A successful business model = profit + social responsibility + colleagues who like to come to work
Kate Emery, CEO and founder of Walker Systems Support, directs her company’s efforts to make business matter.
Building one dream at a time
Over 20 years ago, Kate Emery was a senior software specialist intrigued by the idea of building a company. It was never the technical side that attracted her. What made it exciting was the idea of creating an organization. When she shared this vision with her boss, he told her to go for it; if it didn’t work, she could always come back. With that, she left to begin to make her dream a reality.
And then there were 50…
Today, Walker Systems Support has a roster of fifty employees and has been selected by Inc. magazine for the third year in a row as one of the nation’s fastest growing private companies in the country. With headquarters in Farmington, Connecticut and an office in Stamford, the company provides network management and computer support services for businesses throughout the state.
Kate readily credits her family for influencing her business philosophy. She grew up in a household where her parents – a social worker and a science teacher – emphasized that respect for other people was the foundation for a good life. She also admired her mom’s apparent ease in communicating with others. In 1982 when Kate founded her own company, she made these long-held values the cornerstone of running her new business. It just seemed the natural thing for her to do.
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As the years passed, she witnessed that moral dilemmas faced by other companies were often resolved with shrugged shoulders and the worn-out phrase, “It’s just business, nothing personal” as a way of dismissing unethical or potentially illegal business decisions. She often asked herself “why on earth are these people doing things that are not in everybody’s best interests?” For a thoughtful executive like Kate, many of these resolutions too often seemed to benefit top management at the expense of employees. After ten years in business, she was successful. Walker had a long list of loyal clients who trusted her business sense, respected her firm’s technical prowess, and relied on her honesty and dedication in supporting their needs.
Bringing the human being back into business
It was this winning business formula which set Walker Systems Support apart from the competition and helped to build lasting client relationships. But what Kate saw as standard business practices time and again made her increasingly uncomfortable. She understood all too well what it was like to be an employee as well as a boss. She wanted her business to be fair to everyone who worked for its success. There had to be a more equitable way to conduct business. Even as the company grew, it troubled her enough to consider selling the company she had lovingly nurtured for more than a decade.
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And then two life-defining events occurred which heightened her drive to try to find a positive business model to emulate – she turned forty…and gave birth to her first child.
Perhaps she was influenced by the advancing hands of time or the trusting look in her new baby’s eyes. Perhaps it was the weariness of struggling to maintain her high moral standards in a business world that often took unethical shortcuts for the sake of the bottom line. Or maybe she finally had to surrender to that long-heard quiet voice inside her head prompting her to make a change that mattered.
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The challenge of transforming a company
It was probably a little of all these things which made Kate decided to go out on a limb and turn her kinder, democratic vision for business into a reality using her own company as a testing ground. Never one to shy away from a challenge, she plowed ahead to restructure Walker into a stakeholder business focused on balancing profit with corporate philanthropy and social responsibility.
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“At some point along the way,” said Kate, “I realized the best contribution I could make would be to have Walker be an embodiment of the kind of business that I was quite sure you could have that could be successful and also pay attention to the other relevant issues besides just the bottom line.” It became a done deal. Her company’s new vision would focus on making a positive difference in the world.
The first step in becoming a stakeholder business
“We needed to codify our business plan so that we could hold it out there to say this is a model that works,” stated Kate. She first restructured the business by reorganizing the articles of incorporation and bylaws to state that Walker would act in a socially responsible, ethical and transparent way; and that all profits would be distributed equally between employees, the community and investors. Walker’s mission statement defines their stakeholder business as “committed to conducting business for the benefit of all…that business can and should balance the desire and the need to provide a fair and reasonable return on investment to investors, with an awareness that we are all connected. Ultimately we prosper or fail together…”
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“Profits are a metric of health,“ said Kate. “ If you don’t have profits you can’t do a lot of things like pay ourselves or have a nice facility. We definitely have to pay attention to them. In a traditional business, the bottom line is profit but in what we call a stakeholder business or social enterprise,” she continued,“ is making a contribution or making a difference. Profits are important, but they are a means to an end rather than simply the end itself.”
