Civic-minded companies: Grand Rapids businesses focus on hiring veterans, restoring history & more

While mistrust of business seems to be growing at a national level, there's a different story playing out in West Michigan. Building on a long tradition of public-private partnerships, companies here are increasingly involved in the community, doing everything from providing training and employment to individuals recently released from prison to quietly leading the restoration and celebration of  Frank Lloyd Wright's Meyer May House — and a whole lot more.
Business is good.

Really.  Business is good. Good, as in the private sector in West Michigan kicks some serious butt when it comes to supporting programs and events in our neighborhoods and beyond.

If you were able to quantify the depth and breadth of community support provided by the private sector in West Michigan, it would be staggering. You would be hard-pressed to find an event or organization that hasn’t been sponsored, supported or funded by a local corporation.

Of course, it is easy to be cynical about the motives behind why companies are engaged in the community. In fact, many people are very suspicious about “big business” in general.

According to a June 2016 Gallup poll, just 6 percent of Americans polled said they have a “great deal” of trust in big business, while 12 percent reported they have “quite a lot” of trust in them. Only Congress had a lower approval rating (3 percent).

There certainly is some justification for this lack of trust (Wells Fargo, anyone?), but there’s a different story playing out in West Michigan. The reality in our community is that the vast majority of our private sector employers are very, very active in the community, with everyone from the Grand Rapids Public Schools to major arts events, like ArtPrize and Festival of the Arts, partnering with major corporations in our area for support.

Simply put, businesses are doing good things.

The mission and vision of B Corps (companies that are using business to creatively solve social and environmental problems) are gaining traction. There is a growing emphasis on using business as a force for good. In West Michigan, Local First highlights the many companies in our area that have met the certification standards to be a certified B Corp, and the work these companies do beyond providing employment with living wages and a strong tax-base is remarkable, including extensively volunteering for community organizations, using primarily local goods to significantly cut down their carbon footprint and support the area’s economy, and more.

You can also review the West Michigan United Way site to get a feel for how local companies are using their resources (financial and human) to support hundreds of non-profits and community programs.

Then there is the obvious. No long reports are needed; just open your eyes and look around.  Hundreds of Little League teams, food drives, charity races, school programs, community festivals, scholarships, neighborhood programs, swimming pools, fireworks, parades, after-school programs, coding camps, and much more are all supported (and in many cases made possible)  by private sector companies. Ask anyone who works in the community about these types of programs and how they get funding, and you’ll get the same answer: we knocked on a few doors, sent a few emails out and we have support from ______ (insert name of business). If you have a worthwhile community program that needs financial or in-kind support, there will be a company that will support you (providing you put in the work).

Finally, there are some not-so-obvious ways that West Michigan companies are contributing with internal and external programs that are well designed, sustainable and impactful, but not always visible. For example, there is a local company that provides training, employment and dignity for individuals recently released from prison. One of West Michigan’s largest employers quietly leads the restoration and celebration of a historical house in a historical neighborhood. A local construction company exported expertise and experience to New Mexico to improve the schools in Native American communities.  Another large employer has multiple programs in place that support our military men and women, including  preferential hiring of veterans.

So many companies, so many stories, so little time.

Rapid Growth is highlighting four businesses in Grand Rapids for a glimpse into why and how companies choose to engage in the community, and the success that stems from these efforts.

Butterball Farms
Mark Peters in the fridge with hundreds of pounds of butter.

“I can make more impact on this community with my entire enterprise than I can by donating 10 percent of our profits.” –Mark Peters, CEO Butterball Farms.

Butterball Farms is not the turkey company.  

Butterball Farms is, in fact, the producer of “artisan-quality, embossed, tabletop butters, Because Butter Should Be Beautiful,” as the company explains on its website.

The Grand Rapids company was founded in 1956, has 140 employees and boasts annual sales greater than $20 million.

It also does some amazing things in the community and for the community.

Peters, the CEO, is a strong believer in creating a corporate culture that walks the talk when it comes to being a good neighbor.  “Our mission statement is ‘enrich lives,’” he says. “So being involved with the community is a natural derivative.”  

Peters says that Butterball Farms gives back to the community in a variety of ways, including providing financial support and volunteer leadership in the community. Much of Butterball’s financial support goes to The Source, a Grand Rapids-based nonprofit designed to help employees keep their jobs, receive training to enhance their employment and help workers move into better positions.

