Tim Dekker

Partnering with Academia to Innovate and Grow

Innovation is key to the growth and survival of any company. As an Evergreen® company that’s been in the continually changing field of environmental science for almost 50 years, we have a long history of innovation. Pragmatic innovation has been key to our survival and growth and is a core value that has been built into the processes and systems that define our organization. One thing that has been a little unique at LimnoTech throughout is the way we innovate through longstanding, purposeful partnerships with academia.

Our company started back in 1975 when environmental science was in its infancy, and when our founders at the University of Michigan were just figuring out how to match the brand-new capacity for numerical computing to the profound environmental problems we were seeing in the Great Lakes. Paul Freedman, a graduate student at the University of Michigan, saw the opportunity to create LimnoTech in collaboration with his research advisor Ray Canale, and ran the company for its first 47 years.

The spirit of research is built into Limno Tech’s DNA. We are an environmental science and engineering firm providing water-related services to clients throughout the United States and internationally. Our early partnership with the University of Michigan gave us a special opportunity to do important, innovative work. And since then, it has been a natural fit for our company to partner with academia whenever the opportunity arises. Our partnerships have resulted in many strategic advantages and have created some of our most exciting opportunities for growth, expansion, and meaningful work.

The University of Michigan partnership shaped our company during its formative years as we developed computer models to describe how natural systems like lakes and rivers worked, and as we proposed solutions to fix the problems created by environmental pollution. In those early days, the University was a continual source of new ideas and strategic hires. Over time we expanded the relationships to include other great schools: Notre Dame, Michigan Tech, the University at Buffalo, and even historic rivals like Ohio State. These days our partnerships are nationwide, including institutions all over the country and spanning many disciplines: science, engineering, design and planning, and the social sciences.

One example of our partnerships with academia today is our relationship with the Harvard Graduate School of Design, where I and others in our firm have served as lecturers and studio critics for more than a decade now. Our relationship with Harvard felt a little unconventional at the start; we’re mostly engineers and scientists, and Harvard’s design school has deep roots in the arts and teaches core design principles that felt very different from our normal ways of working.

One of our first experiences with Harvard had us in a design competition working with one of their most notable professors in Landscape Architecture, doing the core design and planning of a huge portion of the Toronto waterfront that included a massive river relocation and restoration process. It was an intimidating project, because in our experience such projects were usually led by engineers like us who do the hard technical planning work first, and figure out the human benefits later. Instead, our project was led by Michael Van Valkenburgh, a professor in practice at the Harvard GSD and leader of a growing design firm, MVVA, in New York City. Their approach to problem solving was very different from ours – creative, exploratory, interdisciplinary, and to my eyes, messy. It was very different from our previous work, which was cautious, linear, and grounded in scientific approaches. We were proud of our ability to solve complicated scientific problems, but the problems we were starting to see in our field were much more than that – complicated technically, but also financially, organizationally, socially, and politically. We needed better approaches for problem solving, and our new collaborators had them. Michael and his staff at MVVA were able to think about all the dimensions of a wicked problem at once. But delightfully, they needed us too – to provide clear answers to technical questions and hard boundaries for their proposed designs, and also to spark new ideas born in our years of technical experience.

We made an explicit decision to learn from our new colleagues, and it completely changed the way we work. It wasn’t always easy – at times our staff was bewildered by requests to build accurate computer models based on design team models constructed out of cardboard and construction paper. The pace was also a shock – our new collaborators in landscape architecture generated new project ideas on a 24-hour cycle, and we had to adapt our capacity to build and apply computer models as fast as they could ideate. Spending time talking and working with these folks changed us, injecting LimnoTech with a level of creativity and an openness to viewing things in a different way that has made us so much better.

Thanks to our collaboration with them and the dual expertise we are able to bring to the table, we are now working on projects in Dallas, Tulsa, St. Louis, Toronto, Detroit, Buffalo, the Middle East, and Europe. The Don Lands design competition in Toronto turned into a billion-dollar project that’s now under construction, and it has been a game changer for our little company.

A second, powerful way that our relationship with Harvard has changed who we are and created opportunities for us is through their network. Harvard’s design program is influential, and most of the professors we have worked with there are professors-in-practice, teaching part-time and running their own firms. They are all connected through a strong, international network that extends to other schools like the University of Pennsylvania, Berkeley’s design school, and the University of Virginia. This network has led to dozens of creative engagements and enormous opportunities for our firm over the years.

A second example of academic collaboration takes us full circle back to the University of Michigan, but now engaging with a very different team of experts outside of our water science roots. A few years ago, an engineering professor and long-term collaborator, Dr. Peter Adriaens, became interested in how our understanding of water and its role in product supply chains could have implications for the performance and value of companies. This was a puzzle that others had tried to solve before without much success, and Peter guessed that this was mostly because of cultural differences: between the engineers who have access to water-related data and the financial analysts who know how to translate data into useful, actionable financial products. Peter deliberately bridged the cultural gap, securing a dual appointment with the University’s Ross School of Business and learning the language and technical tools familiar to the financial experts at Ross. He then combined this knowledge with the data and knowledge resources at LimnoTech to create a new financial product: waterBeta, a measure of stock price volatility that is specifically traceable to water risks. The waterBeta provides a way for portfolio managers to anticipate stock price performance benefit (alpha) from managing volatility in water risks during climate transitioning.

As an outcome of this collaboration with the University, LimnoTech and Dr. Adriaens created a new company, Equarius Risk Analytics, that is structured to provide water-related financial intelligence as a new set of products and services for companies and financial services providers. The company is pre-commercial but is an exciting example of the power of combining expertise and joining our efforts with researchers and thought leaders of all sorts.

The lessons we've learned through these experiences provide valuable insights for companies eager to embark on their own journey of collaboration. It might be true that academia is a more natural partner for us than for some other industries, but I believe that there is potential for all companies to benefit from such partnerships when the right opportunity arises. What might you gain from such an initiative?

First, working with academia allows you to leverage complementary strengths. Industry expertise coupled with academic research methodologies can lead to breakthrough technical innovations. Second, it might help you, as it has helped us, embrace multidisciplinary thinking. Collaborations can unlock new perspectives which can lead to innovative solutions that transcend traditional boundaries. Finally and importantly, these partnerships have allowed us to build and grow new networks and relationships. Universities are highly connected, and often to entirely different networks than your own.

