Tracy Pleschourt

Why give?

Many companies in Minnesota (even small ones) have woven philanthropy into the fabric of their business. We asked them why

By Maggie Kelly

Lately, you've probably heard bells ringing outside of malls and grocery stores, accompanied by a hearty "Happy holidays!" and "Thank you!" as change clinks into red buckets. The signs of giving surround us this time of year, a reminder to lend a hand to those less fortunate.

Of course, for many business leaders in Minnesota, no reminder is needed — they've woven philanthropy into the fabric of their business. In the following pages, we highlight the giving activities  and the giving philosophies — of a number of such companies. They differ in their industries, but they harmonize beautifully in their reasons for giving back.

Enjoy, and happy holidays.  

Good by design

The Minneapolis-based advertising agency Carmichael Lynch has been giving back to the community since its inception in 1962. "Lee Lynch, our founder, walked the walk and weaved corporate social responsibility into the fabric of our culture," says Tracy Pleschourt, the agency's director of sustainable operations.

Today the firm regularly contributes time and money to a number of programs, including Sharing and Caring Hands, Meals for Minds, and the Adopt-a-Family holiday gift program.

The agency also listens to its employees and supports their passions. Not surprisingly, programs that encourage creativity in youth strike a chord at the agency, which gladly provides free office space to Adopt a Classroom and Art Buddies. "These particular nonprofits are near and dear to our heart due to their like-minded efforts in developing younger generations into creative and productive professionals," says Pleschourt.

Getting involved in such programs creates a sense of community within the company, and Pleschourt believes a culture of giving back has other benefits. "Opening employees' minds and eyes to the power of giving becomes a responsibility and an exercise in sustainability," she says. "Through this effort, we find that we attract and retain the best of the best talent in the industry."

It doesn't hurt that Carmichael Lynch strives to hire like-minded employees. "Supporting one another's causes comes easy," she says. 

Neighborly instincts

When it comes to the development, manufacture, and packaging of effervescent tablets and powders, Amerilab Technologies is a national leader. But when it comes to giving, the company is a local leader. Besides regularly donating to local food shelves, the Plymouth-based company avidly supports PRISM (People Responding in Social Ministry), which helps hard-hit local families become self-sufficient through counseling and education.

To CEO Fred Wehling, giving locally is important because it means neighbors and families down the street are getting help. "If everyone did that around the country, there would be fewer people in need," he says. "People don't typically see or even know that their next-door neighbor is having trouble."

Wehling believes it's also important to give throughout the year, noting that most donations occur during the holiday season. His company holds drives for food and school supplies in the summer.

Of course, as CEO Wehling knows the challenges that businesses face. But he also knows it's possible to give back and still have a successful company. "I really urge every business owner, regardless of size or profit, to do something, because I know they can," he says. Indeed even in down times, he says, his company was giving money when it wasn't making money.

To Wehling, it's a matter of responsibility: "Business has gotten to the point where it's all about making your mark in the business world and moving up the corporate ladder. But it's about making your mark in the community, as well."

Giving back has benefits in the workplace, too. At Amerilab's philanthropic events and functions, office workers mix with manufacturing workers and it becomes clear to all, he says, that, "We're human. We care."

The joy of giving

Brad Rixmann opened the first Pawn America in Robbinsdale in 1991 when he was in his twenties. Since then, he's expanded the company to 23 stores around the region. While many TV viewers recognize him from Pawn America commercials, others recognize him for something else: Giving back.

Pawn America supports the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Twin Cities and helped it create and launch Kids Feeding Kids. The program addresses the fact that many kids who attend local chapters of the Boys & Girls Clubs must go several hours of the day on an empty stomach.

"Maybe mom and dad are working two jobs to make ends meet," says Rixmann. "Maybe they don't go home and dinner is a bag of Frito-Lay chips." By providing a nutritious meal, he believes, the program also helps kids do better in school.

The benefit for him is the sense of belonging, the smiles on kids' faces, and getting to hear that he made a difference. "The legacy we should strive for should be the legacy of the lives we've made a difference in," he says.

Pawn America also supports PCs for People, which provides computers at a low cost to those in need, and the Fairview Riverside Hospital's Transitional Care and Child and Adolescent Mental Health units. Rixmann and employees visit patients, some of whom have been there for months with few visitors. "We're not looking for a thank you," says Rixmann. "There are people who do so much more than us there. We just want to get the message out…get people involved."

Rixmann learned the importance of giving thanks in part to his Lutheran education. He remembers one (and only one) lecture, and it had nothing to do with religion. It was on the joy of giving. "It's about morals and ethics," he says. "It applies to all."  

Raising awareness

The Minneapolis-based advertising agency Martin Williams makes a point to give back by donating time, money, and pro-bono projects. Raising thousands of dollars for the local United Way, donating food and clothing to Second Harvest, and donating presents at Christmas and candy at Halloween is all part of a year's philanthropic work.

