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To Lure Sustainable Companies, The Connection Is The People 

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A variety of sustainable companies outline what they were looking for when siting new operations.

By Sharon H. Fitzgerald

The year was 1997 when John Elkington, a global authority on corporate responsibility, coined the phrase “people, planet, profit” to describe the triple motivation of so-called sustainable companies. Such ventures were, of course, about making money, yet the idea was to turn a profit using business practices fair to consumers, employees and communities while at least curtailing environmental impact and perhaps making a positive environmental contribution with their products.

What’s changed since 1997 is that today’s sustainable companies are sought-after targets of economic-development efforts at the local and state level, recognized as job-creating taxpayers that are true assets in the regions where they locate. You could say that the word planet in Elkington’s slogan now refers to where on the planet these providers of sustainable products and services would like to be — and they have their pick.

Vintage Tech Recyclers

When Vintage Tech Recyclers Inc., headquartered in Romeoville, Ill., looked for a site for its second operations center in the Midwest, one reason company officials chose Riverside, Mo., was because of the people. In fact, several executives interviewed for this story cited a welcoming local population with a progressive attitude and a strong work ethic as a top priority in siting decisions, thus cementing the authenticity of the word people in Elkington’s theory.

Vintage Tech Recyclers is the quintessential American success story, founded by Karrie Gibson, a stay-at-home mom with a degree in computer science who recognized a need in her community for an electronic-equipment recycler. Vintage Tech today has a 270,000-square-foot facility in Plainfield, Ill., with 140 employees. It is one of the largest electronic recyclers in the country, handling more than 50 million pounds of electronics annually. The company recycles for more than 4,000 customers nationally, selling directly to smelters and refineries. Vintage Tech’s recovered gold sells on the London Mercantile Exchange.

Todd Gibson, vice president of marketing, Vintage Tech Recyclers (and Karrie’s husband), recalls the day after Thanksgiving last year, when he sat in a Missouri Starbucks with Tim Cowden, senior vice president of business development for the Kansas City Area Development Council. “Tim probably should have been shopping and catching the best deals,” Gibson says. “Instead he made a pitch to me on why I should go to Kansas City, not to St. Louis. That’s really how it all started.” Cowden remembers it a little differently. “I would have rather been talking to a potential new company as opposed to being in a mall somewhere,” he says.

Once Vintage Tech Recyclers chose the Kansas City region, Todd Gibson says Riverside “really sparked our interest,” thanks in no small measure to its mayor, Kathleen Rose. “Recycling is in her core mission,” he says. “Not only did we find a great building there, but we also found a wonderful mayor to help support us in our efforts to build a recycling network.”

Of course, Kansas City’s central location and its outstanding logistics opportunities, including rail, helped. Vintage Tech Recyclers hopes to lure clients even from the West Coast to its Riverside operation, which should employ 50 workers by 2015.

When asked about tactics to lure sustainable companies, Cowden says, “First off, you have to have a mindset in the region that we understand sustainable practices. We stress all the basic fundamentals, the advantages of the Kansas City market, but certainly we have to be attuned to the particular needs of a company that is in that sustainable segment of the economy. You do that by telling them that there’s a lot of other like activity under way,” he says, noting that in Kansas City that includes wind energy and electric vehicles. “When they understand that they are not going to be pioneers, that there’s a cluster already developed that they can help augment, then it becomes a much easier discussion.”

Be Green Packaging LLC

Robert Richman and Ron Blitzer are a venture-capital team on a mission, believing there’s green to be made by going green. When they came upon a small packaging company five years ago whose owners had a philosophy but not a lot of experience, they bought the small manufacturer and today’s version of Be Green Packaging, headquartered in California, was born.

Richman, chairman and president of manufacturing, says Be Green Packaging today is “certified every which way to show that we are truly a green manufacturing company.” In fact, the company is a “cradle to cradle” operation, a certification indicating that the process “starts from the ground and goes back to the ground,” Richman says.

