Shut Up and Do Something: A 'backwards' company finds virtue in making energy-efficient shades
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 14, 2012 - The owners of Halcyon Shades, a St. Louis company that manufactures energy-efficient window coverings, use the word “backwards” frequently when describing their little operation of a dozen or so employees in a repurposed building on South 39th Street that once housed a grocery store.
The company, which is a part of Habitata Building Products, took a “backwards” approach to outsourcing in April 2009. With the nation still grappling with the Great Recession, Habitata bought Halcyon, closed its manufacturing plant in Mexico and moved the jobs to St. Louis.
In 2010, David Kenyon, the chief executive officer, agreed to give up his salary and step down from daily operations to help the company survive the still-unfriendly economy. His “backwards” move kept several employees on the payroll.
Kenyon acknowledges that it was tough to walk away from the company that he helped to create, but he believed that cutting employees would have damaged the integrity of Halcyon and its product.
“All the processes I had designed could be run by anybody once they were trained. I knew the company could function without me being constantly there. And I wasn’t going to be far away,” he said.
Kenyon, who remains an owner, is married to Jane Quartel, Halcyon’s president. Although he has since started a new company, Kenyon’s business philosophies live on in a 22-page glossy booklet given to employees titled “The Seven Virtues of Habitata: A Method to Achieve a Culture of Integrity.”
The booklet discusses in detail each of the virtues: usefulness, mindfulness, compassion, skillfulness, grace, fairness and resourcefulness. Among the basic operating principles spelled out in the pamphlet:
- Promises must always be kept in order to execute a plan or design and ensure that our actions express our intentions.
- Promises must be executed completely, which requires rigor and zeal.
- Tribal members must be disciplined enough to work skillfully and courageous enough to give full effort – the results will then speak for themselves.
- Failure or mistakes made with full effort are an acceptable result.
- Recognizing that most people quit well before they fail, quitting is never acceptable because there is no such thing as “good enough.”
Kenyon, a former trial lawyer, says the goal is to create a culture of smooth operations that is also good for people.
“This is a place where you come to work and where you’re going to leave happy and fulfilled,” he said. “You will save the environment. You will have made some money for your family. You will have made some money for your company. You will have done something for the community by just showing up to work in an abandoned grocery store.”
On Fridays, managers take turns cooking or buying takeout lunch for the whole staff. It’s a casual affair, served on folding tables in the front offices of the building, with office and production employees seated together and sharing small talk before a weekly conversation about business philosophy.
As her co-workers dined on fried chicken and mashed potatoes, Mary Bowers, customer services manager, opened a recent discussion about grace -- one of the company’s seven virtues -- and how it relates to the workplace. She shared an example of how she had opted for grace, instead of anger, in a difficult moment on the job. It is a mental choice, she said, that allows people in an organization to deal with problems in a positive way.
Kenyon chimed in, telling the gathering, “We may be the only company in St. Louis where you have a discussion about grace at lunchtime.”
Then he talked about the importance of teamwork and empowerment -- about passion and the company’s soul.
“This is our town. It’s our country. We’re not gonna wait for a bunch of rich guys to bring jobs back from Malaysia. We’re gonna make a different world right here. Because we said so,” he said, as the staff nodded in agreement.
Then it was time to go back to work -- but not before Bowers offered one last announcement.
“We’ve got pie,” she said.
Shut Up and Do Something
Bowers, 69, said she retired from her previous job as a consultant to work at Halcyon because she believes in the culture.
“It’s a team -- like a tribe. A family, too,” she said. “Everyone is dependent upon everyone else. Everyone does what needs to be done.”
Bowers said the building is divided into separate office and manufacturing space, but there is no “front” or “back” when it comes to work. “Everyone’s job is as important as everyone else’s.”
Coffee mugs for Habitata spell out the prevailing theme -- a simple bottom line for a company that makes window shades and talks organizational philosophy at lunch: Shut Up And Do Something.
That’s basically what the owners did when they decided to buy Halcyon from Solutia Inc., a global firm based in St. Louis that was in bankruptcy. It was a goal that required several of Kenyon’s virtues, including resourcefulness: Halcyon was bigger than Habitata, which specialized in the restoration of historic buildings.
But Quartel and Kenyon knew Halcyon well -- and deeply believed in the value of its custom-made, energy-efficient, semi-transparent window shades. Quartel was employed by Solutia and had managed the Halcyon division. She had overseen the expansion of Halcyon’s customer base into big box retail stores, including Lowe’s, Home Depot and Menards, and moving the plant from Virginia to Puebla, Mexico.
Kenyon had served as consultant to Halcyon during the transition.
Quartel feared the brand would be lost in Solutia’s bankruptcy -- a personal loss, as well as a bigger picture loss for the environment, because, as she says about her shades: “They work really, really well.”
