“The Art of Business” in Vermont – Where benefits are for the dogs and the pizzas are flat.

Vermonters and their businesses have long been innovative, creative and thrifty. Artful even. Samuel Hopkins received the first patent in 1790 for making potash required for the production of soap. Thaddeus Fairbanks and his scale company in St. Johnsbury changed how the world weighed it wares over 150 years ago. And “Snowflake” Bentley revolutionized micro-photography during many a long Vermont winter. Today the stories of global icons Ben & Jerry’s, Burton Snowboards, Simon Pearce, and Green Mountain Coffee Roasters are familiar to many.

Vermont people and businesses continue to lead their respective industries. At the 2008 Vermont Business and Industry Expo (www.vtexpo.com), a rare assembly of seven business leaders gathered to discuss what “the art of business” means to them today and why it matters. Brought together by the popular 7X7X7 panel at the Vermont Business and Industry Expo, each panelist shared a tip that demonstrated how they incorporate creativity in the workplace and what the tangible benefits were. These business owners and leaders each shared one common trait: passion for their fellow employees.

Not all of the creativity is reserved entirely for humans however. Don Mayer of Small Dog Electronics struggled with a name for his business at first, but his love of dogs culminated not only in the current title of the business, but how they do business. Dogs possess the ability to make people slow down, smile and relax. Dogs are a welcome part of the culture for employees and customers at SDE and they even receive health insurance. As well every customer receives two “small dogs” with each purchase. Sorry, no cats yet.

How does a business that sells creativity remain creative at home? Kelliher Samets Volk has found that a creative work environment is integral to the creative design process. Tim Volk indicated that employees often spend the greatest part of their day at work and therefore creating a space that inspires and comforts them is vital. Transforming an abandoned warehouse into a 1950’s era diner, complete with a soda fountain and pool table was no easy task, yet earlier site improvements began with a simple trek to IKEA. Today KSV helps clients such as ESPN, Nike and Chittenden Corp. to remain creative in their highly competitive industries.

Healthcare may not illicit images of “the art of business” for some, but John Canning of Physicians Computer Company rises to the challenge of the ever changing industry by insisting on embracing change. Creativity takes on the form of a video library with over 500 titles for all employees to share, cultural food explorations and nights out at the theater. Volunteering in the community also brings along the rewards of service, humility and continuous learning. For their minimal investment of less than $500 per employee it seems to be working: PCC was acknowledged as one of the Best Places to Work in Vermont in 2006 and continues to receive industry awards for service excellence.

Eric Friedman of Mad River Glen compares his marketing director job to being “the groundskeeper at Yankee Stadium” (if you are a Yankees fan of course, all others insert your favorite team’s ballpark here). It’s all about the passion you share with your employees and customers. The very co-op ownership of Mad River Glen demonstrates this dedication to the place and business. Faced with replacing an archaic yet iconic single chair lift, the business turned to its customers to fund the construction and installation of a new one. They eagerly responded and surpassed its $1.5 million goal. They have already reached the $1.7 million mark and raised an additional $270,000 by selling off the old single chairs.

Wanting to avoid the difficult task of explaining why an imminent lay off might be necessary, John Wall of Wall Goldfinger turned to opening the company books to all employees. The staff rallied and began to understand why forecasting, budgeting and delivering promised goods on time were so critical. Today, Wall Goldfinger creates distinguished board room furniture for such clients as the White House Situation room, Bank of America, Harvard and The Federal Reserve. When the rising cost of fuel was projected to cost homeowners an extra $750, John cut each employee a check for $750 to help defray the increase. In return, his average employee has been working at Wall-Goldfinger for nearly 10 years.

Autumn Harp, a custom manufacturer of personal care products. Through the many small businesses he has been involved with he has noticed that growth often spurs creative problem solving and forces innovation. To this end, Autumn Harp insists upon cross-training each employee in all facets of production as well as screening for creativity in the hiring process. Under his direction, Autumn Harp has doubled in annual sales and number of employees, and just opened a new manufacturing facility in Essex Junction.

George Schenk now has ovens large enough to cook his American Flatbread pizzas, but his early attempts at good pie did not seem to fit unless the dough was flattened just so. As AF has grown into three franchise locations and a national distribution of frozen pizzas, employees are encouraged to consider a three-month sabbatical after 10 years. Borrowing from academia and the Old Testament, sabbaticals offer individuals respite and an opportunity to immerse in the pursuit of rediscovering themselves. The result is resilient employees who pull together, cross-train and rise to the task of filling the temporary void. They also discover a new found appreciation for their fellow workers as well.

Veronica Williams, owner of HMC2 in Stowe and moderator for the panel stated in closing, “It all comes back to how you personify your brand and each owner does just that.” In a state that values its connection to community and environment, it’s no wonder that creative individuals continue to create thriving businesses for all. As George Schenk of American Flatbread so aptly stated, “We’re ALL in the business of humanity.”

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