Big Muddy Workshop, Inc. is a landscape architecture and green infrastructure design services firm in Omaha, NE. This small but highly successful company has embraced the principles of sustainable business, not only in the way it uses resources, both natural and human, but also to shape the range of services it provides.
John Royster, CEO and majority owner, says he was “born into sustainability.” Educated in natural resource management, early in his career he worked in both a large international architecture firm and a smaller regional landscape architecture firm. He enjoyed the work but felt that neither had the systems in place to encourage staff to be fully engaged in sustainability. Accordingly he founded BMW in 1990.
BMW’s mission was established to protect our remaining significant natural areas, restore disturbed lands, and preserve historic and cultural resources, encouraging public awareness of and access to these special spaces. Royster recognized that this values-driven mission would require the firm to be very environmentally and socially responsible. But he also understood that this would be possible only if he established and maintained a financially sustainable business model for his young company. He has been zealous in eliminating every nickel of unproductive cost and makes no apology for squeezing every drop of benefit out of its assets, human resources included.
The result is a company which has successfully integrated the financial, environmental and social elements of sustainable practices into a resilient business model that has prospered for 23 years, establishing a strong competitive position in its regional market.
Unlike, say, a manufacturing or trucking company, BMW does not use expensive capital equipment. Nonetheless, Royster and his business partner and co-owner, Katie Blesener, have brought a level of financial discipline to the analysis of the firm’s operations that is unusual for a small organization. The company’s first banker advised them early on to be a “low cost provider”, by which he did NOT mean that it should price its services cheaply. Rather, the message was that it should understand clearly its cost of doing business, aggressively control that cost and price its services based on a detailed analysis of the inputs required to complete a project to a customer’s full satisfaction.
An area of particular focus is the rigorous analysis of office equipment purchases. Each purchase is subject to a stringent cost/benefit analysis and evaluated in terms of traditional investment criteria such as payback and ROI. BMW has successfully reduced capital costs by searching the market for “recycled” printing equipment for producing project plans and drawings, purchasing factory-reconditioned printers coming off 3-year leases and even unused printing equipment from a local Fortune 500 company at 50 percent off the original price!
One of the company’s large format color printers has an electronic reporting system that tracks the amount of ink and paper used in every print. BMW has turned this unit into a profit center by calculating the paper and ink cost of each printed project, charging customers a rate slightly below those of local third party printers and recouping the cost of the unit in less than 12 months. These examples may be dismissed as “just good business” but it’s clear that many small companies do not employ this level of discipline in their analysis of operating costs.The influence of genuinely “green” thinking comes through strongly in other aspects of the firm’s operations. All internal reports and documents either use two-sided printing or are printed on used paper. Roughly 75 percent of waste generated in operations is recycled, thereby reducing the firm’s trash bill significantly.
One of BMW’s most successful sustainability initiatives was the green construction of a new head office building on the site of a decrepit former boarding house. All of the valuable materials in the old building were recycled. The new building which replaced it includes a tight building shell with 6 inch walls, a Tyvek wrap under the siding, insulated foundation walls in the lower level and high efficiency HVAC and water heating systems. Energy efficient windows were generously installed to maximize the use of natural light in offices and a large number of mature trees were preserved during the new building’s construction, serving to shade the property and reduce summer cooling costs. Royster’s personal home was built nearby in 1935 and was retrofitted in the 1990s with energy efficient windows and doors and blown-in insulation. Despite these improvements, it costs 52 cents per square foot to heat compared with just 22 cents for the new, tighter head office. No contest!
This head office is known as Basswood Lodge, which is an affiliate site of the Nebraska State Arboretum system and won a national “Building With Trees Excellence” award in 2004. BMW employs eco-friendly horticultural methods in the surrounding arboretum and all yard waste from the management of the property is composted free of charge at a City of Omaha site. Basswood provides tangible evidence to customers of the firm’s expertise in green infrastructure and landscape design. Customers are impressed with the way BMW runs its operation at Basswood, which undoubtedly helps build credibility for the firm even though, not surprisingly, Royster has difficulty attaching a dollar value to the competitive advantage it creates.
Stay tuned for Parts 2 and 3, in which we’ll discuss how BMW has addressed the People and Planet components of sustainability