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From time to time, companies ask me to interview their corporate thought leaders and additional experts to construct a story on a topic their clients will find useful. I love these projects, as I learn so much in the process.

In 2019, I had the opportunity to ghostwrite a few sponsored stories for my primary client Crain Content Studio. Take a gander:

Using environmental practices to cultivate business growth

Content sponsored by Bank of America, written by me, and originally posted on Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal

 

There is no shortage of research proving companies that pay attention to their environmental, social and governance (ESG) practices are likely to benefit their bottom line.

Simply put, ESG is good business.

But while most companies recognize these practices as critical to the success and longevity of their core industries, some find difficulty with practical implementation — especially when related to the “E,” or environmental factors.

Here, we learn from three companies that are putting a focus on that “E” factor to boost employee and consumer satisfaction, create opportunities and change the world for the better.

What are your core businesses?

Cindy Brown, president, Chippewa Valley Bean Co. Inc.: Chippewa Valley Bean is one arm of the family’s agri-business, which my parents started in 1973. We work with about 100 farmers and handle a large percentage of the world’s kidney beans, exporting about 70 percent of them. While we also have pulse, a dry bean similar to a lentil or chickpea, our main crop is kidney beans, as it is much more sustainable as a plant-based protein that can help feed the world. We know we will have to rely on plant-based protein in the future.

Emilio Tenuta, vice president of global sustainability, Ecolab Inc.:Ecolab is a global leader in water, hygiene and energy services and technologies with nearly 50,000 associates working in 170 countries alongside customers in 40 different industries. Our purpose is to make the world cleaner, safer and healthier – helping businesses succeed while protecting people and vital resources. We touch a wide range of industries, from universities to tech to manufacturing to hotels.

Clay Norrbom, managing director, Juhl Clean Energy Assets Inc.:Juhl goes back about 30 years as a clean-energy company. We developed the first wind farm in Minnesota. Over the years, we diversified to work with all clean energy technologies — wind; solar; natural gas combined heat and power; and hydroelectric, combined heat and power — in an efficient way. Our customer base is selling direct to large companies, like industrial businesses, universities and small utilities (municipal and small co-op utilities) that have not generated electricity but would buy renewable energy directly.

What are some of the critical changes, disruptions or risks that you’re seeing in your industries?

Norrbom: When the grid was coal and nuclear, you needed a small number of very large plants owned by a small number of players. Companies bought (their energy) from those large utilities. Technology has advanced and the costs of renewable energy are coming down. For wind, solar and even engine-based projects, equipment is becoming much more efficient and cheaper.

Now, for the first time in decades, they can buy their own generation of electricity. Our competition now is the grid. We find our customers are interested in cleaner, cheaper, and more reliable energy. Companies that had a backup generator now want something reliable and clean.

Brown: The biggest risk right now is from climate change and longer periods of dry weather. Then, when it does start to rain, the storms are so much more intense. I’ve watched areas in southern Minnesota that just can’t get rid of all the water that comes down. Also, higher evening temperatures affect the growing of some crops.

Tenuta: Water scarcity or water stress is an increasing concern for industries. And our global water quality and quantity is changing: The United Nations expects a 40% fresh water gap by 2030. Industries are starting to see the real effects of not having enough fresh water to do business. This has the potential to dramatically disrupt business operations.

How do you manage those risks and disruptions?

Tom Kwak, CFO, Chippewa Valley: We’re looking at every way we can practice better efficiencies, which can also come with reduced costs. We are converting irrigation systems on the farm and putting in controls to use …a computer-driven system so water is only applied when absolutely needed. We’re looking at installing lighting that’s LED and solar-powered in our warehouses and distribution centers and looking at climate control. We are installing plug-in access for electric cars to encourage employees and converting a lot of our carbon-based activities to be more electric driven as opposed to propane.

If the (electrical) grid goes down, it could take weeks to come back up. We had to look at how we can operate with back-up generation of electricity. Each year, we’re checking off another box to ensure that we’ve got the correct financial means in place to survive a climate situation.

