Cascade Engineering recognized for green practices

Maybe he could make more money by concentrating on profits alone and ignoring his company's environmental and social responsibilities, Cascade Engineering President and CEO Fred Keller conceded.

But the bottom line is not his bottom line.

"Our purpose is to make a positive impact on society and the environment and be financially successful," Keller said. "If you're going to be around, you have to be financially successful.

"For me personally, I don't know if I could run a business if I didn't enjoy what it's doing in the world."

In February, Cascade, headquartered near Grand Rapids in Cascade Township, became the state's first certified "B Corporation" — the "B" stands for benefit. That recognition was bestowed by B Lab, a Pennsylvania nonprofit dedicated to using the power of business to solve social and environmental problems.

Cascade, which began as a manufacturer of plastic-injected parts for the automotive and office furniture industries, is the largest of the 380 corporations so far recognized with the B certification.

Keller, 66, founded Cascade Engineering in 1973 with six employees and a goal of building a company that treats its employees well.

The business has grown to more than 1,000 employees in 14 sites worldwide. While continuing to supply plastic parts to the auto and office furniture industries, Cascade has expanded to 15 business units in manufacturing and marketing — reflecting Keller's leadership in environmentally friendly business practices such as using recycled plastics in new products.

In 2007, Cascade began making a plastic filter filled with sand to purify water in developing countries. Last year it launched a global safe-water initiative with the Windquest Group, a Grand Rapids-based private investment fund. So far, more than 1,000 of Cascade's HydrAid bio-sand filters have been delivered to cholera-stricken Haiti.

For years, Cascade has manufactured plastic trash carts on wheels. Last year, Jo-Anne Perkins, general manager of Cascade's Cart Solutions division, suggested the company begin molding pink trash carts and donating $5 for each one sold to the American Cancer Society's breast cancer awareness program.

"It was an easy 'yes' when she came and said, 'I'd like to do this,' " said Keller, whose first wife died of breast cancer in 1988.

Cascade uses about 12 million pounds of recycled plastic each year, Keller said, and he hopes to increase that. The company recently developed a process for painting plastic parts in the mold to reduce the release of volatile organic compounds into the atmosphere.

Three years ago, the company added a line: small wind turbines for homes, communities and businesses. Cascade manufactures the turbine rotors and assembles them to generators built by Swift Wind Turbine. Through a new division, Cascade Renewable Energy, formed last July, the company sells wind turbines and solar panels made by companies in Oregon and China.

Last year, Cascade began selling wind turbines through 21 Lowe's stores in California, and it plans to expand its retail offerings of sustainable products through a new division called Cascade for the Home.

Cascade is a leader among many West Michigan companies that follow sustainable business practices, said Birgit Klohs, CEO of the Right Place, the Grand Rapids area's economic development agency. In partnership with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Right Place founded the West Michigan Green Suppliers Network to help businesses become more sustainable. Another organization, the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum, also encourages companies to become more environmentally responsible.

Being lean and green makes sense not only environmentally but also financially, Klohs said. "If you take waste out of the system, you're not taking it to the landfill, and you're saving on energy."

Royal Technologies, a Cascade competitor based in Hudsonville, southwest of Grand Rapids, sends little to the landfill, recycles oil and uses energy-efficient lighting, said Ed Bos, who heads the company's sustainability program. "Some people think when you go green, it costs more money," he said. "That isn't necessarily true."

He credited Keller and Cascade with leading a green revolution in manufacturing.

"I think it's very admirable that they are taking the lead and spending efforts on being green," Bos said.

That leadership extends to civic commitments. Keller chairs the W.K. Kellogg Foundation board and was named to the U.S. Commerce Department's Manufacturing Council in 2004. He also is among 50 CEOs who formed Talent 2025, an effort to attract and retain creative employees in West Michigan. In the fall of 2002, Keller began teaching a class in sustainable business practices at Cornell University, his alma mater.

"I didn't have this epiphany," he said. "I didn't wake up one morning and say, 'I want to make sustainable products.' We didn't have a word for it back then."

Being sustainable is not easy, Keller said.

"Closing a plant and firing somebody, those are easy decisions," he said. But figuring out how to minimize a company's impact on the environment while making a profit? That's when creativity starts. That's when it's interesting."

As a private company — Keller and his family hold nearly all the shares — Cascade does not release financial figures. But he said that "after a little setback in 2009," Cascade's growth rebounded last year by 17% with revenue of a little more than $250 million. The company is on track for another 17% increase this year, he said.

Whether he could make more money by focusing only on the bottom line is not something he thinks about, Keller said.

"I don't have an ambition to die with the most toys."

Article originally published in Waste & Recycling News, digital edition no longer supported.