Currently the agency is doing pro-bono work for the brewer Finnegan's, which donates 100 percent of its profits to local charities. "In the advertising business we are truly blessed with the ability to raise awareness and help make a positive impact for these righteous endeavors," says Tom Moudry, the agency's president, CEO, and chief creative officer.

He says the reason to give is simple: "It will make you feel really good." 

Stepping up

Watkins-based AgVenture Feed & Seed is all about helping farmers, whether it's providing agribusiness support, animal management services, or farm supplies.

In 2003, Sandy Hansen needed help of a much different kind. That's when her husband Randy, the company's owner and founder, was struggling against leukemia and in his final days. During his stay in the hospital, they said to each other, "When we are through this, we will give back in every way we can."

After he passed away, she faced a long grieving process and, adding to the turmoil, found herself the owner of a company in a business she knew little about. "I saw our friends and family and community step up to help out after his death and was very grateful," says Hansen, "It was my lifeline at the time."

She had been taught as a child about the importance of giving back, but "it's really enhanced when you go through a tragedy," she says.

Today, AgVenture gives to a number of causes. Community is one of its core values, so donations go to local schools, local 4-H Clubs, and local chapters of Future Farmers of America. The company also finds ways to donate its products, including bird seed that goes to local nursing homes and animal feed to help farmers hit by hard times.

Hansen gives both personally and through AgVenture to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which helps families who have come across tragedy, much as she did. She also uses her personal story to get the message of giving out to others. "In the last 10 years, I've done a lot of speeches on this," she says. "When we are given enough, I think it is our responsibility to help those less fortunate."

To others in the business community who are wary about donating time and money, Hansen has a few words of advice. "Try it," she says. "Watch the impact it has on your own life and your business. Are there other areas I could be spending the money we give? Absolutely. But I never miss that money."

Giving naturally

"We're trying to stay true to our roots," says Amy Campbell, a senior marketing manager atLakewinds Natural Foods. The natural foods co-op, with locations in Chanhassen, Minnetonka, and Richfield, supports not only organic farms, but also the surrounding communities. Charities it supports include the Half Pint Horse FoundationRichfield Community FoundationExcelsior Fire DistrictBoy Scouts of AmericaMN Wounded Warriors, and Kids Against Hunger.

One of its strongest causes is its own Organics Field Fund, which provides funding (about $22,000 annually) to farmers working on the development and sustainability of organics. By strengthening organic farming, notes Campbell, Lakewinds is strengthening the community and the business. "We're only as strong as the communities we support," she says. "If we don't have a strong community and economy, we won't do well." 

Leveraging passion

When Bruce Mooty talks about giving back to the community, there's extra meaning in his words. That's because the Minneapolis-based law firm where he's managing officer, Gray Plant Mooty, goes way back with its home town. The first judge of the city was the founder of the firm, which was established before the city was incorporated. You might expect a firm so steeped in history to be stuck in its ways. But the firm supports employees to "follow the path of their passion" and pick the method by which to contribute, says Mooty, whether it be reading to kids, chairing a committee, or helping out at a food shelf.

One program in particular holds a special place at the firm. When cancer struck receptionist Kathy Peck and she lost her hair due to chemotherapy, employees began knitting hats for her. She noted that other patients needed hats, too, so they launched Hats for Hope, which went on to produce thousands of head coverings distributed to cancer treatment centers around the region. "That one started out of love for an employee, then the love of the cause," says Mooty. He sees plenty of valuable side-benefits to such efforts, including team-building and the formation of deeper relationships with the community.

"I also think it's good business for people to do this," he says. "You get a chance to see how many wonderful people there are that care about others. If you like what they're doing, and they like what you're doing, maybe you do business down the road…oftentimes you're doing this with other companies, and it really gives your name and your business exposure in the community."

As for how to give effectively, Mooty believes that "the greatest results are achieved by people who can line up their unique skills and qualities in areas where they have a passion."  

Making it fun

Terry Swor, CEO and principal at St. Paul–based American Engineering Testing (AET), will tell you that giving back doesn't have to be boring. "Giving can also be a lot of fun, as well as competitive," he says.

Each year, AET creates some friendly competition in helping those in need during the holidays through its "Community Care Challenge," which is a friendly competition between its various branches to raise the most money with games, raffles, silent auctions, and so on. Last year, the group raised $80,000 in donations, as well as 10 tons of food and personal care items—and had fun doing it. "These need-friendly activities are all about finding common ground with our friends and valued business partners," Swor says.

Competition and fun aside, the employee-owners of AET have long believed it is better to give and help those with needs, especially those who have no apparent way to change their situation. With involvement in the United Way and Community Health Charities of Minnesota campaigns, AET workers meet people in the community, develop a camaraderie with those who have a similar giving philosophy, and see first-hand the outcomes of their efforts.