The benefits go both ways, to us and to our academic partners, as our culture and network of professional contacts allows them to transform research into tangible impact. This can drive business growth for you and academic and societal progress for everyone. An openness to collaboration can cultivate your culture of pragmatic innovation and infuse fresh perspectives into your organization, and embracing new methodologies and approaches can catalyze transformative change.

Leveraging Relationships for Competitive Advantage

In our industry – the envelope manufacturing industry – the landscape is composed largely of smaller private and family-owned businesses across the country amongst a few very large, national, public companies against whom we all compete. Kenmore Envelope Company, Inc., of which I serve as President & CEO, is in the smaller, privately held group, and contrary to what one might think, this has afforded us a few significant advantages. The main one is the community of like-minded friends and competitors who support and learn from one another in a wonderful, cooperative way.

Before becoming CEO in 2019, I served as Vice President of Sales at Kenmore for 15 years. As a result, I have been a part of the Envelope Manufacturers Association (EMA) for years, which is an organization built on the idea of working together to strengthen the industry. There are about 50 members and 29 associate member companies in total, and the EMA conferences in the fall and spring provide the perfect platform for relationships within the industry to flourish. Over the years, I have not only gotten to know some of the other members of the EMA, but they have also become close friends. It quickly became about more than just business; it was about friendship and supporting each other to keep the mail industry alive, even in the face of larger conglomerates.

Thanks to these trusted friendships, we have developed a habit of consulting each other when we need advice and we even visit each other’s facilities to get new ideas or to explore how a potential new initiative – a new machine, a new product – might look at our own company. A lot of people’s initial reaction to this is surprise; aren’t they competitors, they wonder? Aren’t you worried about giving away your best ideas? The answer is no, and here is why.

Part of the reason this is rarely a competitive issue is that most of us have a specific niche. At Kenmore, for example, we focus on higher end, smaller run sizes. When I say smaller, I mean about a million and down. While we do full graphics, embellished products, another shop might do longer run, less graphics, and much higher run sizes. They're way more competitive at two, three, four, five million envelopes, with more of a plain style job. In many cases, not only are we not competing against each other, but we are referring each other work. Other envelope companies will send me work that really fits our niche and I'll send work to them that fits their niche. Whether we say it out loud or not, I think we all agree that we would rather take a job that we can't run ourselves, mark it up a little bit, and send it to, say, Worcester, than have someone else do the work. We look out for each other.

Occasionally we do compete directly against some of the peers with whom we have this kind of relationship, but that’s just part of the way it works. We win some of those jobs, they win some, and we all keep thriving. Let me give you some examples of what this cooperation looks like.

One of my closest friends in the industry is Derek, who runs Worcester Envelope Company in Massachusetts. Our friendship goes beyond business; we often visit each other's facilities, share best practices, and explore ways to make each other better, and our families are friends as well. We have a mutual respect for the unique strengths of our companies.

On a visit to Worcester a few years ago, I was introduced to Esko's WebCenter, a tool that streamlines proofing and communication. It was the kind of front-end automation I had been looking for and I was excited to give it a try. We asked the team at Worcester a lot of questions about their experience: what were the challenges of the process? What limitations have you encountered? What do we need to know to help us start more efficiently? We adopted it, and it ended up being a game-changer for us at Kenmore; it has improved efficiency and client service.

Conversely, we had made investments in automation and digital printing that intrigued some of my peers. They came to visit us, and during their visits, they absorbed ideas about what worked and what didn't, accelerating their own growth in return.

These visits to our industry peers, which happen at least once a year, have inspired us to explore new horizons as well. Inspired by friends in the industry, for example, we have been delving into the possibility of adding folding carton production to Kenmore's capabilities. For a long time, we referred this kind of work out, then we started simply outsourcing it, and now, thanks to what we’ve seen in some other shops, we are considering adding this capability to what we can do in house.

The knowledge sharing doesn't stop at envelope production; it is also about understanding the broader landscape of print manufacturing. It has even affected how we think about growth. I have watched some of my peers acquire small shops, of 10 or 20 people, and tuck them into their operations. Most of these acquired shops have slightly different capabilities, so adding them means adding something else they can offer to their clients. After visits where we see things like this, our mindset shifts. We see what some of these other shops can do and we change how we think about possible growth opportunities. Our peers who have done this now have multiple specialties, not just one. Maybe we could do that?

The collaboration we enjoy does have boundaries. We don’t have this relationship with every member of the EMA. Over time, I developed a trusted network of friends, but some envelope companies remain outside the circle. We enjoy this collaborative relationship with four to six other independent companies. Our visits and thought partnership are a two-way street, and the intention is always to give as much as we receive. This reciprocal arrangement fosters goodwill and ensures that everyone benefits.

The landscape of our industry is changing. Although it’s far worse in some industries, larger corporations and private equity firms are acquiring smaller envelope manufacturers. So far, in large part thanks to our network, our independent businesses remain resilient. We can offer a personal touch, the sharing of ideas, and a willingness to help each other thrive. Outside of being a member of Tugboat Institute®, I don’t have this kind of relationship anywhere but with this group of friends. It’s at the core of our strength.

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A Shared Evergreen® Mindset Can Lead to Fruitful Collaboration and Innovation

At Family Farm & Home, we currently have 71 stores in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Maryland. Our mission is to build a family dedicated to providing exceptional service, products, and prices focused on fulfilling the lifestyle needs of our customers, most of whom are rural and connected to the land. We try to hire team members who live the lifestyle as well, so our whole community is built around people with common experiences, interests, needs, and concerns. We aspire to grow our family to 150 stores, so we need an intense focus on continuous improvement. The combination of this ambition, paired with the shared mindset of our team, our customers, and our vendor partners, has defined our approach to Pragmatic Innovation. In many cases, it’s not even an intentional effort–it just happens naturally.

At the most fundamental level, the fact that our team members and our customers have a common lifestyle means that many great, new ideas come directly from them. When they have a need, or if they perceive a creative way to better fulfill one that already exists, they raise it. Maybe it’s part of the mentality of daily problem-solving that characterizes our lifestyle, but some of the best ideas we’ve had for innovations come from our customers, our team members, and our vendor partners, or a combination of the three, working together. Many are small scale, but when someone has a great idea for a new way to solve an old problem, it’s in their nature to raise it. We don’t actively push people to find these new ideas, but when they do, we support them and help them make it happen. As a result, our culture is one where everyone feels comfortable and encouraged to share any great, new ideas they have.