“We also have a board seat with [The Source], and that organization has a very specific set of metrics, which are mostly centered on retention and growth," Peters says. "Other organizations fall in three categories: Christ-centered, education, inner-city youth.” Among the organizations supported are Potter’s House School and the American Cancer Society.

However, that is just the tip of the community-impact iceberg. Butterball Farms uses the power of its corporate culture to make a significant impact.

Forty-five percent of its workforce are “returning citizens,” or individuals who previously have been incarcerated. Individuals who many organizations would never consider for employment. Individuals for whom even getting an interview can be mission impossible.

Peters says his company’s commitment to work with returning citizens is just good business. “The epiphany to overcome this stigma goes back to the 90s,” he explains. “We had a tight labor market, and we had a couple of guys on the work release program. They were great workers. Every day they were here. That began our work with returning citizens. It was not an altruistic motivation at first. It was a tight labor market. We started out needing people and found this talent pool.”

Now, Peters is a vocal advocate for hiring returning citizens and regularly meets with other businesses to share his experiences and to offer advice. “People talk about what needs to be done (with employing returning citizens), and nothing gets done. We just did it.  People make all these assumptions about these individuals. The prison system has done a good job with job readiness.  When you do hire, they are not always a perfect hire, but neither is anyone else. Statistically, we have found when you make it through orientation, they have a much better retention rate.”

It’s not that hard, says Peters, and he shares a simple comment made by one of his formerly incarcerated employees. “I asked why he liked to work here. He said, ‘We don’t get treated any different.’”


Steelcase began as The Metal Office Furniture Company in Grand Rapids in 1912. Now, Steelcase is a global leader in furnishing workplace, healthcare and education environments with a $3.1 billion annual revenue for fiscal year 2016 and approximately 12,000 employees worldwide.

Deb Bailey, Director of Global Corporate Relations at Steelcase, says civic engagement runs deep in the company's DNA. “We believe, as a business, our role and responsibility is to help the communities in which we operate to be great places to live and work – now and in the future.”

The proof is in the pudding. Steelcase was recently recognized as one of “The Civic 50,” a ranking and report by Atlanta-based Points of Light that honors the 50 most community-minded companies in the nation with revenues of at least $1 billion each year.

Bailey paints a picture of Steelcase’s philosophy and focus. “Our support is focused in five areas: the environment, economic development, diversity and inclusion, the arts, and public, urban education. Steelcase is passionate about these issues and supports organizations with programs that often address more than one of these areas. Supporting these critical community issues results in building a strong future workforce and a thriving business environment in which our employees also have the opportunity to grow and contribute.”

There are two distinct organizations within Steelcase: Steelcase corporate and the Steelcase Foundation. They are independent giving organizations and have different giving philosophies and parameters.

“The Foundation is governed by its own board of directors, with its own set of giving parameters," Bailey explains. "The Foundation supports many worthwhile initiatives as well and matches gifts to qualified nonprofits in the areas of education, arts and culture, and environment/conservation. In 2015, the Foundation matched employee gifts totaling more than $515,000.”

The Steelcase corporate relations and community giving approach has a broad scope, which includes a global employee volunteer program, grants and sponsorships.

“Our giving takes many shapes and draws on all of the company’s assets,” Bailey says. “Support includes program grants, cash gifts and product donations or furniture discounts. We also give in-kind donations, such as opening our facilities for community events, or allowing employees to spend time away from jobs volunteering and/or providing strategic support for organizations about which they are personally passionate.”

Steelcase follows a process to make funding decisions with ‘local’ being a focal point. “Following our giving guidelines, we support organizations in the communities where we do business – many national organizations do great work, but we want our involvement to stay close to home, benefiting our local communities,” Bailey explains. “Our five areas of impact guide our support decisions, and we evaluate requests and longstanding partnerships annually. We make sure they have been a good partner in the community and are performing in a sustainable, purposeful way.”

Business is good and doing good is good business.

Bailey says that, besides doing good because it is the right thing, the support also has a positive impact on the bottom line. “We’ve seen the value of community engagement becoming more important to our customers, employees and potential employees in recent years. Community support has become very important in customer decision-making process, and many are asking Steelcase to include information about community involvement in proposals. Employee surveys have shown our workers want to be active in their communities and work for a company that cares. We get a great deal of feedback about how much our involvement is valued, and many programs, like the annual tax help our finance team contributes, are driven by employees themselves.”

