On a blue-sky morning in mid-summer a pair of women meander along a tidal salt marsh on the southern Maine coast. They're surveying the wet sand beneath their feet for air holes, the telltale signs of buried clams. Soon they stop, dig, place a few of the shellfish in a bucket, and move on. After they cover a certain area, they count the clams they've collected and re-bury them.
These women are:
A. Doing marine research
B. Attending a corporate meeting
The answer: both A and B.
Clamdiggers Libby Repass and Beth Ansheles work for Tom's of Maine. Nearby, Tom Chappell, the company's founder and CEO, leaves off counting clams to do a phytoplankton sampling.
Hamburgers and hot dogs (and lobster and veggie burgers) will come later. For now, Chappell and the company's 80 or so employees are split into teams scattered about the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve in Wells, Me. They are counting clams, testing water quality, and taking biological samples in an effort to "own" one aspect of their corporate mission--respect for the environment.
Mission Ownership Means Getting Muddy That's business as usual for the Kennebunk, Me.based company. Chappell's smiling, lanky, barefoot presence on this mudflat is just another example of him remaining true to his vision of running a socially responsible and environmentally sensitive company. It is a vision that evolved after years of introspection, four of them at Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass.
His faith in this different way of doing business has been rewarded. Chappell has grown Tom's of Maine from barely a blip on the personal-care products radar screen to a small player commanding a significant four to five percent share of the toothpaste market in major metropolitan areas like Boston, San Francisco, and Seattle. Sales rang in at just under $25 million in 1997, the fourth year in a row of 20 percent growth.
How does Chappell get the rest of the company to buy into his warm and fuzzy idealism? Meetings--especially the quarterly mission ownership meetings, begun in 1995. Each focuses on a different aspect of the corporate mission statement: the environment, profitability, the community, each other, and the customer. The primary purpose of these meetings: to get the dreamy mission statement off the page and down to earth.
Postcard Picnic Employees arrive early for the summer picnic/mission ownership meeting, pulling into a dirt parking area at the historic, 1,600-acre Laudholm Farm, now a research reserve, well before 8 a.m. A gracious yellow farmhouse and outbuildings are set amid acres of grassy fields that give way to forest, marsh, and finally to the Atlantic. Even under the dawn clouds, the scene is resplendent. Two days of hard rain have made the greens seem brighter, the air fresher.
Inside, nametags and cups of coffee are handed out. Milling about are Chappell; his wife, Kate, the company's co-founder; and two of their children, who also work at the company. Without their nametags, you might not pick them out of the crowd.
The meeting opens with employees separated into small circles of chairs. Chappell likes circular setups for meetings. "The power of the circle is in its openness; it is the place where you are willing to 'open up' and listen," he writes in The Soul of Business: Managing for Profit and the Common Good (Bantam, 1993). "And when you listen, you learn, you affirm, you support. A spark of an idea is raised, discussed, argued; some disagree with it, some applaud it, others add to it, and the original idea gets better, more complex, yet more formed."
In a plaid shirt and jeans, Chappell gets up from his seat in one of the circles to start just this sort of exchange. "When I think of the environment, I think of a system," he begins, looking around the room. "A system tries to find its own balance. How does nature or any system sustain itself? Through a combination of actions and reactions. We must become more sensitive to that rather than acting independently. Nature is a self-sustaining system. How do we fit in?"
Chappell throws open his musings to the gathered troops. A few hands go up. "The interdependence of the environment reminds me of when we first started celebrating Earth Day," one employee begins. "I'm not sure when that was . . . "
"1970," Kate Chappell quickly offers from her circle.
"We used to view the environment as a thing outside of us," the employee goes on. "But it's a continuum. We are all part of it. When we think of it that way, it empowers us. Maine has beautiful views, but there is also beauty in a weed growing up through a sidewalk."
Chappell comments briefly on the idea of empowerment before yielding the floor to another employee. The discussion is free-form and un-self-conscious. It is followed by a brief welcome from Katherine Davis of the Laudholm Trust. "Seventy percent of the fish catch in the United States is dependent on estuaries," she tells the gathering. "Yet 60 percent of salt marshes have been destroyed. In Maine, we have a lot of salt marsh that is worthy of protection."
An exercise follows that demonstrates how something man-made, like a road, can have an effect that trickles all the way down to the salt marsh.
Getting Off the Page By the time the seven groups head off to their various research sites, the the sky is a deep blue. Libby Repass, a microbiologist who works in product development, and Beth Ansheles, the company's controller, seem to be enjoying this sunny Thursday out of the office, even if they are getting pretty muddy digging clams--something neither one has done before.
"It's amusing," Repass says. "If you had a normal company picnic, the people who work together would be together. Here, people from all different departments are together on a team."
Ansheles agrees. "The humor that comes out is great. We all have fun with each other," she says. "It's important to get together because we're separated into three buildings. And the salespeople are here, too. It's good to see them because otherwise they're just voices on the phone."