Sometimes, we have the opportunity to take this collaborative problem-solving to the next level and do something on a much bigger scale. One of the best examples of this is unique, because it is the story of a collaborative innovation with another Tugboat Institute® member, Paul Kalmbach Jr., President of Kalmbach Feeds.

It started in about 2018, when Kalmbach came to us with an idea. One of the products we sell are blocks of compressed protein for animals. We were buying them from someone else at the time, but the product cost was high. Our biggest competitor was selling the same product, so we sold it as a convenience to our customers, but our profit margin was very low. Kalmbach approached us with the idea that they wanted to build a plant to start making these blocks themselves, and they asked us if we would commit to selling their product exclusively.

As we worked through the proposal and the plans, we met with both Paul Sr. and Paul Jr. None of us were members of Tugboat Institute yet, but in retrospect, the fact that we shared the same Evergreen mindset and that we were both family businesses raised our mutual level of comfort working together. We made a handshake kind of a deal, and that was all it took for both sides to move forward. We committed our business to them, they built the plant, and we now exclusively sell their product. Their product is quality and pricing is great, and the program has vastly exceeded both of our expectations, helping both businesses grow significantly.

It's easy with hindsight to see the successes of projects like this without recognizing the risk involved, and therefore the level of trust required. Kalmbach was putting up a multi-million-dollar facility with no signed contract and no history of producing these products. We were committing to honor our word with a supplier that had never made these products before, and with no commitment on exactly what the pricing would be; but we trusted that they would treat us fairly because of the history we had together. These types of collaborations are rarely without risk and they require a deep understanding of the partners involved.

As you can see, an important part of this story is not just that we collaborated with a supplier, but that we collaborated with a fellow Evergreen supplier. Our willingness to rely on each other and to trust that the people we were working with were not just looking to make a profit tomorrow, but instead were focused on the long-term success of the partnership, were key factors in all this. Because of our shared Evergreen mindset, we were willing to make a long-term investment in each other. As a result of this successful partnership, we have collaborated on many additional new products, new ways of merchandising in store, and new packaging designs, and we are excited to find many new ideas to work on together in the future.

At the end of the day, our best innovations come from customers, suppliers, and team members, some of whom are fellow Evergreen companies and some who are not. The fact that we are all working to find solutions that are best for our customer means that we share a purpose with a wide range of people in our space. But the best, longest-term, and most firmly grounded in trust and a shared mindset, have been our collaborations with fellow Evergreen companies. Our tolerance for long-term results means that we are willing to trust each other and commit to initiatives that may or may not bear fruit immediately. In the long run, they do, and have proved better for both of our businesses in every case. The growth that has resulted from our protein block, for example, and from the other collaborations with Kalmbach and others is going to be the fuel that powers us forward toward our goal of 150 stores.

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Leveraging H2B Visas for Seasonal and Cultural Success

Labor shortages have been a reality for several years now, but at Ramar Foods, a Filipino-owned company with a strong People First ethos, this problem is not new. Our business is largely seasonal, and the seasonal nature of our work presents challenges not only with hiring, but also with employee retention, cultural alignment, and the inefficiencies of constant recruiting and onboarding. We’ve been searching for a solution for many years that would allow us to staff our teams all while maintaining a workplace culture that is supportive, positive, and people centric.

As we sought solutions to this problem, and especially as wages soared in recent years, we wanted to avoid a few obvious pitfalls. Seasonal employees are at high risk of being un-invested and misaligned because they know they will not be here for the long term. Local hires always have their eyes open for a better opportunity, so often we hire them, train them, and then they ghost us. Effectively integrating new, temporary employees quickly into an Evergreen® company where culture and employee satisfaction are very important is difficult, and we spend an inordinate amount of time and effort recruiting and onboarding in an ever-tighter labor market.

A couple of years ago, we had an idea. Because we are a Filipino food company, we have several international hires already, and as a result, we have some experience securing H1 visas for our full-time foreign workers. The process of sponsoring international employees can be complicated and costly, but our experience with H1 demystified it a bit. We wondered, could we tackle the seasonal hire problem through the same channel?

The equivalent visa for a short-term employee is called the H2B. H2B visas allow companies to hire foreign workers for defined periods of time up to three years. At Ramar, we seek to hire for ten months at a time. Sponsoring an H1 visa is expensive, and the H2B carries costs as well, but it is more reasonable; aside from paying them a reasonable wage, we are required to pay H2B employees’ travel to and from the States and we are responsible for making sure they have a reasonable place to live.

The H2B program is not without risks for the hiring company. The process can be complex and time-consuming. It can also be expensive, especially when it comes time to fulfill the housing requirement of the visa. Whether new hires are foreign or not, recruiting and onboarding requires time and effort, which has costs associated with it. And notably, many of the recruiting agencies that exist to ‘help’ employers find international applicants are, in fact, scams, so you have to be sure to vet the agencies carefully.

At Ramar Foods, we had some unique advantages that helped us offset the risks and costs of the H2B program. Our workforce was already multicultural. In addition to the H1 salaried employees we have hired from overseas, many of our hourly workers are recent immigrants who have maintained ties to their home countries, in particular El Salvador and Mexico. It is a wonderfully international atmosphere! Therefore, we have found that we are able to bypass recruiting agencies and recruit directly through our current workforce. We invited employees with friends and family back home in El Salvador and Mexico to present our seasonal opportunity to them and invite them to apply. We had great success and received applications from many excited and motivated applicants, even the first time around.

Because so many of the people we ended up hiring were coming to join family, we were also able to save on the housing front. Most of them planned, before we even asked them, to stay with family, thereby ensuring that they would be safe, happy, and well-taken care of outside of work. In the case where this was not possible, we stepped in and helped with housing, but this happened relatively infrequently.

When it came to onboarding new employees and helping them adjust to our culture which we value so highly, we had yet another advantage. First of all, our full-time employees, many of whom were either relatives or friends, helped make them feel at home extremely quickly. In addition to the support they provided outside of work, they were eager and willing to engage in the more formal onboarding process at work. On both sides – the new, seasonal employees and the experienced, full-time employees – the level of commitment, energy, and enthusiasm for this work was very high. It became a joyful process that did not simply meet the standard of our People First culture, but rather enhanced it further.

