By Julia Paulus
Ten years ago the CFO of Walsh & Associates, Inc., a family-owned chemical distribution company, went to Randy Lewis, the company’s director of operations, with a $40,000 electric bill and asked what they were going to do about it. It was this instance that got the sustainability ball rolling for Walsh & Associates, which is now one of the area’s most sustainable businesses – recently scoring 97 out of 100 on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Energy Star rating and earning eligibility to compete in the EPA’s Battle of the Buildings contest.
With a progressive management team, which also wanted to reduce costs, beginning the process of going green was an easy sell, according to Lewis. “We attended St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association (RCGA) and Missouri Chamber of Commerce meetings, and through those meetings we knew that energy rates would continue to rise,” he says. “So we decided to take the bull by the horns.”
And that’s just what the team at Walsh & Associates did. Having just moved into a new facility that had 20-year-old HVAC units, the company had escalating electricity bills. Walsh’s management team knew it had an issue and found a place to start. “We conducted a cursory study to see the potential cost and payback of new HVAC systems and the impact on employee comfort and health,” says Lewis. “With the installation of five new HVAC units, after one year we realized a savings of nearly 76,000 kilowatt hours, which equated to a reduction of 21.6% in electricity usage. In dollars, we realized a $5,000 savings in our first year.”
Recognizing the savings, both in energy and in dollars, Lewis and his team caught the energy efficiency flu. They continued in areas such as lighting and roofs. By 2009 Walsh had reduced its electricity usage by nearly 50%. “The new roof was helping us save nearly 60% in natural gas usage,” says Lewis. “In real dollars, we were saving almost $30,000 per year.”
By the summer of 2010, after the passage of Prop C and available funds for renewable energy, Walsh was able to start installing the largest solar photovoltaic system in the state. With the energy savings from its solar grid, Walsh was able to lower its electricity cost from $25,000 in 2003 to well below $6,000 in 2012.
With the goal of supporting the local economy while reducing social and economic costs of that growth, Walsh & Associates will continue on the path of sustainability. To preserve natural resources and the environment, Lewis’ next plans are to incorporate compressed natural gas (CNG) forklifts, CNG tractor conversion, a CNG public/private filling station, rainwater-runoff reduction and GreenSwitch technology. “When people are asking us why we’re doing it, they say, ‘Is it just because you’re a nice guy?’” says Lewis. “I would love to say that’s the answer, but the truth is we’re also doing it because it gives us a competitive advantage in the marketplace.”
Although sustainable business is now a large part of Walsh & Associates, for Lewis it has been, and will continue to be, a journey. By starting with smaller projects, though, a company’s road to a sustainable business can be less daunting. “One way to start is with the RCGA’s Green Business Challenge,” he says. “Over 80 groups and companies are involved. It introduces people to sustainability by starting with the energy sector, where you can pick the low-hanging fruit and get a quick payback.”
And it’s important for business owners not to be surprised by their lack of understanding. What Lewis found out when he joined the RCGA’s challenge was that although he understood energy efficiency, it would take time to grasp the overall idea of sustainability. “We had a low score when we started because we didn’t have the metrics or policies in place,” he says. “We went to SustainEdge, a Midwest consultant company for sustainability. They trained us in sustainability.”
After receiving proper training and learning about sustainability through community groups, Lewis believes that it’s not an option. “It goes back to the man who said, ‘I didn’t know sustainability was an option,’” he says. “Business owners have to be able to leave their business behind. You can do this by improving your triple bottom line, which means doing what’s good for people, the planet and your profits. Then you will have a sustainable business. And it’s not an option. You should think about leaving something behind. We have a moral obligation to do so as business owners.”