She demonstrates their effectiveness using a simple boxlike apparatus outfitted with a 250-watt heat lamp. The bulb throws out intense heat -- until she blocks it by placing a square of Halcyon’s shade material in front of the rays.
“That’s the word everyone uses,” Quartel said, smiling.
Halcyon shades, which are cut to order in St. Louis, are made of a durable metalized polyester film that reflects heat. The shades work to lower energy consumption because they block solar heat in summer and reflect internal radiant heat back into buildings during the winter. The company claims that the shades reject up to 97 percent of heat gain, eliminate 99.9 percent of harmful ultraviolet light and eliminate glare by 97 percent.
“Window shades don’t look important, but they really are,” Kenyon said.
Backed by angel investors, Habitata bought the Halcyon brand from Solutia and was able to maintain its existing retail accounts, Kenyon said. Within a month, they moved the Mexico factory’s materials and equipment 4,000 miles, set up shop while still refurbishing the building -- and began to fill orders.
Kenyon said the decision to move the company back to the United States made sense because of the high cost of transporting materials for a custom-made product. The savings in freight costs offsets the higher costs of labor; starting pay at Halcyon is about twice minimum wage.
Halcyon’s founding partners also believe in what they refer to as “the bigger picture” -- the importance of community. They say they chose their location in the city because they wanted to help make a difference in the resurgence of what is now called the Botanical Heights neighborhood.
In October 2009, the company was presented with a Business of the Year award by the city of St. Louis.
“We love our city, our neighborhood and the entire community of investors, managers, employees that makes Halcyon Shades possible,” states the company website. “At Halcyon Shades we think that companies can do more than make money. They can be a good neighbor and a community resource in troubled times and prosperity.”
Kenyon adds this: “We’re not interested in just taking ourselves along -- you take everybody with you. The idea is to make a tribal movement. If St. Louis ever functioned as a tribe, there are only two colors you need to be worried about: green and red. The color of money and the color of blood. Skin color or ethnic background -- what is that? Human blood is red, and money is green and we need to go out there and find a mutual interest that we can all get to.”
“It’s not hard to find,’’ he said. “You've just got to shut up and start working.”
'Being here is a blessing'
At a recent jobs fair for veterans, Kevin Schaedler, an owner who is also executive vice president of sales, spoke about Habitata’s philosophy and emphasis on hiring veterans. He told a gathering of St. Louis human resources professionals about the can-do spirit that veterans contribute to his little “backwards” company, including this motto: The impossible we can do right away, the miracles take a little longer.
Quartel explains the company’s emphasis on hiring veterans in production and sales jobs with a question: “Why wouldn’t we?”
“Veterans make excellent employees,” she said. “We know that they bring a host of skills that fit well inside this culture. They’re dependable. They’re reliable. They play well on the team. They don’t care if they’re working in the back [the factory] or in the front [sales]. They’ll do whatever it takes to make it work. That’s how they were trained in the military.”
In March, Gov. Jay Nixon presented the company with a Flag of Freedom Award for its hiring practices and participation in the Show-Me Heroes initiative, which encourages businesses to recruit veterans.
The company’s belief in “high-social impact employment” also includes hiring ex-felons.
“We highly believe inside this organization that people deserve a second chance,” Quartel said. “They have already paid their debt to society. As soon as you walk into this door you know there’s nothing to prove. You’re in the door because you deserve to be here.”
Quartel said the company reduced high turnover during its startup days by improving its applicant screening process.
“We’re not a halfway house,” she said. “But your history doesn’t necessarily say who you are. Your character says who you are. We’re mining for character. We expect 150 percent, but we give 150 percent, too. It’s a cohesive team, but we have high expectations of our employees. Some people don’t want to be part of a team. They don’t survive here.”
Kenyon said that Halcyon now involves current employees in the hiring process -- all employees who work in the factory have a say about a new person.
“The criteria has to be unanimous, and it has to be somebody they’re willing to be responsible for: You’re going to train them, you’re going to have their backs,” he said.
Navy veteran Douglas Makarushka, 44, and Ken Braddock, 55, an ex-offender, sat next to one another during the lunchtime discussion of grace. Though they come from different backgrounds, they said they had something in common.
“We were both unemployed and looking for work,” said Makarushka, who has worked at Halcyon for 19 months. “But we were doing what we needed to do to find it.”
The men found their way to the plant through programs run by the St. Louis Agency on Training and Employment (SLATE).
Braddock, who said he served a sentence for drug conspiracy, has friends who can’t find jobs.
“Being here is a blessing,” Braddock said. “It’s a working family.”’
He said that some of the best employees are those who have faced struggles.
“We’re more grateful and proud to be here. We’re going to give back. I don’t think of it as just a paycheck,” he said, lifting his plate of fried chicken. “And this is just another bonus.”