As we moved through the first cohort of H2B employees for the first time, in addition to the advantages we had imagined we would have through the process, we discovered some others as well. First, it turned out that the ten-month employment contract was just perfect for many employees. A traditional H1 employee, and even an H2B employee who has a longer contract, cannot easily travel back and forth between their home country and the US through the duration of their visa. There are strict requirements around how long they must stay in the country or risk invalidating their visa. With an H2B, a worker could come for ten months, earn good money, and then return home to their family for a couple months before, if they so choose, applying again. A second advantage is that many of them are choosing to apply again, which means that when they arrive the second time, they will not be new employees and will not require anywhere near the same level of investment of time and energy to train and onboard.

The enthusiasm on the side of our current employees for this initiative has been overwhelming. A group of warehouse employees decided, on their own initiative, that there was more they could do to support the cohort of seasonal workers, so they created a group they called Amigos for our friends from El Salvador. They took it upon themselves to help new employees navigate not just their new work environment, but life in the US. They created a buddy system, they organized English classes for them, and they helped them, where necessary, find the resources and services they needed to live in a new country. Thanks in great part to the work of the Amigos, we expect that we will likely be able to convert some of these seasonal workers to permanent ones eventually, further reducing stresses on our time, budget, and culture.

It has not been perfect, of course. The first year, we began recruiting a cohort from Mexico, only to learn, when we submitted the applications, that the maximum number of allowable H2B visas had already been granted to Mexican citizens. We turned instead to El Salvador, were able to recruit ten wonderful employees, and we hope to try Mexico again next time. We also have a large facility in Hawaii and would like to bring H2B workers there as well, but we know that the cost of travel will mean that it will be significantly more expensive.

Our Head of People, Maggie Carillo, articulated the simple, central reason this program is such a wonderful fit for Ramar. When she considered the challenging immigration landscape, “coupled with the US labor shortage, I knew that providing people a seasonal job would be mutually beneficial to the worker and to Ramar.” As a company that aims to put people first, this program that was initially intended to solve a strictly business problem has proven to be one of the most important culture enhancements we have implemented in a long time.

agenda pin Gathering of Teams 24

Celebrating Five Years of Bringing Evergreen® Teams Together

Last week, we hosted our fifth annual Tugboat Institute® Gathering of Teams in Nashville, Tennessee. Many teams were in attendance for the fourth or even fifth time, and for them, it was an opportunity to reconnect with old friends, make new ones, and to continue to learn from the wisdom, best practices and hard-earned mistakes of other Evergreen companies across industries, sizes, geographies, business models and generations. For those teams that joined us for the first time, it was wonderful to observe their earnest engagement and their realization that they are not alone building and leading their companies – in alignment with the Evergreen 7Ps® principles.

Through both structured and unstructured conversations, attendees connected, learned, explored, and celebrated. At the center of the event, we all came together for five TED-style talks. We were treated to wisdom from one Tugboat member and one former member, as well as three distinguished thought leaders.

Robert Pasin is the third generation Chief Wagon Officer of the company his grandfather started and that you have likely known since childhood: Radio Flyer. When Robert stepped into the company at the age of 23, he quickly learned a lesson about the vulnerability of third generation businesses. An established success, whether it be a product or a service, can only carry you so far. The world keeps changing, and if your company does not change with it, decline is inevitable. He set to work reviving Radio Flyer through several Pragmatic Innovation approaches, ones that not only guided them out of the danger zone but, he shared, that have become the backbone of their ongoing product successes.

Our second speaker, Oliver Staehelin, was inspired early in his career to become a student of company culture when challenged by CEO Rich Fairbanks on his first day on the job at Capital One. Graduating from business school, Oliver co-founded a culture assessment company with Stanford Professor Charles O’Reilly. Professor O’Reilly’s research revealed the importance of a strong culture, defined as a company where the behaviors and norms of the company are clearly understood and honored at all levels of the organization. Oliver spoke to the competitive advantages of having a strong culture, especially in the context of very tight labor markets for decades to come.

We were honored that Dr. Robert I. Sutton, Stanford professor and author of many books including the renowned The No Asshole Rule, was able to join us just a week after the release of his newest book, The Friction Project. He shared the findings that he and his co-author, Huggy Rao, present in their new book about friction in the workplace. Human psychology is such that we tend to think of improvement and progress in terms of addition – we constantly look to add something new as we seek to move forward. However, sometimes it is more effective and important to remove something old, whether it be a product, process and/or program, in order to optimize overall performance and work satisfaction.

Our fourth speaker was Kelly D. Parker, a former marketing executive who has become fascinated by the power of storytelling. She now runs her own consulting firm and helps businesses and leaders discover the power of a well-told story to a clearly defined audience. Kelly shared her simple but powerful framework that can make a storyteller of all of us. As leaders of Purpose-driven companies, this is critical in internal and external communications.

Finally, we were thrilled to welcome Peter Zeihan to our stage. Peter is a renowned geopolitical scientist and is the author of many best-selling books including The Accidental Superpower, The Absent Superpower, and, more recently, The End of the World is Just the Beginning: Mapping the Collapse of Globalization. In an astoundingly far-ranging look at the global factors that will shape the coming decades, Peter shared why globalization is ending, and the impacts that will have on all countries and ultimately our businesses and lives. He foresees some uncomfortable realities ahead, but also acknowledges that the United States, Mexico, and Canada will be some of the best positioned regions to adapts to this change. In a provocative and engrossing talk, he gave us an enormous amount to think about, and left us all processing how we may have to adapt to a new world that could be far different from the one we all grew up in.

We are happy to be able to share these talks through our Evergreen Journal® in the coming months, so please keep an eye out for their release.