Norrbom: There are a lot of companies interested in building renewable energy or having it be part of their electrical supply, but when push comes to shove they look at whether they are going to invest in renewable energy or in their businesses. We can break down the barriers.

We tell the customers we work with, if they want to own renewable energy or clean energy, we’ll do the engineering. But if you don’t want to own it and want to use your capital in other ways, we’re willing to build and own it ourselves and sell you the energy.

Tenuta: For many of our customers, productivity and quality are crucial. Water is a dependency for many businesses, whether that’s using water to paint automobiles or clean and wash dishes in a hotel.

Connected devices and technologies allow us to use data to understand the variability of water supply in our customer operations and gain insights into any risk factors they face with the way they manage water and energy. Smart water management solutions exist today to help reduce the risk of operational disruption.

Why are effective environmental strategies important?

Norrbom: Businesses see it as an opportunity to engage their customers and employees and there’s interest from shareholders looking at companies that are doing something to address their long-term electricity and energy consumption.

A company like a large manufacturer can achieve its environmental goals, whether that’s a major reduction in carbon or a major increase in renewable energy, while at the same time saving some money.

Tenuta: When you implement a smart water management strategy in your operations, there’s a positive impact to your bottom line. Environmental changes don’t have to be at odds with your business objectives. Companies want to do business with companies that are delivering the benefits of product design but with a smaller environmental footprint.

Not only do environmental strategies help your business address potential risk, they are also incredibly valuable for engaging employees. Sustainability is integral in everything we do. That is part of the discussion millennials want in a place of work. They want to be able to work for a company that is growing and doing good in the world.

Brown: There aren’t a lot of financial benefits at the start because you’re investing in change, but there are an awful lot of community benefits. When we come back to the ability to feed people, and tackle hunger, we want to take care that we can still produce enough food and still take care of our environment.

We worked with the United Nations on sustainable development goals and looked at how they can affect our business and how we can help them. We use food and our donation dollars to World Food Programme, NGOs and food banks to help children get food and an education and got our U.S. growers involved as well.

It’s very beneficial to everyone to see that what we are using we are using appropriately.

Likeminded people see opportunities and appreciate how we are doing business. When we are doing the correct things from how we grow our crops, manage, minimizing footprint. customers believe in that and like that.

A message from Katie Simpson, Minnesota market leader, Bank of America Merrill Lynch

Today there are a wide array of challenges simultaneously competing for our attention across the globe, but one of the greatest challenges we face is climate change and its impact on the global economy.

At Bank of America, we are focused on responsible growth. We know that in helping to accelerate the transition to a sustainable, low-carbon economy, we are also helping to drive economic prosperity for our communities.

Through our third environmental business commitment, we are deploying an additional $300 billion in sustainable finance by 2030 through lending, investing, capital raising, and developing financial solutions for clients in Minnesota and around the world. This goal brings Bank of America’s total commitment to more than $445 billion (2007-2030). We are mobilizing capital to scale the solutions needed to address climate change and demands on natural resources while creating business opportunities for our company. In Minnesota alone, we’ve deployed $424 million in capital towards environmental business since 2013.

But Bank of America’s capital deployment is doing something else: it is also helping to create broader economic opportunities. That includes supporting new, well-paying jobs, increasing economic output, and growing GDP as we scale investments to develop the critical solutions needed to build the sustainable economy of the future.

Our firmly held belief is that tackling climate change is not just an environmental imperative, but it is also an economic opportunity and that all of us must band together to build a more sustainable local and global economy.

Experts: Small businesses should start 2017’s tax planning now

Little can be done to help small business owners get their finances straight in time for tax filings this April. However, if they haven’t filed taxes yet, they can still try to maximize benefits from the current tax rate.

“Given the results of the election, it is likely tax reform will be enacted,” said David Rehrauer, managing director of Tax for KPMG in Detroit. “Initial information suggests the tax rate will decrease and some other deductions/incentives may be eliminated. Companies should consider accelerating deductions into 2016 and/or deferring revenue recognition to future years.”

