Margi Brownfield Swett: “Employees Are Our Partners”

sailboats image

Colchester, Vermont

At first glance, Margi Brownfield Swett wouldn’t seem like a “poster child” for a New Hard Times story. She is not unemployed but a small business owner and engraver, and her small business, Vermont Trophy and Engraving in Colchester, Vermont, is doing well, considering these hard times.

But there are at least two sides to New Hard Times, and they go hand in hand. One is the plight of the long-term unemployed, especially those over 50. The other is implied in the blog’s subtitle: Creating Our Own Safety Net. While we must fight hard to save what remains of the shredded government safety net, we must also work hard on creating our own. That’s one way people got through the Great Depression in the 1930s.

There are many ways to contribute, and in that context Margi’s story is emblematic. Her story was first published in Senator Bernie Sanders’s booklet, Struggling through the Recession: Letters from Vermont, which Senator Sanders represents as an Independent. There, too, Margi’s story stood out.

logo imageIn February 2009, Vermont Trophy and Engraving’s sales dropped by 50 percent. Margi and her co-owner husband Steve were scared – and so were their employees. In a crisis this sudden and this deep, many business owners might see “labor” as purely a cost item, to be reduced along with all other costs just to survive. Plenty of businesses did: the number of unemployed grew that month by 851,000 – that’s nearly a million job losses in just one month.

But Margi and Steve saw their employees very differently, and it led them to the opposite conclusion. “We realized that the thing that was going to kill us was employee anxiety,” Margi said in her published story. So they took drastic action to relieve that anxiety and reassure their employees instantly: They gave all employees 10 percent raises, across the board, telling them emphatically that “we were not going anywhere.”

As she wrote to Senator Sanders, the years since then have not been easy. They lost their lease in 2009, and moving the business to a new location used up most of their remaining personal assets, leaving them with just their mountain lake home an hour’s drive away. Margi and Steve had a creative, upbeat response to that as well, deciding to move to a less expensive place in town and rent their Turtle Cove home to summer – and spring, fall, and winter – vacationers. The engraving business is starting to pick up, and they are cautiously optimistic about the future.

Turtle Cove lake image

Turtle Cove, Vermont

Here, in her own words, Margi Brownfield Swett talks about the recession’s effect on Vermont Trophy and Engraving, and the values that helped her and Steve guide it through the rough seas.

Margi Brownfield Swett: We had a belief that our business would survive, that our customer base and financial strength were enough to see us through. And when we got through, we were going to want our people with us. So demonstrating that we were committed to riding the storm and keeping everyone in place had a real boost effect.

I have to disagree with your statement [that most businesses see employees as a “labor cost”]. While payroll is surely listed on the expense side of a balance sheet, reliable, trustworthy staff is the single most critical resource a business has. In my case, where we are value-added business, this is even truer for us than for companies who can quickly train new staff.

One thing I love about owning a business is being able to hire good people, pay them well, and give them an atmosphere where they can grow and develop their talents. As with most of my worldviews, it boils down to fairness.

Autumn colors imageThere are many reasons people move to Vermont; for us a major driver was the cultural ethic. This is a very small state with a reputation for self-reliance, but the flip-side to that is watching each other’s backs and respecting each other. That extends to most employer/employee situations that I’m aware of. We may be a wee bit extreme, but I suspect that’s more because of our good fortune in having some personal assets than otherwise.

I think the whole state of Vermont is about being small. It’s an incredible blessing. It’s easier to address problems when you can put a human face on them.

Beyond that, we talked for years about the business model we thought our employers (in the Midwest primarily) should have and didn’t, and a great deal of that was a belief that well-treated people repay the trust and treatment many times over.

When people invest all they have into an entrepreneurial venture there are loads of scary things to think about, and being taken advantage of is one. And people are fleeced by employees; to argue otherwise is avoiding the truth. To me that only proves the truth that it is cheaper in the long run to hire good people, pay them well, and become partners with them. Chances are they don’t want to own a business but they are willing to help you look out for yours – if they feel they are valued.

Once, in my old life as a business consultant, I visited the business of a man I knew socially. He was the life of any party, had tons of friends. But as we toured his plant, no one looked up or said hello to him, and he didn’t make any effort to introduce anyone. It was very strange and I thought, what a lot they were all missing – there was such an atmosphere of distrust that the employees didn’t know they worked for a really fun, nice man, and the owner had no idea who might be working there with thoughts of how to do things better – far more cheaply than any advice I was going to give. It was a tragedy.

Margi and Steve image

Margi and Steve

I guess Steve and I have never seen ourselves as employers as much as partners with our staff. We all work for the company which, if it succeeds, will make us all successful. The better our business does, the better we all will do, and the happier and more engaged our staff is, the better the business will do – it’s a positive loop that benefits everyone.

As for our business, 2010 was up about 8% from 2009 but still below 2008 (which was still below 2000; September 11th hit our whole industry very hard, and it was just rebounding when the recession hit). One reason for our success is the sad reality that many others were not able to survive. There are some days when we almost feel like the last folks standing. Many of our smaller competitors are gone, and where they offered good work we are sorry. Many low-quality providers are gone as well, and they are harder to mourn.

We have taken a fairly aggressive stance for the future – rebuilding our website, starting a newsletter and blog. We’ve also hired our daughter, a recent college graduate, to come into the business, setting the stage for a second generation of ownership. She’s had numerous art courses, and we’re hoping we can add etching and other techniques to our custom skills. So while things are still pretty tough right now, we’re looking toward a bright future.

Local First Coupon Book imageA couple of years ago Peter Clavelle, the former mayor of Burlington (once Senator Sanders’s job) ran for governor and was laughed at for asking business owners what their “social contract” was. People thought it was “out-there Progressive.” But the reality is, whether you intend to or not, your business does have a social contract. For me the Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility helps me say publicly that I am aware there is such a thing and here is what my social contract is.

We feel that our social contract includes our responsibility to our customers; responsibility to our staff to pay them well and on time, to respect their needs as people, to offer benefits as we are able, and to give them autonomy to do their jobs; responsibility to the community; responsibility to the planet; and responsibility to ourselves.

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3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Sally Reynolds on March 4, 2011 at 9:04 am

    This writer presents a breath of fresh air in our usually bleak business news. Her ideas reflect my own belief that process is as important as product; that the way we do things is as important as the things we do. That she runs a business that encourages people to appreciate their employees with awards and recognition seems utterly consistent with her world view. Thank you for this inspirational story!

    Reply

  2. Posted by David Culp on March 4, 2011 at 11:37 am

    I wish more of our businesses and corporations would adopt such common sense attitudes, as Margi, her husband, and their business exhibit.

    Reply

  3. Posted by Chuck Apple on March 7, 2011 at 9:47 pm

    Margi and Steve have practiced what most people only preach. They really build a trusting, cooperative workplace. She is describing the same dynamic that fed the studies that went into the classic book In Search of Excellence in the early eighties.
    Well done you two!!! It’s good to see one of my students making it happen.

    Reply

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