Seeing is believing
When it was first rolled out internally, Kate thought naturally everyone would be on board and love the idea, but people were skeptical and wanted to figure out what was really happening. “I think everybody had seen so many misdeeds going on, they wondered if this was some clever tax dodge,” said Kate with a chuckle. “It was a matter of living it, showing it, and seeing how it plays out.”
Kate was prepared to give everyone an equal voice in her company’s new direction. Each month, Walker holds a stakeholder’s meeting where employees gather to discuss their concerns and review the financials. The idea is to be transparent so everyone knows what is going on and where money is being spent. When company-wide
policies need to be decided, they form action teams made up of representatives from each department. Recently these teams met to determine if telecommuting would be beneficial to the company or would disrupt their sense of community.
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Whatever they decide is fine with Kate, despite any reservations she may have. She believes strongly that it is important that policy decisions become less of a top down mandate and more of an employee responsibility. But giving up the power as key decision maker is not for everyone. Not even Kate has relinquished all her authority. She is particularly protective of marketing decisions involving the image of her company and maintains the right to call those her own.
The responsibility to give back
The values she learned growing up – about being good to people – have formally been put into action, not only by herself, but by her colleagues at Walker. “We’re part of a community and I believe we’re beholden to that community,” said Kate, “whether it’s the local or global community. We have a responsibility to care for and give back to our community. If it wasn’t for this town, if it wasn’t for this country, if it wasn’t for our collective humanity, we wouldn’t be here doing what we are doing, so we give back. Community service or different kinds of community outreach are ways of making that happen.”
Global Harmony Institute was an organization Kate founded a while ago with an eye toward being an incubator for good ideas, seeing what they could come up with and trying to get those ideas out and into the world and working. The first project was the Computer Contribution Program because it was a program Walker could help with easily. The idea was to keep computers out of landfills, train people to refurbish them and return them to non-profits where people could use them. They recently added a component to train teens and adults in underserved areas to do the refurbishing as well as learn technical skills to get jobs. And does it work? Well, a Walker engineer recently was at a client where he worked alongside a Dell technician doing warranty work who got his training at the Global Harmony Institute. “What a great feeling to be a part of making that happen,” said Kate.
Walker is an incubator for other social entrepreneurs. “We’re trying to identifying people who are trying to do things for good and seeing what we can do to give them the resources they need, whether that’s technical expertise, office space or whatever, to try and make that a reality. It’s another way of advancing the model of a social enterprise,” said Kate.
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They also do things that are individual-driven with the Walker Volunteer Time Bank. Each employee receives 2 days to use in their favorite volunteer organization, or they can donate their days to the bank for other people who want to do more. Recently two employees went to Mississippi for a week to help rebuild homes devastated by Katrina using their own time and days contributed by their colleagues.
In the end, does it really work?
To say giving back makes Kate Emery happy is an understatement. She exudes such delight at her company’s ability to make a difference not only in the marketplace, but at its ability to share the profits with worthy causes. Many people in business say they want to do good things, but Kate and her co-workers make it a part of their everyday business lives. It almost seems too good to be true that somebody could be doing this – making money, giving back, being happy. But Walker Systems Support is not an imaginary company. It’s real. It’s profitable. And it’s changing the way business behaves.
The fact that Kate is putting this into practice is quite a tribute to her ability to achieve such a lofty goal. What some might call idealism; she calls a new business reality.
It’s been more than ten years now since Walker morphed into a social enterprise. Can their socially responsible model make business better? CEO and founder Kate Emery believes so, but she’s got a practical head about business. She knows not everyone will follow her new lead, but she’s happy to move forward one small step at a time. Her next goal is to propagate the model. And to that end, Kate shares her experience by regular speaking engagements to business groups and management classes at several universities. She is currently working on a book to guide new entrepreneurs. And before you buy it, you know she will be sharing the profits.
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Individual contributor, usually a hollow buzzword at corporations, really means something here. Employees like having a personal stake in where they work. It motivates them to stay and contribute their skills for profit and community. “It’s not perfect,” said Kate, “nothing is, but in general, it is a more democratizing model. Everyone wins.” Sounds like a pretty good reason to get up every morning.
Tags: Kate Emery, Walker Systems Support, philanthropy, social enterprise, social entrepreneur, social responsibility, stakeholder business