businesses clout as a group. "You go into a place and see that sticker on the door, you know you can introduce yourself," he says. "I can say, 'I'm Rob, and I own (The Image Shoppe), and it's great to see you're a member. Tell me about your store. And I think customers can do that, too."

The Fifth Annual Sustainable Business Conference is open to the public. More information and tickets can be found at www.localfirst.com. A reception including local food, beer, and wine is complimentary with admission. 

J. Bennett Rylah is the Managing Editor of Rapid Growth Media. 

Images provided by Local First. 
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