Be Green Packaging first launched manufacturing in China, offering residents in a remote locale an opportunity to work. The packaging product is manufactured from wheat straw and bulrush, and one of the company’s biggest accounts has been Whole Foods grocers. Then Procter & Gamble took notice. Now Be Green Packaging crafts the clamshell packaging for the Gillette Fusion ProGlide razor, reducing the use of petroleum-based plastic and drastically cutting packaging weight.

Be Green Packaging wanted to launch its first American manufacturing operation in California, but it was South Carolina “that really welcomed us with open arms,” Richman says. He and Blitzer flew east to take a look and found “an absolutely perfect,” 100,000-square-foot facility in Ridgeland, Richman says. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley stepped in to help seal the deal. The state offered tax abatements and $2,500 per employee for customized training. The facility already is a company logistics hub and manufacturing should begin in spring 2013, taking advantage of native plant life as the raw material.

“As a green company, our philosophy is to be very holistic — it’s about the product, it’s about the people and it’s about the place,” Richman says. The area’s unemployment is more than 20 percent, and the venture capital duo saw an opportunity to help. In three years, 150 people should be employed. “We just liked the people we met,” Richman says. “They were very friendly in the South, eager and anxious to have a job.”

Novelis

For Atlanta-based Novelis, the world’s largest recycler of aluminum cans, location of a new global research and technology center didn’t take decision-makers far afield. They knew they wanted to be near the Atlanta headquarters, yet there were a myriad of options in the region.

Jack Clark, chief technical officer, says the company worked with state and local governments, and the result was attractive grants that sweetened the deal. The decision was Kennesaw, a northwest Atlanta suburb, where Novelis cut the ribbon on a 160,000-square-foot facility in June. “We basically took the building for its overall size and its location and started all over again on the inside,” Clark says. Employment at the center is expected to reach 140 people in the next two years.

“Within our sustainability objectives, we have a 2020 goal of achieving 80 percent recycled metal in the product that we ship,” Clark explains. The new center will focus on increasing recycled content, automotive use of aluminum and literally the reinventing of the aluminum can — a can either composed of 100 percent recycled material or a can that can be recycled 100 percent. “This is different than the aluminum cans of today,” Clark says. “It’s new technology. We’re working to get Novelis to the point where we’re recognized globally as a disruptive-technology company.”

Clear Energy Systems Inc.

Arizona-based Clear Energy Systems is a different kind of sustainability story. A company that manufactures portable generators, Clear Energy was launched in 2001 by two engineers with an idea to retool Pratt & Whitney radial aircraft engines, circa World War II, to power portable diesel generators. Now that’s recycling.

In 2008, Tony Carmen, owner of a Detroit technology company, stepped in to help with parts sourcing. An executive with an automotive-engineering background, Carmen bought the company. “We took out a clean sheet of paper and started over,” he recalls.

Today, Clear Energy’s newly reconfigured generator is ready for Environmental Protection Agency environmental testing. The 9-cylinder engine runs on natural gas and can burn fuel down to 45 percent methane. Eventually, the Genesis 1000 will be offered as an ethanol burner, too. “If you’re going to burn a fossil fuel, natural gas is probably the cleanest fuel you can burn,” Carmen says. “Along with that, we spent significant time designing the emission-control devices.”

Headquartered in Tempe, Clear Energy employs about 20 people, yet in June, the company broke ground on a new 156,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Tempe that Carmen says will employ 250 people in two years. On hand at the groundbreaking was Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer.

“In the end, when we weighed all of the incentives that were available and the workforce and level of the workforce, we felt like Arizona was indeed a good location for us to be,” Carmen says. And he lauded the initiative of state and local economic developers, who made sure Clear Energy was supported and happy.

Sharon Fitzgerald is a freelance writer from Murfreesboro, Tenn. She can be reached by e-mailing fitzcomm@comcast.net.

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About the author: Sharon Fitzgerald

Sharon Fitzgerald is a freelance writer from Murfreesboro, Tenn. She can be reached at fitzcomm@comcast.net.

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