The clamdiggers have it easy, it turns out. Another group is gamely trouping through marsh grass wearing chest-high rubber waders. They walk and slide down a muddy bank to a river wier--a large mesh box standing in waist-deep water. Their task: to take an inventory of everything the wier has caught and then release it back into the river.
Laudholm Education Associate Stephanie Hunt notes that Tom's is the first corporate group the reserve has worked with. "We operate with tons of volunteers," she says. "The Tom's philosophy of employees spending five percent of their time doingwork fits right in."
Offering paid time for volunteer work is not unique, but participation at Tom's is high--about 80 percent of employees. A company with a written mission is not unique, either. But how many company employees--or executives, for that matter--can sit down and rattle off a list of ways they live that mission?
That's where Tom's mission ownership meetings come in. They've evolved from a particular meeting back in early 1990, where Chappell and his employees got together at the Rumline Hotel in Kennebunkport to relax, eat pizza, and talk.
Chappell describes that meeting in his book. "No matter how good it is to get your beliefs and mission down on paper, they're likely to stay on the paper unless you make a major effort to sell them to your constituents," he reflects. "Our intentional effort to get to know each other, to open up the Tom's community, made a huge difference in showing us all, me as well as my employees, how to live our mission as a company."
Communicating Change That the stage has been set for such company gatherings has proven more valuable than ever over the past year and a half. In 1996, Chappell announced he was thinking about selling the company. A mission ownership meeting held during that period was "painful," according to Nancy Rosenzweig, at that time the company's vice president, corporate communications. "We kept it short and focused on issues of efficiencies," she recalls. "People were on pins and needles."
To calm fears, Chappell then embarked on a series of smaller meetings with the employees at each of the company's three physical plants (the factory, the warehouse, and the corporate offices). "He sat down with people, practically one on one and made assurances," Rosenzweig says. "He really stuck his neck out."
But it was not until a meeting in February of this year that employees regained their sense of confidence and connectedness to the company. Unable to find a buyer willing to carry on his vision, Chappell had decided not to sell the company. But it was clear that his role was changing. A new management team was brought in, including Chief Operating Officer Tom O'Brien, a young former Procter & Gamble manager, who is taking over the company's day-to-day operations. How would this affect the work environment Tom's employees had grown accustomed to--and indeed had helped to create?
The February meeting went a long way toward answering that question. It also got all employees--the recent hires and the long-termers--comfortable with each other, reports Melissa Skelton, one of the newcomers. "[Meetings at Tom's] are not predicated on the folks 'at the top' having a lot of air time," says Skelton, who joined the company last October as vice president, consumer and brand development. "They're much more about everyone having their own thing to say."
Moving Forward The February meeting had been called mainly to introduce the company's new, seven-pronged strategy. COO O'Brien laid it all out; then, in keeping with the Tom's of Maine philosophy of inclusion, the employee pairs were invited to talk about what they'd just heard.
Dylan Reinhardt, the company's manager of corporate communications, found himself paired off with co-founder Kate Chappell. "I put my concerns right out there," he says. "There was no question in my mind that I could tell one of the owners of the company what my concerns were. When you're asked for feedback, you can give it."
The pairs were combined into groups of 10 to write down their concerns and ideas on flipcharts. Then facilitators gave each group 15 minutes to make up a skit that expressed them. "It worked," says Reinhardt, whose group did a "bus tour" skit, with each stop representing a strategy. Another group did a "Jerry Springer Show" parody, a third did an Army marching song.
"People were energized," Reinhardt says. "That's significant, given that there had been a six-month period where we'd all known that things were changing"--but not how they were changing. Add to that the holding pattern of the previous year, when the company might have been sold, and the sense of relief the meeting offered is evident.
But the journey isn't over yet. Another meeting is planned for this month at which the company will discuss in more detail how each employee fits in to the new corporate strategies.
As at all Tom's meetings, there will be a balance of the conceptual, the practical, and the just plain social. Meanwhile, Melissa Skelton is busy forming a team from all areas of the company that will plan the mission ownership meetings of the future. She doesn't want to predict how the new meetings will resemble the old meetings, deferring to the as-yet unnamed team. But the greatest challenge, she notes, will be to "work hard so that what we do in the meetings will be translated into day-to-day stuff."
If you're passing through Kennebunk, Me., you can visit the Tom's of Maine factory and watch employees mix giant vats of Cinnamint and Silly Strawberry toothpaste, among other personal-care products. Tour guide Toni Krouse will tell you stories about the beginnings of Tom's of Maine, featuring founder Tom Chappell using a 2x4 in a barrel to mix his original product, a phosphate-free detergent that has since been discontinued. But here's what she really wants you to know: You can recycle Tom's toothpaste tubes. So, toss them in your recycling bin, not in your trash!
The five aspects of the Tom's of Maine mission:
1. The Environment Distinctive in products and policies that honor and sustain our natural world
2. The Community Addressing community concerns in Maine and around the globe
3. Profitability A profitable and successful company acting in a socially and environmentally responsible manner
4. Each Other Acknowledging the value of each person's contribution to our goals and fostering teamwork in our tasks
5. The Customer Building relationships that include full and honest dialogue and the exchange of information about products and issues