One program that has been a quiet success and flies under the radar is Steelcase’s support for the Meyer May House in Heritage Hill.  “A very local initiative that might surprise people is Steelcase’s involvement in the Meyer May House, which was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, located on Madison Avenue,” Bailey says. “We purchased the house in 1985 and completed extensive work to restore it. In 1987 the house opened to the public, and free tours are now given three days each week to community members and visitors. It’s the most completely restored of Wright’s homes, and the restoration contributed to the urban renewal in the Heritage Hill area. We believe this community artifact, a gem of remarkable architecture, is important to the history of our community.”

Rockford Construction

Rockford Construction is a homegrown success story.

Julie Towner, CFO, and Brad Mathis, Community Development Director, shared their insights about the corporate culture at Rockford and how and why they integrate community engagement into their company and with their employees.

Towner has been with Rockford Construction for 22 years but says the company’s culture of giving goes back even further. “Support for the communities we serve has been an integral part of Rockford’s mission since our founding in 1987. As a company, we seek to support organizations that are working to strengthen the fabric of our community. Rockford has developed long term relationships with organizations like God’s Kitchen, the Van Andel Institute, and, more recently, non-profit organizations that support our neighbors on Grand Rapids’ West Side, including Grand Rapids Public Schools and the Community Foundation’s Challenge Scholars Program.”

Towner says that now community support and engagement are the expected norm for all employees. “I’ve been here 22 years and being involved in the community has been an ingrained part of the culture,” says Towner. “Now, it begins with our onboarding new team members.  We talk about how we engage in the community.”

Towner says it is important to recognize that community support goes far beyond financial support. “When we talk about support, we don’t mean just writing checks. Rockford does contribute financially to organizations in need, but our commitment goes much further and deeper than that. Rockford employees are well-represented on philanthropic and community boards,and the company remains committed to furthering the growth of the communities in which it works through volunteer efforts, donations, and business partnerships.”

Many studies on corporate culture report that the truest barometer to understand what is really important begins by starting at the top. Assessments of community engagement, support and expectations of what it means to be involved follows the same line of thinking.

Towner shares the background behind a unique and unexpected program supported by RC. “Rockford is also very involved with the Inner City Christian Federation (ICCF). President Mike VanGessel has been involved at the board level and on a number of committees for the ICCF. A few years ago, his ICCF relationship led Rockford to Gallup, New Mexico, where we became engaged with the Rehoboth Christian School’s Advisory Board in master program planning and budgeting to improve the schools in Native American communities there. This work has been some of the most rewarding we have done to date. The Rehoboth officials embraced our expertise, and we learned a great deal about Native American culture and community.”

Mathis says he has been with Rockford Construction for just over six months in his role as Community Development Director. He acknowledges the challenges that are inherent with making decisions about what projects to support. He says Rockford has an internal committee that reviews submitted requests, and that committee is guided by a specific mission statement that seeks to support organizations that strengthen our community.

In addition, Rockford team members actively engage in conversations, initiatives and organizations throughout our community and neighborhoods to connect to opportunities to support the work of others. “When there is a need in the community, we want to know about it. We focus on listening, not dictating.” Mathis says the company is keen on programs that promote education and wellness.

Mathis says team members have flexible schedules to allow volunteering during work hours, and many Rockford employees have non-profit board positions (and are encouraged to do so). Taking community engagement one step further, Rockford also has a large conference room that they let organizations use free of charge for meetings and events.  “We strive to be authentic and effective with our community engagement,” he explains.

What might surprise some about Rockford’s community support? Towner says it is “how much thought, research, collaboration, and care goes into our efforts in placemaking. The relationships we have built through community engagement inform our work, and we seek to create opportunities that ripple far further than just a built structure. Success to us looks like providing access to jobs, educational opportunities, services, and welcoming gathering spaces for neighbors to experience together. Listening to, and working alongside, other organizations and individuals allows us to contribute to the overall health of our communities, and we don’t take that responsibility lightly, nor do we think we can do it alone.”


SpartanNash, which is headquartered in Grand Rapids, has a massive infrastructure, and the company isn’t afraid to use it. A wholesale grocery distributor that supplies more than 2,100 independent grocery retailers in 47 states, the company is also a grocery retailer, with 159 corporate supermarkets in 10 states. Their thousands of stores, employees and customers are all potential champions for SpartanNash, giving the company a strong voice to reach deep into neighborhoods and cities and support programs that make an impact.

