Old vs. new


Wednesday, January 23
Red states versus blue states. Wine drinkers versus beer drinkers. Soccer moms versus NASCAR dads.

These are some of the demographic labels political pundits like to use while describing segments of the electorate. But lately in Vermont, we're seeing another division: Vermont Chamber of Commerce members versus Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility members.

Chamber members are the ones you hear complaining about high taxes, cumbersome regulations, government bureaucracy and a general anti-business climate in Vermont. They are businesses that are, for the most part, focused on one thing -- making money.

VBSR members like making a profit too, but they talk about a "triple bottom line" -- profitability, quality of workplace and protecting the natural and community environments. They recognize that a sole focus on the balance sheet is ultimately bad for business. It's the largest organization of its kind in the country.

While the Chamber looks at taxes as evil, VBSR treats them as what they really are -- investments in public and social infrastructure that must be judged by the benefits they deliver. Without sufficient investment in the public sphere, the private sphere ultimately suffers.

While Chamber members believe that tax breaks and gutting Act 250 are the keys to economic development, VBSR members recognize that the best solutions for economic development go beyond taxes and regulation.

Universal health care, energy efficiency and job training are more important than tax cuts.

The Chamber is bigger, with more than 1,500 members. VBSR has about 700 members, but those members employ nearly 15 percent of the state's workforce and account for close to $5 billion annually of the state's economy.

A look at the top Vermont companies based on revenues finds that a surprising number of VBSR members are doing well.

According to Vermont Business Magazine's Vermont 100, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters is in seventh place as the top manufacturer by revenue with $341.6 million. Orvis is the top retailer in ninth place with $300 million of revenues.

A look at the rest of the list shows companies as diverse as Seventh Generation (26th), Gardeners Supply (36th), King Arthur Flour (42nd), NRG Systems (62nd), Hubbardton Forge (76th), Magic Hat Brewery (103rd), Chroma Technologies (106th) and Small Dog Electronics (110th) all doing well with annual revenues between $18 million and $92 million.

Or take a look at the 10 fastest-growing companies in Vermont over the past five years. Seventh Generation, fourth on the list, grew at a 360 percent rate, from $20 million to $92 million. No. 7 Green Mountain Coffee grew at a 241.6 percent rate, from $100 million to $341.6 million.

Over the past 10 years, ForesTrade of Brattleboro has led all Vermont companies with a 2,969.9 percent growth rate. The importer of spices and coffee went from $544,000 in revenues in 1997 to $16.7 million in 2007. Seventh Generation was in second place with a 1,273.1 percent growth rate and Green Mountain Coffee was third at 696.3 percent.

Being socially responsible has not hurt these companies' bottom line. They are showing that it is possible to do well and do good.

While there is overlap between the Chamber's membership and VBSR's, and the rivalry between the two groups is not as fierce as it once was, there still remains a split in philosophy. After all, chambers of commerce usually aren't advocates for "living wage" laws or for changing workplace practices to treat employees better. It took groups like VBSR to put these ideas into the mainstream of business thinking, enough so that companies such as ExxonMobil, General Electric and Wal-Mart are trying to jump on the socially responsible business bandwagon.

The Douglas administration likes to talk about the supposed anti-business climate in Vermont, but there are many examples of businesses that are growing and thriving here. There are many examples of companies coming to Vermont because they want to be here. And of companies here developing a new way of doing business that could become a model for others to follow.

In the end, the Chamber versus VBSR split may come down to a simple division between the old and new.

We get the feeling that much of the state's business and political leadership is still locked into the old ways and the perennial complaints about taxes and regulation. But every state has taxes and regulations of some sort. Quality of life and the quality of the workforce often carries more weight in determining where businesses end up.

This is what Vermont has to offer to the rest of the world. And the Douglas administration and the Vermont Chamber of Commerce can cling to the old arguments and the old solutions or they can embrace a different way of doing business which proves that profitability and social responsibility are not mutually exclusive.


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