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Enterprise Awards Are an Honor, but Some Firms Trip on Their Pride

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Norman Lear, the producer who helped shake up television with in-your-face programs such as “All in the Family,” was troubled years ago by the spate of news about rascally executives and the evils of business. So he set about finding examples of visionary managers who could draw a favorable spotlight to “socially responsible” corporations.

This morning in New York, the Business Enterprise Trust, an organization he founded in 1989, will present its fifth annual awards to five companies that have demonstrated they can do well by doing good.

For most past and current recipients, a Business Enterprise Award, though not widely known, is a source of pride and a good tool for recruiting and retaining talented employees. The award also validates the slowly growing movement of blending social values with business.

But it is not something that winners tend to tout in marketing their products and services. Companies that wear the mantle of social responsibility--and call attention to it--can sometimes find it a burden.

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The sad truth, said Howard Schultz, chairman and CEO of the Starbucks coffee empire and a 1994 winner, is that companies that wrap themselves in social responsibility run the risk of setting themselves up for a fall. “If [the media] find one thing out of place,” he said, “it’s magnified because of the pristine position the company occupied.”

Schultz should know. His progressive company, which offers full health care benefits and stock options to even part-time workers and donates annually to the relief agency CARE, has come under fire for using aggressive real estate tactics, buying coffee beans from Guatemala--where exploited workers earn 2 cents a pound picking beans--and for having a board composed entirely of five white men.

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There is, indeed, “a downside of putting yourself out as a paradigm of social responsibility,” said Quinn Spitzer, president and chief executive of Kepner-Tregoe, an international management consulting firm based in Princeton, N.J.

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On the other hand, he said, strategically run companies recognize that offering humane programs for workers and being involved in the community carry their own rewards.

“The best companies,” he said, “recognize that the better the community is and the better society is, the better it will be for them.”

Rachel Hubka, founder of a Chicago company that transports schoolchildren by bus, doesn’t necessarily plan to tell the world about the 1995 Business Enterprise Award she will pick up this morning in Rockefeller Center’s Rainbow Room. But the honor provides high-powered ammunition to take to her bank, her insurance company and the Chicago Board of Education. She said she also plans to talk it up “to my employees and enhance their own image.”

Hubka will be honored for building a thriving company--Rachel’s Bus Co.--in a neglected inner-city neighborhood where good jobs and qualified applicants are scarce. Despite heavy regulatory pressures and challenging logistics, her innovative approach has inspired an entrepreneurial spirit in her 143 employees--all but one of whom are black or Latino. In fact, Hubka has helped two former employees start their own businesses.

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Part-time drivers, all of whom carry business cards and wear slacks with white shirt and tie, are encouraged to develop charter contracts for extra income.

Not all of the company’s operations contribute directly to the bottom line. The company’s personnel manager recently had the idea of becoming certified to register people to vote. Hubka, who grew up in Arkansas as one of 13 children of a Nazarene evangelist and a schoolteacher, plans to make the service available not only in the workplace but also to the neighborhood at large. In the past, the company has also transported elderly voters to the polls.

Judy Wicks, a former waitress-turned-socially conscious Philadelphia restaurateur, sees her 1995 award as a validation of her efforts.

“The movement of seeing business as a catalyst for social change is very important,” she said. “I use good food to lure innocent customers into social activism.”

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Wicks drew praise for using her restaurant to build a sense of community in the ethnically diverse environs of the University of Pennsylvania. Her lively White Dog Cafe sponsors lectures on timely issues, community tours and “sister restaurant” programs in ethnic neighborhoods of Philadelphia as well as in Cuba and Vietnam. And it serves up award-winning chow to boot.

She especially likes the idea that the Business Enterprise Trust distributes videos and write-ups about award winners to prominent colleges nationwide, including USC and UCLA, to give business students a glimpse into how socially aware corporations operate.

Sharing the trust’s growing body of knowledge “can only spread good practices,” agreed Gun Denhart, the Swedish-born co-founder and chairwoman of Hanna Andersson, a catalogue retailer that sells colorful women’s and children’s clothes out of Portland, Ore.

Denhart received a Business Enterprise Award in 1992 for her Hannadowns program, which allows customers to return used clothing in exchange for a 20% discount on new items. The hand-me-downs are then passed on to women’s and children’s shelters nationwide (thanks to free delivery by United Parcel Service).

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Hanna Andersson covers 45% of its employees’ child-care costs and offers flexible scheduling. Despite all that, the company recently crashed into the harsh reality of down economic cycles when a magazine focused on the layoffs of 20 part-time order takers. (They were hired back when business picked up.)

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Even so, Denhart is tempted to include more references to the company’s social responsibility in catalogues. She recently participated in the launch of “The Big Bang"--a movement in Oregon dedicated to making businesses aware of ways to make life easier for employees.

Such change, she noted, “will have to come from making management aware and from the rumblings of customers.”

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The other 1995 winners are Hal Rosenbluth, CEO of Rosenbluth International, a Philadelphia-based travel agency focused on keeping employees satisfied and reducing turnover; Vermont National Bank in Brattleboro, Vt., for allowing customers to earmark deposits for loans to local enterprises, and, for lifetime achievement, the Haas family of Levi Strauss & Co.


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