The SpartanNash story is relatively new, but the sum of its parts certainly is not. Nash, a 125-year-old company and Spartan, a 100-year-old company, merged in 2013. Both companies had an existing legacy of giving back to the community, and after the merger, keeping this “legacy was integral to merging the company cultures,” says Meredith Gremel Vice President, Corporate Affairs and Communications. She goes on to say that community engagement was always at the forefront during and post-merger. “Building a winning culture to ensure success” was an important strategy of the merger process and “giving back to the community” and “creating a culture of volunteering” were essential components of how SpartanNash would operate moving forward.

It is easy to see how much of a priority corporate responsibility for SpartanNash by viewing its website, where “Corporate Responsibility” is a high visibility tab, and embedded with loads of content.

It goes beyond just words on the website. SpartanNash hired Alison Sutter as Manager of Corporate Responsibility in 2015, and she is responsible for all corporate responsibility programs, which include both environmental sustainability and social responsibility initiatives.

Sutter comes with a stellar experience, grounded in environmental policy and sustainability. Among her myriad accomplishments are: 
  • Environmental attorney with Warner Norcross and Judd (WNJ).
  • Sustainable business officer at Metro Health Hospital, where she helped them to be ranked as one of the top 25 most sustainable hospitals in the country.
  • Current board president for West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum, for which she has sat on the board since 2009 (formerly the treasurer for several years)
  • Participant in the Food Marketing Institute's Sustainability Executive Committee; formerly served as the Chair of Michigan Health and Hospital Association's Green Healthcare Committee.
Sutter’s role is critical to ensure that corporate responsibility has its fingers in every aspect of the business.

Gremel says that although the responsibility begins with Sutter, it is a team effort at SpartanNash. “We are fortunate to have Alison facilitating the corporate responsibility initiatives at SpartanNash, but we would be remiss if we did not mention the cross functional corporate responsibility committee representing all three business segments (wholesale distribution, military distribution, retail), as well as our three service centers (in Norfolk, Minneapolis, and Grand Rapids). These committee members from all disciplines volunteer and invest hundreds of hours each year to advance our [corporate responsibility] initiatives.”

Throughout the company and its business segments there are hundreds of stories of diverse programs that SpartanNash supports. You can review many of them on their website.  However, for a visceral feel of social impact, take a gander at these numbers.
  • In 2015, SpartanNash Foundation awarded grants totalling more than $900,000.
  • In 2016, the corporation’s foundation, in partnership with the company and the community, granted more than $828,000 to local, state and regional partners for food, shelter, and patriotic initiatives.
  • Annual corporate giving: in 2015, SpartanNash supported or sponsored 4,365 requests  for a total of $766,523. In partnership with the community, it donated 1.3 million bottles of water to Flint.
  • The company recycled more than 18.4 million pounds of recyclable items in 2015.
  • SpartanNash donated 2.5 million pounds of food in 2015.
  • During Earth Week events, the company has since 2011 collected and donated 121,535 pounds of materials to Goodwill partners, equaling approximately 26,000 hours of workforce training.
  • Associates are on track to volunteer 15,000 hours in 2016. As of the end of September, the total volunteer hours reported are 9,772. Volunteers have worked with 315 partner organizations, for a value estimated to be $220,350.
  • There is a preferential hiring of veterans, and the company is listed as a certified Veteran-Friendly Employer by the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency.
Take a minute and let that sink in.

As you can imagine, for an organization this size, there is a formal process to approach SpartanNash for support. For the foundation, there is a grant review committee that has representatives from all over the company. They make recommendations to the Board of Trustees. A key, says Gremel, is “that everything comes back to the corporate vision” and that means that support comes back to local. “Our support needs to be local. Corporate Affairs empowers our stores to help in the local community.”   

Gremel says that besides major initiatives, partnerships (for example, their work with Goodwill) and grants, there is also a process in place for local stores to make decisions on programs about financial and in-kind support for the local schools and churches. They want to support whatever makes senses for that community, with one important caveat. “We have to be incredible stewards of our financials,” Gremel says. “The programs we support have to be sustainable. We then embrace what we support.”

A drop in the bucket

Butterball Farms, Steelcase, Rockford Construction, and SpartanNash are only four West Michigan companies that are pouring effort into making our community a better place; there are many, many others. The common denominator with these four organizations, all in different industries, is their seriousness and purposefulness in how they go about their business of doing good. Good business practices are akin to good community support initiatives. Which makes for an interesting two-way street. If you are a community leader, with a program or initiative that is in need of support, make sure you do your homework and have your processes in place before approaching a business for support. Is the organization you are approaching aligned with your goals? Are you able to measure the impact of your work? Businesses might be good, but don’t take their support for granted. 

Photography by Adam Bird
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.