For AET, giving isn't a passing fancy. A volunteer committee orchestrates its charitable events and enables the company to give regularly to worthy causes, including a scholarship established in the name of one of the founders. Swor is a firm believer that, "When we all give, everyone wins. It's just that simple." 

Sharing the gift

Sometimes the best way to give is to share freely of your talents. Over the past four years, the Brainerd-based creative agency RedHouseMedia has, through pro-bono services, helped rebrand the Cuyuna Lakes area, which includes the towns of Crosby, Ironton, and Deerwood. Working with the Cuyuna Lakes Chamber of Commerce, the agency has delivered on a new logo, website, professional photos, promotion of the area's mountain bike trails, and more.

It all stems out of a story that Aaron Hautala, the agency's owner and creative director, heard about New York's approach to addressing an epic crime problem. Instead of adding police, it started cleaning up. When someone vandalized a wall or bench, it was painted over or replaced immediately. The effect was quick and clear. "The crime and negativity was reduced through the power of visuals, which made the community feel cleaner and safer," he says.

Cuyuna Lakes faces a different challenge. It was shaped by the mining industry, and then the mining stopped. In response, the community has repositioned itself as a destination for history, nature, and rugged outdoor activities. "It's regained its swagger," Hautala says, noting his agency's services were just a small part of that effort.
Because the desire to give back comes from within, Hautala believes encouraging it in others can be difficult. He suggests asking yourself what you'd like to see happen in your own community, and then, whatever it might be, make it happen with the help of positivity and goodwill.

Within the business world, he says, "Everyone has a different mission in life. You've been given a gift in what you do every day. Let's look outside of that. How we can help?" 

Turning point

For Krystal Vierkant, owner and founder of the St. Cloud–based trucking company Rock On Enterprises, the winter of 2011 was a turning point. A young girl in her daughter's dance class was diagnosed with terminal cancer. The struggling 22-year-old mother had to drive her daughter, who was receiving chemotherapy treatments, between St. Cloud and the Twin Cities in a car with a broken heater. "What if that were my little girl?" Vierkant asked herself. "Heaven forbid that something happens to me or my family. I would hope and pray that someone would help me if I needed it."

She knew she had to help. Vierkant and her colleagues repaired the young mother's car heater, along with the brakes and other items to make sure the trips were safer. But Vierkant didn't stop there. Taking various items her company had received from vendors but didn't need, she held a silent auction to raise some money for the mother and daughter so they could have a brighter Christmas. The auction raised a little over $2,000, and the company matched that.

Every year since, Rock On has hosted a Christmas party to raise money for various charities, including those helping families of people with terminal cancer, and the Make a Wish Foundation. The company has also donated to Honor Flight, which sends veterans (especially of World War II) to Washington, D.C., to see the memorials erected in their honor.

Giving is not about recognition, says Vierkant: "I feel that God has blessed me in my life and my business, and I just want to give back where I can." 

A good fit

Bloomington-based R.E. Purvis & Associates, which distributes seals and other industrial components, gives back by partnering with Opportunity Partners, a nonprofit that helps provide employment opportunities to adults with developmental disabilities. "It gives them an opportunity to work," says Alesa Koppen, the company's president. "We've been doing it for over 10 years. We had a program here that was a good fit, and we felt like Opportunity Partners had the resources to meet our needs as well as theirs."

The company also works with Volunteers Enlisted to Assist People. Koppen believes being part of the community is an important benefit of these activities. "It also teaches our employees quite a bit," she says, "as far as what the community does for them as individuals."

Local decisions

At Chuck & Don's, which has pet product stores around the state, it's the stores that tell the corporate headquarters in Mahtomedi where the company's giving should be directed. Surveys allow employees to offer up suggestions, or name their favorite charity. "It's the stores telling the office what to do," says John Imholte, a senior district manager. One of the company's largest contributions goes to the Minnesota Spay Neuter Assistance Program, which uses a "clinic on wheels" to deliver low-cost spay and neuter surgeries.

Education is also a big part of its giving, with stores sponsoring school trips to the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley.
One way the company benefits from giving back is the relationship-building that comes with playing an important role the community. "You need to be a part of the community to be really successful," Imholte says. 

Rich returns

Twin Cities–based R.F. Moeller Jeweler used to list all the organizations it gives to on its website. "There were over 100. We had to finally take it down because the phone was ringing off the hook," says CEO Mark Moeller. This doesn't mean the company has stopped giving. "We donate about 25 percent of our profit to charities, schools, and civic organizations," he says.

One of its larger involvements is with the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA). The son of one of Moeller's high school friends was diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy when he was two. He lived to 21. Moeller started the R.F. Moeller Jeweler/Greg Marzolf golf tournament and had a raffle for a new car. It turned out to be a good idea. Between the golf tournament and the raffle, the company raised and donated more than $1 million to the MDA in less than 10 years. With giving, says Moeller, "the return both personally and professionally is immeasurable—just knowing that in some way you have helped a charity, a school, or an organization fulfill their mission."