It’s been half a decade now that we have been bringing together Evergreen leadership teams to meet, learn, grow, and be inspired. Whenever Evergreen leaders gather, something special happens, but this event takes it to the next level. By inviting leadership teams and family members to immerse themselves in the Evergreen 7Ps principles, and to connect with other leaders working in similarly values-driven companies, the understanding of what it means to lead, grow, and adapt one’s Evergreen company seeps deeper into the fabric of each company. It is obviously important that a CEO or president anchor themselves in this thinking and commit to the Evergreen principles if they hope to build a wonderful company that will last for 100 years or more, but it can accelerate when the whole leadership team and company owners share in this vision and key practices. Tugboat Institute Gathering of Teams has become the unique place where that work can happen. To see how this community of teams has progressed in just five years is gratifying. Above all else, it confirms to all of us that we are onto something important. As we gain strength from one another, so grows our certainty that Evergreen companies can and will impact the world in positive ways for many, many decades, if not centuries, to come.

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Enhanced Value to Your Evergreen® Business Through Effective Social Media Posting

In today's digital age, social media is not simply an option for a company; it’s a strategic imperative. As CEO of BSI Corporate Benefits, LLC (BSI), and as someone who discovered it as an adult, I have had to work to evolve my relationship with social media. One of the first tensions I experienced was how to best manage the intersection of my professional and personal online presence. It’s an ongoing journey, but so far, I have learned those two identities are not, in fact, as separate as I might have imagined. Today, I have landed in a place where social media, primarily LinkedIn for now, has become a productive tool that adds value to my business.

My story is not the story of an expert who has completely mastered social media as a business tool. I am connected with approximately 3,500 individuals on LinkedIn, along with a moderate number of followers and typically average 1,000-5,000 views of my posts, with “likes” typically in the 50 to 200 range, so I consider myself an active user, but by no means an influencer. Nevertheless, I have spent time thinking about how and why social media could be an important tool for me and for BSI, and I have landed in a place where it feels like it is effective and worth my time.

I was taught to practice the Three E’s – Educate, Entertain, Enlighten. I played with that for a while, but to be honest, the only content I created that really felt right was content where I could be my genuine self, no matter which “E” I sought to achieve. So I learned my first lesson of social media: the best and truest content I can offer is content in which I can be my authentic self. For others, it might be different, but for me, this is absolute.

Next, I had to understand how my personal online presence might intersect, if at all, with my professional one. As CEO of BSI, I have determined that the answer to this question varies widely from CEO to CEO, depending on yourself, your company, your relationship with your company, and your values. As an Evergreen leader, the business I have built is so deeply rooted in my values that ultimately, there is no discernible difference between who I am as CEO and who I am as a person. This may be different for leaders of different kinds of companies, but I have to imagine that for most Evergreen leaders, this is true. Second, the type of business you are running surely helps determine the degree to which mixing your personal and professional online identities is effective and appropriate. In businesses where information and expertise are the product, the mandate must clearly be to provide information that your followers can’t get elsewhere. Perhaps a business leader’s personal story has less of a place in that type of company’s feed? But BSI is a people business. We manage corporate benefit packages for our clients, and we are only as good as our team and the relationships we create and maintain with our clients. As CEO, I am a team member and the team’s loudest champion. So yes, my personal voice absolutely has a place in the conversation taking place on social media.

Having settled all that, what do I post on my personal feed? I see it as my duty to use my platform to tell BSI's story and promote the principles and pillars that align with our organization's values. This includes championing the importance of placing people at the center of the business and being a force for good in our community. A significant aspect of my LinkedIn activity, therefore, revolves around celebrating individuals, milestones, and community initiatives within BSI. I believe in creating a workplace where employees are not only seen and heard but also recognized and celebrated for their achievements. Making this part of my own personal story boosts morale within the company and communicates to the outside world the degree to which BSI values its people.

Early on, I had some hesitations about celebrating my excellent team so publicly. Wasn’t that just inviting the competition to come and try to steal them away? I have come to realize, however, that in today's digital landscape, talented individuals are sought after by recruiters every day. If our fantastic team members want a new opportunity, they won’t have any trouble finding it. But by acknowledging and promoting their successes, I hope to reinforce a sense of belonging within BSI and communicate how much they are valued, so they don’t want to leave. Sharing how well we regard our team also communicates to the world that BSI is a great place to work and can help attract top talent to the company.

Looking beyond the team, I have come to understand that social media can be a fantastic tool for community building. I understand that while there are various types of users on social media, forming connections, even with those who may not be actively participating, can have a profound impact. My active engagement on LinkedIn has helped me establish meaningful relationships with professionals I would not otherwise have met, especially those within my industry and within Tugboat Institute®’s membership. Growing my network in this way reinforces a sense of community that extends beyond online interactions. When I arrive at a Tugboat experience, for example, and meet some of my peers for the first time in person, I already have a fairly strong sense of who they are and what they value, so we can skip over the formalities and introductions and make the most of the limited time we have together.

Finally, my journey on social media includes the pursuit of thought leadership. I know how much wisdom I encounter on the feeds of people I know and respect, and I aim to give back. My goal is to contribute meaningfully to the broader conversation within our industry and community. I used to suffer from some imposter syndrome when it came to seeing myself as a thought leader, but now I understand that being a thought leader isn’t about immediate perfection as much as a consistent commitment to sharing valuable ideas.

As for my efforts on social media – primarily on LinkedIn – and how much value they have added to BSI, this is also a work in progress. We are not yet experts on SEO and using our data to optimize our impact through this channel. However, our marketing team does track various metrics related to our social media efforts, including follower growth, engagement, and activity compared to competitors. By analyzing these metrics, we can begin to gauge the impact of our social media strategy. We have seen improvements over time! Additionally, our social media presence has led to warmer leads and prospects who are already familiar with BSI's values and culture. This means that initial outreach becomes more of a conversation about shared values and goals rather than a cold sales pitch. This gives us a clear strategic advantage and improves the experience and confidence of potential clients. As a result, we are more likely to win their business, and they feel a sense of pride being associated with a company that has a clear grounding in purpose and stands as a force for good in the community.

As my social media journey continues, I remain dedicated to my goals of celebrating our team, nurturing a positive company culture, and promoting BSI's purpose with Evergreen content. Our success thus far underscores the importance of authenticity, community engagement, and purposeful personal branding in not only enhancing a company's brand, but also by fostering a thriving organizational culture.

Rich-Sheridan Headshot

Taking Paired Programming to the Next Level

In the realm of software development, practices that foster collaboration, creativity, and code excellence are worth their weight in gold. One such practice, paired programming, has emerged as a transformative approach. Paired programming refers to a style of software development where two programmers share a single computer and develop together. It is not widespread in the programming industry, but it has started to catch on and become more common. At Menlo Innovations, we have not only embraced it, but elevated it to touch most aspects of our practice, our culture, and our thinking.

