Philobiblon: A different sort of building trade

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

A different sort of building trade

My father has spent most of his life in the building trade, so I was exposed young to its many downsides, as well as the odd upside. (The home-made plum brandy from his Greek brickies was something to taste.)

But mostly it is a harsh, unforgiving, indeed unfair, industry. Huge financial crashes take out not only the big boys, but huge swathes of their sub-contractors underneath them; hideous disabling injuries are caused not just by corporate mismanagement but also a general culture among the workers that rejects safety provisions; often horribly dangerous and polluting materials are used, and abused, with scant attention to the environment or those who will live and work in the structures.

So I was intrigued to hear about a book by John Abrams,The Company We Keep: Reinventing Small Business for People, Community and Place, which tells the story of his South Mountain Co. Operating now for 29 years in Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, he says that its aim is not so much to make money as to make good things: fine houses, suited to the people who will live in them, constructed from environmentally sound materials, by workers enjoying their work.

One example of an entirely untraditional way of doing business: the company had two relatively poor, single women who wanted it to build houses for them, but no matter how the budget was pared they could not find quite enough money. A deal was eventually struck with another client, a wealthy couple who wanted the South Mountain Co. to build a house designed by someone else, which it doesn't normally do. So an open, agreed, bargain was struck. The wealthy couple would pay extra, with the money going to supplement the cost of the houses of the poorer women. It is a lovely image of social equity, and a great story.

So too is the account of how the firm gets much of its timber supplies: "Our salvage wood comes from many sources, including wine and beer tanks, pickle and olive barrels, whiskey barrel racks, water towers, dismantled barns and warehouses, logging leftovers, driftwood, river bottoms. The sources of supply provide interesting stories and compelling histories that give the wood a new kind of life. Our clients are taken with these stories; they become part of the soul of the houses."

The firm is also part-owned by its staff; long-term employees being offered a stake and votes on the board of directors. Abrams describes the way this developed, and how staff came to terms with the sudden new anxieties and challenges or realising the true complexities of the business in which they had a stake. It is an interesting structure:
"The employee-owners are the board of directors of the company and they make all policy decisions. Only employees may serve on the board. Ownership is inextricably tied to employment upon termination of employment or retirement, an owner's share must be sold back."

Much of the minutiae of the company's operation reminds me of some of the better workplaces in which I've been employed in the media. Abrams describes a quite formally organised coffee break, where workers from all levels and specialties get together and informally interact:

"It nurtures something nontrivial in our process and business culture. It is an informal declaration of mutuality and shared decision making at our core. It is a place where multiple bottom lines can mingle relax, breathe, and find their own happy medium."

I know how valuable that can be; at a small paper that I worked on, printers, office staff and journalists were strongly encouraged - read told - to attend morning tea, and while it split into smokers and non-smokers, it did encourage understanding of each others' problems and skills - helpful when the pressures of producing seven newspapers in five days provoked the odd explosion.

So this is a book that covers, in a gentle, anecdotal way, much of the same ground as the classical business texts of the MAKE YOUR MILLIONS THROUGH SMART MANAGEMENT! style. But as well as being considerably better written, it also offers a different image of business - you might call it the anti-Wal-Mart model.

It is a lovely image - rather close to a Utopian "from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs" model. It is the ideals of the 1960s working in the realities of the Noughties. And this within the capitalist frenzy of America.

It would be nice to think this is an infinitely replicable model. Unfortunately, I'm not so sure about that. Martha's Vineyard, with its wealth and social makeup, is hardly your classic American community. Still perhaps any business owner could get some positive ideas of how to make a more humane, productive workplace from it, even one in the hurly-burly of the traditional building trade.





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