Startups, he said, should consider if they are eligible to claim a research and experimentation credit. A provision in the PATH Act allows qualifying companies to take up to $250,000 in credits that offset payroll taxes.

Moving forward though, Lisa Carroll, audit partner at KPMG Private Markets Group in Detroit, said there are three things small business owners need to do to begin 2017 on the right foot.

Read the full story here.

Small business: Independent bookstore owners find success with events, personal touch

The advent of electronic books, surge in Amazon sales and closure of big-box bookstores have had many assuming independent bookshops will crash and burn, never to rise again.

Yet, in Detroit, indie bookstore Source Booksellers has been growing since opening some 12 years ago, and another opened just recently.

“Opening a bookstore is a risky business. You have to have a pretty good plan of how you’re going to compete,” said Susan Murphy. She opened Pages Bookshop on the city’s west side in May 2015, she said, to the appreciation of nearby residents who were thrilled not to have to shop online.

Michigan ranked 42nd in terms of the number of bookstores per capita, according to a 2012 Publishers Weekly study, the most recent available. The estimated 327 bookstores — 24 chain, 150 independent and 153 big-box stores — serve 9.9 million Michigan residents. That’s about one bookstore for every 30,000 people.

However, the Michigan Retailers Association’s Tom Scott points to the nationwide resurgence of independent bookstores as an indicator of what’s to come. “They’re coming back,” said the group’s vice president of communications and marketing. “The number of independent bookstores climbed last year in the U.S. They’re such great community assets. They’re coming.”

A REPORT ON READING

38% Read only print books
28% Read print & digital books
26% Don’t read books
6% Read only digital books

Pew Research, 2016

 

However, the Michigan Retailers Association’s Tom Scott points to the nationwide resurgence of independent bookstores as an indicator of what’s to come. “They’re coming back,” said the group’s vice president of communications and marketing. “The number of independent bookstores climbed last year in the U.S. They’re such great community assets. They’re coming.”

Oren Teicher, CEO of the American Booksellers Association, said the number of member independent bookstores across the country increased about 26 percent, to 1,775 in 2016 from about 1,400 in 2009, and physical book sales have been steadily growing since 2012. Late last fall, the organization was reporting 2016 sales were 5 percent higher than 2015.

“Nationally in the U.S., new stores are opening, established stores are finding new owners and a new generation is coming into the independent business as both owner/managers and frontline booksellers,” the ABA said. “All of this is a result of the fact that indie booksellers remain a resilient and entrepreneurial group.”

Cristina Benton, director of Market and Industry Analysis at Anderson Economic Group LLC in East Lansing, said cities with numerous bookstores often have strong neighborhoods or commercial centers with considerable foot traffic.

“There are places that are coming back — downtown, Midtown — that are growing people and definitely more retailers and places to eat and drink. That’s where more bookstores could do well because they could take advantage of the foot traffic in those areas.”

With retailers like Amazon, a successful bookstore would need to offer more than books, such as a coffee shop; frequent book signings; a specialty store to cater to certain crowds, such as comic books, local music, decor or sports, explained Warren Anderson, assistant professor of economics at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.

In addition to being two of just a few indie bookshops selling new books in Detroit, Source Booksellers in Midtown and Pages Bookshop in north Rosedale Park seem to have the right locations and plans when it comes to creating unique experiences for their customers.

Steadily growing

Photo by Ifoma Stubbs. Janet Webster Jones is owner of Source Booksellers in Detroit.

In 1989, Janet Webster Jones, who worked in the Detroit Public Schools before retiring in 2000, began selling books related to a study tour she took in Egypt at local events. Eventually, art gallery owner Dell Pryor suggested they open Spiral Collective, a consortium of four women-owned businesses in Midtown.

Source Booksellers opened in 2005 and operated there for eight years before seizing the growth opportunities in the area and moving across the street to the Auburn building in 2013. In 2015, the company earned about $100,000 in revenue, she said.

“We have been steadily growing over the years, not very much, but there has been larger incremental growth since moving.” The considerable development activity in Midtown and her street presence is resulting in more street traffic and new people coming to the store.