The roots of paired programming at Menlo Innovations trace back to my early career as a programmer, right out of college and then graduate school. In my early jobs, I loved the mental challenge of programming, but I found that I kept falling off cliffs in my projects. The teams I was part of kept missing deadlines and delivering poor quality, and the only ones who could fix the inevitable bugs were the programmers who originally wrote the problem code. This led to long nights for many of us. I became concerned that perhaps I wasn’t cut out for this profession. I decided there was something fundamentally wrong with the way the work was organized and I became determined to find a better way. I started reading books on systems thinking and organizational design.

Eventually, I came across a book called Extreme Programming Explained, by Kent Beck. He was a programmer who had faced similar challenges as me, and so he set out on a journey to try to understand why. He realized that in the most crucial moments in his work, which also stood out as some of the best, he often did something unusual – he called over another programmer to watch him work and help him talk through his process, to ensure he was avoiding mistakes. As programmers, we’ve all had those experiences here and there, but it’s not the norm. His idea was, if collaboration like that works well in moments of stress and high pressure, what if we worked that way all the time? The idea of paired programming was born.

At that point, in about 1999 or 2000, I wasn’t sure if this was just a theory or if anyone had started to practice it, but I can tell you that since that day, the teams I have led have practiced it continuously.

Outside of my personal fulfillment issues, what other problems did this solve? For one, it solved the Tower of Knowledge problem. When one person is writing code, no one else knows what they are doing or how they have worked their way through the build. If they are great, they might be a hero programmer, but this is impossible to scale. This often leads to bottlenecks, communication breakdowns, and limited knowledge sharing, as well as tired programmers pushing through a project, even if they are too exhausted to do their best work. This model hinders both individual growth and project outcomes.

Shifting to paired programming helped with all of the above. It has allowed us to scale, to produce more consistently good work, to innovate faster and more creatively, and to enjoy happier, more fulfilled employees.

In 2001, Menlo officially adopted paired programming as a core practice, transforming our landscape. Thanks to Beck’s work, paired programming is not unknown in our industry, but we have taken it to a new level. We pair programmers up every week, and then at the end of the week, we switch the pairs. Each person from the first week’s pairing has to bring their new partner up to speed on the project, or be brought up to speed, and thus the tower of knowledge is shattered. As they create together, they naturally share ideas and write different – and better– code than either one would have written alone. And one of them can go on vacation without causing the whole project to shut down!

Because we are an Evergreen® company, we are equally interested in workplace culture and the employee experience. The impact of our paired work has happily extended far beyond its initial anticipated benefits. Teams working in pairs naturally cultivated mentorship dynamics, with senior developers guiding their junior counterparts. The continuous exchange of ideas sparked innovative solutions that solo work might not have uncovered.

Beyond programming, we have found that paired work is effective at nearly all levels within the company. Our tech people and our quality assurance people all work in pairs. Project managers are a little more loosely coupled, but they do work together. And then in areas like payroll, accounting, and tax preparation, we use pairing strategically, rather than every minute of every day. This extends into leadership; my co-Founder James and I are CEO and COO and we are absolutely paired. We sit next to each other every day, right in the same room as everyone else, and the team expects to see that from us. It’s just who we are at Menlo.

The company's office space itself reflects our ethos. With no cubicles and an open workspace design, developers sit side by side, working on a single screen. This encourages constant interaction, the sharing of insights, and immediate problem-solving.

Pairing has worked so well and become so fundamental to who we are that we have extended the practice into the recruiting and interviewing processes. Prospective employees are paired during interviews, working together on tasks together. We watch them work together and then switch the pairs up every 20 minutes. We instruct them that their job is to ensure that their partner gets a next interview. It’s unusual, and some people don’t like it; this culture is not for everyone. But we find out right away, as this practice provides firsthand experience of Menlo's collaborative environment and ensures that new hires are being taught the company's values from day one.

As technology continues to evolve, and as new methodologies emerge, one lesson remains clear: the greatest solutions often arise when brilliant minds come together, bridging gaps, and creating pathways to success. Menlo's journey with paired programming is a wonderful example of this, reminding us that the future of development is collaborative, innovative, and unlimited in its potential.

EOY 2023 EJ Letter cropped

Uniting in Evergreen Values

Dear Friend of Tugboat Institute®,

Coming off several very difficult years filled with unexpected challenges and unforeseeable obstacles post-COVID, our members largely saw a more predictable business environment in 2023. Supply chain woes improved, hiring, while still challenging, became possible again in many industries, and inflation has started to cool. Not all businesses weathered this chaos as well as Evergreen® businesses; because of our discipline and long-term mindset, most of our members not only survived the recent wild ride, but in most cases, capitalized on opportunities it presented. It was a year that confirmed the strong position of the Evergreen company in an ever-changing world.

Outside of the business world, on the other hand, 2023 saw a rise in conflict and discord worldwide. From the tense national political climate to the terrible, tragic conflicts overseas, the things that separate us can often overshadow those that unite us, as Americans and as humans. This is a terrible shame.

Here at Tugboat Institute, we are of course neither unaware of nor indifferent to this reality. It affects us, it affects our members, and it is devastatingly sad. As an organization, we firmly condemn violence, hate, terrorism, and prejudice in all forms. However, in the face of all this distress and conflict, and heading into another tough presidential election year in 2024, we have taken the opportunity to re-examine and update our Member Pledge. Among other things, it includes a commitment to refraining from introducing contentious political topics into our community that could polarize our members. We are not putting our heads in the sand. Rather, we are re-iterating our stance, established at our founding ten years ago, to support each and every one of our members in their Evergreen company journeys, and focus on what unites us, which far outweighs whatever may divide us.

At the end of 2023, our membership includes 265 Evergreen companies, spans 25 major industries, draws from Mexico, Canada, and 36 states in the US, includes a variety of ownership structures, and includes businesses with revenues from $6M to $26B. This represents an incredible range of companies. How do we find strength and common cause amid such a range?

