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Updated: August 23, 2023

'Sustainability is often a journey' and other takeaways from the Mainebiz Small Business Forum

Four speakers seated on stage Photo / Renee Cordes USM Senior Lecturer Richard Bilodeau, left, moderated Tuesday's Mainebiz Small Business Forum featuring, to his left, Aaron Anker of Grand Organics; Becky McKinnell of iBec Creative; and Steve Mills of Maine Beer Co.

From workplace culture to vendor selection, there’s a lot that goes into running a small business sustainably, as highlighted in the Mainebiz Small Business Forum on Tuesday. 

“Sustainability is often a journey,” moderator Richard Bilodeau said in his opening remarks, setting the stage for a wide-ranging discussion around the so-called triple bottom line of profit, people and planet.

More than 120 people registered to attend the event, which focused on actions that companies can take in both the short and long term.

Starting with the profit part of the equation, Bilodeau noted that “you have to think about the financial component first” in order to be able to put resources into the other two areas.

Bilodeau is a senior lecturer at the University of Southern Maine and a partner in two businesses, one in direct marketing and the other in television production and research.

Lessons for businesses

“Be good stewards for our customers.” By providing a great service that people are willing to pay for, digital agency iBec Creative aims to ensure long-term profitability, according to Becky McKinnell, founder and owner of the Portland digital marketing and web development agency. Internally, she said, the more financial transparency a company can create, the more empowered its employees will feel.

Forging long-term relationships with suppliers. A self-described incrementalist when it comes to sustainability, Grandy Organics owner and CEO Aaron Anker noted that the Hiram-based food producer is only as good as its farmers and other suppliers. He also said that taking a long-term view might mean breaking even some years and focusing on profit at other times, and that the firm continues to strive towards new sustainable goals.

“Take care of the people that take care of you." Steve Mills, CEO of Maine Beer Co., said the Freeport-based brewer has implemented a “no jerk policy,” and that employees who don’t abide by that policy are out. The company offers employees health benefits including short-term disability and covers 100% of their insurance to show employees that they care. “It’s not the things we say, it’s what we actually do,” said Mills. 

Keeping employees happy and engaged. “The most sustainable thing that you can do as a business is to keep your people,” said Anker, who noted that his company’s first employee who started 22 years ago is still on staff. Noting that two employees will be taking vacation next week, he said, “I’m so excited for them.”

“Supercharging" job descriptions. Tedious but worth the effort, according to iBec Creative. The agency has tried to give job candidates a better picture of what success looks like in various positions as well as career paths open to them if hired, McKinnell said.

Caring for the planet 

In the area of environmental responsibility, Grandy Organics is adding 10,000 square feet of warehouse space to its existing facility in Hiram in a step that will keep all jobs in the community, while iBec Creative has taken various measures to reduce its carbon footprint.

Among brewers, Maine Beer was a pioneer in capturing carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere during brewing in a process known as “carbon capture.” To reduce waste overall, the company has assigned “a blue crew to every department to go over what we have been using and what we could do to reduce or reuse during the month,” Mills said.

Suggested actions

Wrapping up the session, each panelist was asked to recommend one action that businesses can take today to become more sustainable. 

Anker reiterated the theme of embracing incrementalism, while McKinnell suggested checking out the B Impact Assessment tool as a starting point whether or not the goal is B Corp status, as iBec has achieved.

“Pick a category you want to focus on and make a clear plan for it,” said McKinnell, a Mainebiz 40 Under 40 honoree in 2022.

On a similarly practical note, Mills said that leaders need not look far to determine what to improve or change at any company.

“Ask your team,” he said, because employees already know.

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