2008tsw_logoAttendees of Winning Workplaces’ Top Small Workplaces Conference in October 2008 were treated to a variety of content aimed at helping them improve their firms’ productivity and profitability. The three keynote addresses transcended the inspirational to give decision makers meaty takeaways for their small and midsize firms.

Colleen Barrett, Southwest Airlines

The Awards Dinner honoring our 2008 Top Small Workplaces featured Colleen Barrett, a Top Small Workplaces judge in 2007 and 2008 and President Emeritus of Southwest Airlines.

Colleen Barrett talks to attendees about the “Southwest Way.”

Having served as President of the point-to-point, low-fare airline since 2001 – and in a variety of roles of increasing responsibility for the Texas-based company since 1981 – Barrett shared her thoughts on issues of concern to small business leaders: getting through tough times while keeping employees motivated and providing background on Southwest’s “employee first” philosophy.

Her best advice for getting through a challenging economy was to manage for the bad times during the best of times. She said this value has evolved over the company’s 37-year history as living the “Southwest Way.” This means that each employee is expected to display “a warrior spirit, a servant’s heart and a fun-loving attitude.”

Barrett also explained that Southwest’s leadership instructs various groups of its employees who, in the company, are their number-one customers (flyers are actually considered number-two customers after employees). For instance, their mechanics are told that their pilots are their number-one customer. Southwest has also succeeded in an ailing industry, Barrett said, because their servant leadership model is backwards – managers are there to make those they supervise look good, not the other way around.

Trish Karter, Dancing Deer Baking Company

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Essentially a case study of 14-year-old, Boston-based Dancing Deer Baking Company and how its business model supports the mission and values of her 85 employee-owners and surpasses traditional marketing, Dancing Deer Founder and CEO Trish Karter profiled three socially responsible initiatives that are intended to both generate profits and fulfill a vital societal need. Along the way, she explained where her company is at in implementing these measures.

Trish Karter explains how Dancing Deer Baking Co. maintains a double bottom line.

She spoke about the B Corporation initiative. Probably the furthest along in terms of public understanding and acceptance, the goal here is to establish an entirely new corporate legal structure to support “what we say we want as a society when we’re thinking big and collectively, vs. the way we act individually.” Karter also covered Slow Money – which she believes will create a new layer of intermediation between for-profit entities concerned with capitalism and non-profits that address philanthropic needs – and The Aspen Principles, which attempt to reemphasize long-term value creation in public markets.

Karter concluded her address by detailing Dancing Deer’s socially responsible core principles:

  • Provide natural, preservative-free food – building distribution systems for this food was the hardest part, she said.
  • Promote environmentalism and sustainability – their new 45,000 square-foot renovated warehouse facility is being retrofitted to reduce its carbon footprint.
  • Inner city economic development – the company has lived this since its founding, passing on cheaper spaces in the suburbs to provide quality employment in troubled neighborhoods.
  • Employee ownership and engagement – another founding principle, Karter boasted that their employee option pool is now 13 percent excluding their board of directors and C-level staff.
  • Social change – explanation of the company’s Sweet Home Product line, through which Dancing Deer contributes 35 percent of pre-tax profits to end family homelessness in Massachusetts.
  • Honest packaging and consumer advocacy – a leader in using recyclable materials in their packaging, she said their six-ounce grocery cookie package is about 25 percent smaller than the industry standard for that category.
  • Advocacy to advance the role of women in business – they’ve pursued a capital structure strategy to maintain the women ownership of Dancing Deer.

While Karter said it has not been easy, or inexpensive, to live up to their values, some of the net gains of doing such are consumer loyalty, which keep sales up even in tough times, and a steady stream of local talent that can be tapped to fill new or vacated positions.

Alan Murray, The Wall Street Journal Online

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With the presidential election weeks away and looming large on the minds of many business leaders in attendance, Alan Murray, Executive Editor of The Wall Street Journal Online, was the perfect person – with his long tenure at the Journal covering Washington and global business – to take up the topic of the 2008 election and its impact on small business.

Murray said he believes the recent turbulence in the credit markets have the following order of effects on small firms:

  1. Frozen or sluggish access to credit for businesses – he said at the time he believes this will thaw out over the next few months.
  2. Impact of the above on customers of these businesses – consumers in terms of paying mortgages and credit card bills; businesses in maintaining their accounts payable and meeting payroll. Murray said experts he respects are telling him this will take several years to fully play out.
  3. The biggest, longest-term effects will be demonstrated in our national politics, the structure of our government and in how American capitalism evolves in the future.
The Wall Street Journal Online’s Alan Murray outlines some of the stakes for small businesses in the 2008 election.

Working off this third magnitude of effects, where the most unknown quantities exist, Murray stressed that history has always moved in big pendulum swings. He argued that the era of deregulation of businesses and free market principles reached its early prime under President Bill Clinton (and around the world through figures like Tony Blair) and has continued under President George W. Bush. With 9/11 and the Enron and WorldCom scandals following soon after the turn of the century, he said the pendulum had already started to swing the other way, toward greater regulation, before the severe stock market fluctuations of the last few months took place.

Murray ended his remarks surmising that regardless of who becomes president, the national and global climate is now embracing increased regulation of, and higher taxes on, businesses. However, he also said there is more evidence of bipartisanship in Washington, and this could have positive effects on small businesses, especially as attention increasingly falls on them as providers of jobs and economic stability while their larger peers merge or fail.