This post appeared in GreenBiz on February 27, 2012

Editor’s Note: This is the final article in a seven-week series by Nathan Springer that will chronicle in-depth the lessons from a course at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business on how to become a social intrapreneur — someone who makes change for good from within the enterprise.

The easiest part of the journey to the top of Mt. Sustainability for most is the first step. A green team here, a public statement there. The harder part is the many, many steps between the first and the last. Social intrapreneurs that want to learn what it takes to continue the journey can take a cue from a little known Midwest manufacturing company that is well along the path to sustainability — Cascade Engineering.

Today we conclude this series on the stories, lessons, and tools from the class on Social Intrapreneurs in the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. Over two months, Professor Jerry Davis and former student Chris White showcased successes and tools of intrapreneurs that I wrote about for professionals. The series concludes with a company that is transforming the first steps up the mountain into enterprise-wide integrity. Cascade Engineering is a middle market Midwest manufacturing company that is small but successful in large part because of sustainability.

In an era when macroeconomic forces have decimated America’s manufacturing in the Midwest, Cascade is thriving according to CEO Fred Keller who presents to students in the class. The company, founded in 1973 to produce injection molding plastics for automotive, now has 10 manufacturing sites and 1,200 employees. In 2009 and 2010 it grew by 20% year-on-year.

Cascade’s nearly four decades of manufacturing and sustainability began with commitment to a Triple Bottom Line (TBL) policy. “Our stated purpose for existing as an organization is to have a positive impact on society, the environment, and be financially successful,” says Cascade’s Dave Barrett, a 37 year veteran who leads talent development. The company is the only manufacturing B-Corp, a legal status that commits it to a triple bottom line, and the largest until Patagonia certified last December.

The company has honed many tools and processes along the way including a system for experimentation. “I think if you pitch a project based on making a positive impact and it doesn’t cost very much money and maybe even makes money, to me that is a compelling argument,” says CEO Keller. Such experimentation has helped it enter new markets such as waste hauling, renewable energy products, and even consumer products.

One recent experiment is the Pink Cart, a bright pink rolling refuse cart that gives $5 of the sale from each unit to breast cancer awareness. “You want to be able to start small, to test it and have the hypothesis,” says Keller. The cart project is gaining momentum as it increases company sales, which recently surpassing 50,000 units. One municipality already committed to use them for 100% of its waste bins.

Part of experimentation for Cascade is learning how to fail. Several training programs that support the company’s goal to be the employer of choice in the region were built on previous failures. “We tried to do a work to work program with Burger King but found that there were too many barriers,” says Keller. The company launched two different initiatives to bring people out of poverty and off welfare in the mid 1990’s that were unsuccessful for different reasons.

“We needed to improve our support and understanding of people in poverty, we needed to ‘empathize’ without sympathizing with a new group of folks that were well intentioned but needed to learn new skills,” says Keller. Their reviewed of the process revealed a need for targeted just-in-time skills training in addition to education of current employees. The third launch was a success. The program is now nationally recognized and blossomed into initiatives for previously incarcerated workers, veterans, and neighborhood job security.

Training and education does not end with new workers. Integrating sustainability throughout the enterprise requires ongoing education of employees at all levels. “Fred taught his ‘sustainability’ class to a significant number of leaders,” says Barrett, the talent development leader. “We continue to educate all leaders and many floor employees through a class titled ‘Introduction to Sustainability’.” Speakers present to engineers about Design for the Environment and internal teams are tasked with identifying ways to train employees in new skills related to the company’s triple bottom line mission.

Cascade institutionalizes its commitment, experimentation, and education through a structured process. When asked about the company’s process, Keller is specific: communication, measurement, and continual renewal. “We are working at clearly stating our values, working to live them every day and measuring our progress,” he says. Renewal consists of measuring financial, social impact, sustainability, and employee satisfaction results as well as internal teams that support ongoing education and trend spotting.

These systems have given the company an innovative edge to weather, and even thrive, during tough economic conditions while many manufacturing companies have disappeared. “There are relatively few markets for large injection molded plastics so that leads us to inventing the market,” says Keller.  A focus on products that help customers use less oil and go to zero waste aligns innovation with company goals. The internal structures, rigorous focus on sustainability, and constant renewal has given rise to an enterprise that can exploit new opportunities.

Cascade now has 14 different business units, including a new line for the home that gathers insights on consumer drivers of demand, and expects another year of strong growth. “There’s evidence that we have this emerging sustainable economy,” says Keller. “We’re a long way from the tipping point but at least it gives us hope.” When the tipping point occurs, Cascade Engineering is well positioned to enjoy the benefits.

Series Conclusion

Story. Tools. Leaders. In these two months, I worked with Jerry Davis and Chris White to tell the stories, describe the tools, and identify the leaders that show the way for social intrapreneurs to build sustainable enterprise. The journey to the top of Mt. Sustainability is possible, and even though no company has reached the top, our marketplace has many great examples of companies that are well along the way.

Many of the initiatives covered in this series are cost neutral at best, cost centers at worst. IBM sends top performers to emerging markets for an entire month. Interface diverts thousands of employee hours for community service each year. Cascade Engineering failed twice over six years before perfecting its worker training programs and yet these companies thrive despite so-called distractions.

Davis and White will continue their work supporting social intrapreneurs. They have begun interviews to publish a book next year and are sharing curriculum for the class with other business schools. They are also planning a method to pair social intrapreneurs working on projects with the talent and resources to complete them, starting with a page where you can register projects and join their network.

I will continue to write about social intrapreneurs on my blog in the next few weeks including a summary of tools from the series plus a “Reality Social Intrapreneur” brief of insights on the hard work and setbacks intrapreneurs confront that are too juicy to attribute to an individual or company.

The series began with a mountain so it is fitting to conclude with a mountain. British mountain climber George Mallory famously said he made three summit attempts of Mt. Everest “Because it’s there.” Business must face ecological constraints of economics because it’s there.  For sustainability professionals in business, our job is to attempt a summit of Mt. Sustainability because we must.