Webster Jones confessed she had no previous business experience. “My training was in education and liberal arts. My instinct led me to do what I do. In business, you have to build.”

What she built was a “presence over time with people in the city and all around the city, establishing relationships, trust and a reputation.”

Source’s book collection emphasizes four categories: History and culture, metaphysical or new age, health and wellbeing and books by and about women. “I don’t really want a general interest bookstore. For me, it’s too hard to keep up with that inventory. I have high quality books, books new and not new, books that are interesting.” The store also holds frequent author events, and mind, body and spirit exercise classes each Saturday.

The 79-year-old said she has been able to operate Source because she has a pension that pays for her basic living needs and the freedom to focus in a more relaxed manner on the needs and wants of her customers. “It’s not just about the sale of the books but about building community and affirming what they want and what they need; and at the same time, we can sell a book.”

Webster Jones believes there’s room for more bookstores in Detroit, adding “They don’t have to be all the same.”

Personal service

Photo by Shawn Lee Studios. Susan Murphy, owner of Pages Bookshop in Detroit.

“I think Detroit is a very underserved city as far as bookstores,” said Murphy. Inventory at Pages doesn’t overlap much with that at Source. Pages has a large selection of fiction and children’s books.

Murphy, a 60-year-old MBA, spent much of her career in IT and finance at General Motors Co. She went back to school to earn a master’s degree in library science but upon graduating was unable to find a job at a public library where she wanted to work with kids. In the meantime, she opened a market research firm.

Eventually, someone asked if she could do anything, what would it be? Her answer: Open a bookstore.

Murphy worked “a lot” on her business plan and spent more than a year talking to “all of the independent bookstore owners” in Ann Arbor and metro Detroit, which included frequent conversations with Webster Jones.

Like Webster Jones, Murphy wanted to build a community. She knew she wanted to be in a neighborhood and her marketing experience told her she needed to locate near a density of people with higher-than-average income and education levels. She chose Rosedale Park, received location assistance from the Grandmont Rosedale Development Corp., and self-financed the venture.

“My belief is there’s a benefit in having a community bookstore to bring the community together. People seem to want that sense of belonging. I support all the local authors and big name authors by selling their books. I differentiate. I don’t feel I compete against Amazon. I can’t compete on price. I stress customer services, special orders, gift wrapping. I’m trying to do that personal stuff people don’t get online.”

The work isn’t easy, Murphy acknowledged. “But it’s paying off for me. I met all my targets. I’ve grown the second year. I do get customers from the northeast and west suburbs, and that’s going to be important for me going forward.”

Helping to bring people in the store, Pages regularly holds author events and programs for children. “It’s not a matter of just going and buying a book,” she said. “It’s the whole experience. I know customers, and I sometimes call them when a book comes in when I think they’ll like. It’s a low-tech, high-touch business.”

 

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Special section – 2016 Eureka Index: Breaking with traditional technologies

Telephones have evolved from tools that just make calls to mobile instruments that entertain, inform and help users complete myriad transactions. Medical products have become smart. “And people no longer buy cars for horsepower but for their electronics,” said James Malackowski, CEO of Ocean Tomo LLC.

For this reason, he said, automakers and suppliers are consolidating their technologies and outnumbering life science companies on this year’s Eureka Index, Crain’s annual look at the top 25 most innovative companies. Crain’s worked with Ocean Tomo, a Chicago-based intellectual property valuation firm, to rank 2015 patent portfolios for companies in Southeast Michigan.

Rankings are based on patent quality, the projected ability to bring the patents to market, and whether patent owners keep their patents or make them public domain. In 2015, there were 4,182 patent awards in Southeast Michigan, which for this report includes Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, Washtenaw, Livingston, St. Clair and Genesee counties, up from 3,957 in 2014. Total patent awards in the U.S. last year dropped slightly to 325,979 from 326,032 in 2014.

Read the full intro story here.

Five patent holders worth noting:

Find the entire special section here.

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