First of all, despite these differences, Tugboat members all share the burden and privilege of leadership. They share the responsibility of stewarding, building, protecting, and growing an organization on which many others depend. As such, they can find and have found myriad ways to learn from and support each other. I have sat at dinner at one of our events and participated in a conversation between a second-generation leader of a well-established company and a founder struggling to make the leap across no-man’s land and to imagine how their company makes it from ten years to 100. Not only did the former have helpful and relevant advice for the latter in that moment, but they also made the commitment to stay in touch and engage in conversation on an ongoing basis, to ensure that the founder had the support they needed to persevere. I have watched a group of members from completely different industries who simply happen to live in the same geographical area, greet their forum-mates at an event and reference the personal and professional challenges they have helped each other face and surmount. And I have hosted Tugboat Seminars and Tugboat Talks where members at one stage of their professional careers have shared invaluable advice, perspective, and wisdom with their peers who, no matter where they are in their own leadership journey, can find something to take away and bring back to their companies and lives.

Secondly, beyond the shared leadership that unites our members, we are inextricably and powerfully connected through our shared belief in the Evergreen 7Ps® principles. Evergreen leaders don’t think like other leaders, who might be building toward a quick exit or trying to maximize growth at all costs, to make the quarter, or to achieve an IPO. Evergreen leaders share a long-term mindset, they share a deep belief in purpose, and they share the conviction that the best path to being successful in business is by treating people well and focusing on doing the right thing today and in the future. The profits that follow, and that are of course very important, are the powerful tool through which they can continue to effect change and increase their positive impact on the world. Shareholder wealth generation is not the ultimate goal, but rather a natural byproduct of the long-term compounding of retained capital in the business.

Among our members, we are privileged to include men and women of a variety of races and religions, with a variety of educational and cultural backgrounds, and with life experiences that vary in profound and important ways. Yet we have never for a second seen this variety as anything but an strength. By committing to keeping divisive topics out of Tugboat, we are not turning a blind eye. Tugboat is a community that is grounded in trust, in our shared Evergreen company values, in our shared humanity, and in our shared belief that we have much more in common than not. What makes us special is our ability to share, listen, and learn from each other with authentic curiosity and without judgment, which takes intentional practice. We recognize that good lives inside each of us, and that when we help each other make our Evergreen companies more mature and stronger, it benefits all of the employees, customers, suppliers, families, owners, and communities touched by our peers and us.

Thank you for supporting this incredible, trusted community, and I wish you, and our world, peace and prosperity in 2024.


Dave Whorton

CEO & Founder of Tugboat Institute

Bill-Betts headshot regulatory landscape

Navigating the Regulatory Landscape

California stands as both a land of opportunity and a labyrinth of regulations. Companies operating within the state must grapple with an intricate web of rules governing everything from labor practices to environmental standards. Betts Company has existed in California since 1868, when my great-great-great-grandfather, William Betts, founded the company in San Francisco. Today, the company has diversified and grown a great deal. Still based in California, we compete against companies all over the country, many of whom exist in an environment that is far less regulated than ours. Yet we are an industry leader.

Labor laws in California are far more stringent than most of the country. While labor laws were initially intended to protect employees, California’s current labor laws pose significant hurdles to businesses statewide. The Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA) is a good example of this. PAGA authorizes employees to file civil lawsuits on behalf of not just themselves, but also on the behalf of their coworkers for State of California Labor Code violations which penalizes the employer. The main problem with laws like these is that they assume ill intent on the part of employers. They are susceptible to abuse and can become punitively expensive for businesses across industries. Further, they shift and evolve frequently, which requires constant attention and policy adjustments on the employer’s side, which is also expensive. Navigating complex labor laws, ensuring compliance with meal and rest breaks, accurate pay stubs, and addressing new mandates like California's paid sick leave are daily concerns.

In addition to labor laws and regulations, California is among the most regulated states when it comes to environmental issues, and specifically, emissions. Here again the initial intention was laudable: to ensure that we respect and protect our natural environment. One example is the recent regulations created by California Air Resource Board (CARB) that are affecting the heavy-duty truck industry. But since California is often the first to mandate certain reforms and new policies, it is up to the businesses in the state to scramble to adjust to them continually.

How do we, at Betts, manage to thrive and remain competitive in such an environment? In several ways. First, we are a Certified Evergreen® company, and we believe in putting People First. As a baseline, therefore, we do a great deal to ensure that our employees are happy, fulfilled, and treated fairly, thus minimizing the cost of frivolous lawsuits brought through PAGA and similar regulations.

Second, we work cooperatively with many businesses in our industry and region to create and support systems and organizations that protect the rights of employees, but without putting the burden on employers. We founded, for example, the San Joaquin Valley Manufacturing Alliance, which aims to support the Valley’s $19.3B manufacturing industry by helping develop and train the workforce. We are also part of an organization called Heartland Compass, which provides resources for employees of employer partners. Heartland can help employees with all sorts of problems, including finding resources to pay for car repairs so they can get to work, finding the right advocates to start the process of seeking US citizenship, and securing a case manager and hospice care for an ailing parent. In this way, we are helping create a landscape where employees do have access to support and resources, making them less vulnerable and better able to stand on their own. In addition, the collective efforts of our business and our many co-collaborators stand as evidence that many businesses do care about employees and are willing to prioritize their safety, care, and wellbeing. We are working to redefine business as one of the good guys, not the villain.

A third and significant part of our work to improve the regulatory landscape is our contribution to a great many efforts to proactively advocate for Common Sense regulations and politics. My father, who is still Chairman of Betts, has taken on the role of primary steward and advocate for initiatives like PAGA reform and career tech education in California. Under his leadership, Betts Company has joined a broader coalition called the New California Coalition, representing businesses from various regions and industries. This coalition is united in its goal to create a common voice for businesses statewide, bridging the gap between government policymakers and localized businesses. The initiative aims to impact decision-makers at the state level and bring clarity to the regulatory challenges faced by companies of all sizes. The bottom line is that California needs good businesses, and therefore it is in everyone’s best interest to promote and enact reasonable and manageable regulations that will protect employees and the environment without driving companies out of state.

