The Sustainable Enterprise

June 15, 2005
Cascade Engineering's Fred P. Keller takes a human approach to running a better business.

Fred P. Keller is founder, chairman and CEO of Cascade Engineering, a Grand Rapids, Mich.-based maker of engineered plastic systems and components. His firm emphasizes "sustainable" business practices that invest equally in three things: social, environmental and financial capital. He and his 650-employee firm have been honored numerous times for their good works, which include the creation of a welfare-to-work program.

IW: You built your company on a belief that a business should be "sustainable" and focused on achieving worthy goals. What do you mean by that?

Keller: For me, the idea of being in business was not first and foremost, 'How much money can I make,' but 'How much impact can I make.' I don't know that I could have identified that at the beginning, but that's certainly, as I think back, why I wanted to be in business. But you get to the point of saying you can only make an impact if in fact you are successful in the business world. I like the idea that business is for a purpose, and the purpose isn't just maximizing dollar return.

IW: You've been recognized for helping the less fortunate return to the workplace. I read that more than 100 of your employees were formerly on welfare. True?

Keller: Right now it's about 90. That program -- we now call it a welfare-to-career program, and we've actually formalized it -- started as a result of trying to figure out could we in fact answer the question of why people can't hire people off welfare and be successful. We tried it initially about 15 years ago, and the result was typical. They're around for six weeks, and they just drift off the job. It doesn't seem to work. We did some trial and error, resulting in figuring out it was us that had to change, not necessarily the folks on welfare. We had to learn how to become an organization that supports people as opposed to judges them. That took a lot of education on our part, and the result was that we not only helped the folks on welfare, but we've also helped our culture become much stronger in our own organization. People are much more proud to work here. They know that if we are helping these folks that are on welfare, we're also going to be watching out for them. We have become much more aware of the importance of supporting each other as opposed to trying to figure out who's doing the wrong thing and cutting them out of the organization. We work on having a very diverse workforce. People look [at diversity] perhaps in terms of color or race, but we look at that as providing different points of view with different backgrounds, different creativity levels that help us to come up with better solutions for our work products.

IW: How challenging is it to support your three-pronged approach given that for manufacturing mere survival seems to be difficult these days?

Keller: Organizations, when they are on a sustainability track, start out generally with the idea that they must comply ... you want to follow the rules. The next step in this evolutionary process is that you want to become more efficient. For instance, on the ecological side you want to be able to save energy and save the environment by turning off excess lights so that you move from being compliant to being efficient. Eventually you get to the point where it's an important strategic value for the organization. It's relatively easy for us as we look back on our evolutionary steps that the things we've done on the human capital development side ... they do develop a culture that is very resilient, very able to have people come to work more empowered, more energized and solve problems faster and better and be resilient in the face of difficult times. And that's worth a lot. It's become important to us strategically to continue these kinds of programs.

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