Finally, the most significant and fundamental way Betts remains competitive on the national stage despite the challenges imposed by the regulatory environment is by being excellent at what we do. We strive to outperform our competitors by offering superior quality and service. This shows up in several ways, starting with our commitment to investing in our equipment and technology. Betts Company continuously invests in cutting-edge equipment, improving efficiency and quality and allowing us to offer better products to our customers. We are also committed to innovation; we actively engage with customers to design and engineer solutions tailored to their needs. This sets us apart from competitors who may focus solely on production. We have historically and continue to maintain rigorous quality assurance standards, ensuring our products are top-notch and reliable, fostering customer trust. We’ve built a reputation for quality and reliability over the 155 years since our founding. And finally, while we compete nationally, Betts recognizes the importance of understanding local markets and tailoring our offerings accordingly.

As a final added bonus, the multi-generational nature of Betts Company plays a significant role in our success. As President, I oversee the day-to-day operations and the pursuit of excellence in manufacturing. My father, Mike Betts, with his wealth of experience and dedication to advocacy, spearheads the company's engagement with government and regulatory agencies. Having someone with such deep experience and knowledge of the industry landscape who can devote his time to this effort is an enormous advantage for us. In order to have similar success, another company might have to hire someone solely devoted to this effort, which would of course mean increased cost to and burden on the company.

At Betts, we remain committed to advocacy, innovation, and customer-centric excellence. We do not hold these values because of the regulatory landscape, but they are at the top of the list of reasons we succeed despite the often-challenging environment. Through collaboration with other businesses and organizations, and our deep commitment to being a Certified Evergreen company, Betts Company continues to work towards redefining business as a force for good and towards shaping a more positive business landscape, all while ensuring our competitive edge. We are proud of our multi-generational leadership as it provides a strong foundation for our ongoing success and commitment to positive change.

John-Kramer headshot

Diversifying Your Team Starts with Culture

In the world of manufacturing, achieving or even approaching gender balance has historically been challenging. The physical work that it requires was once considered more appropriate for men, and though we now know that is not the case, it’s been a hard stereotype to dismantle. However, in recent years, here at Cambridge Air Solutions, we have managed to defy the odds and create a more balanced workforce. It happened partially on purpose and partially by accident, but as we look back and study the changes we’ve seen in recent years, we are now taking steps to intentionally preserve our progress. Above all else, we’ve learned that our success on this front is rooted in a deeply ingrained culture of respect, dignity, and inclusivity.

Cambridge Air Solutions is a purpose-driven, family-owned Evergreen® business. As the second-generation CEO of Cambridge, my personal passion is to restore glory and dignity in manufacturing. I believe deeply in that goal, but it’s lofty and the initial steps toward making it a reality are not necessarily obvious. Or they weren’t to me.

I started with the people at Cambridge and have spent the last 20 years or so, and especially in the decade since I became CEO, focused on helping us all get clearer about why we are in business; we are trying to do manufacturing a different way. Our core values are unconditional love with high expectations, care, courage, and respect. Over time, these have helped us develop a strong culture where the hard work of every single team member is honored and celebrated. It’s important to us that every person at Cambridge goes home winning at the end of every day, knowing that their work matters. Our focused insistence on this kind of relationship with our team and with the work they do has, over time, created a supportive, respectful, and positive workplace.

Although it seems obvious that a culture built on respect should make room for all sorts of people, we were not overtly focused on diversifying our workforce. However, during the pandemic, our VP of Human Resources, Meg Brown, noticed a change. Like the rest of our industry, we hovered around 5-7% female on our team. But during Covid, women started applying for positions ¬– not just on the office side, where the previous 5-7% sat, but also in manufacturing. All of a sudden, we were seeing around 15% women, more than double what it had been. Wanting to keep on this path, we mused about why this was happening and what was motivating these women to apply, and then decided, “We should probably ask them!”

In conversations with these new recruits, it became clear that the company's culture played a pivotal role. Here are some of the things they told us; “It just felt really welcoming,” “I’ve never really worked with tools, but none of the men around me treated me like I couldn’t. They believed I could.” “Because no one treated me like I was stupid, I started to ask questions, and I learned, and I started to feel capable.” As we listened to them, it struck us: this was the glory and dignity we had been working on for 20 years!

Since then, we have become much more intentional about supporting this evolution. We joined Women in Manufacturing (WIM) about nine months ago and recently hosted a tour for our local chapter. Wrapping up the tour was a panel of female Cambridge employees in front of a screen with their titles: Welder, Maintenance Tech, and Engineer. We inevitably got to the question: “Is it hard working here surrounded by so many men?” Our team members simply replied, “It’s not like that here.” It was powerful.

We experienced a moment recently that exemplifies the journey we’ve been on. We have daily rhythms, where the company goes through the numbers: revenue, safety, quality, delivery, etc. We also leave space for grateful appreciation. One of our wonderful female employees, Maddie, the abovementioned Maintenance Tech on our WIM tour, was moving to North Carolina and it was her last day. When it came time for grateful appreciation, a string of 15 or so people got up and expressed their appreciation for Maddie. They spoke of her great attitude, her energy, how she made every day fun for everyone. One of the older men who runs a punch machine got up and took the microphone. There were literally tears in his eyes and all he could say was, “Thank you.” Everybody lost it then, including Maddie. She got up to speak and said, through tears, “I was not this way at my old job. I was a real jerk.” In that moment, she gave credit to our culture, and our culture gave credit to her. It was an unforgettable day.

Cambridge's success in increasing gender diversity only represents a start, but we are proud of this progress. I attribute it to our strong people-first culture of dignity and respect. We know that that culture trumps strategy, and our experience with gender inclusivity stands as strong proof of that. We prioritize treating all employees as individuals and respecting their unique abilities, regardless of their gender.

This commitment to fostering a healthy and supportive culture extends beyond gender diversity. Following the same core beliefs, we have undertaken another new initiative – we are partnering with organizations like Boone Center Inc. (BCI) to embrace neurodiversity in our talent pool. As part of their program to integrate adults with disabilities into a work program, BCI operates the Skills Center, offering job training and placement services. These employees receive the same pay and respect as their non-neurodiverse colleagues. Our culture of respect and acceptance extends to these individuals, creating a harmonious and inclusive work environment.

By creating a workplace where everyone feels welcomed, included, and valued at Cambridge, we are working to continue our journey to improve our healthy culture. Attracting talented people from diverse backgrounds, experiences, communities, and groups helps us continue to live into our purpose of enriching lives. We are acting intentionally to evaluate structures, systems and methods so that we may continue to attract a diverse and talented workforce that will support our highest-level purpose – enriching lives.