The Land Of Small Giants
In a land of industrial giants, a community of "small giants" is thriving: small businesses concerned more about product and service quality, work life, and contributing to the community, than rapid growth, expansion, and profit.
Following the publication of Small Giants
by Bo Burlingham in 2005, virtual "Small Giant Communities" have sprung up throughout the world: SmallGiants@Brazil, SmallGiants@Romania; SmallGiants@South Africa; and SmallGiants@Michigan. Michigan??
The emergence of Michigan as the first and only state to sponsor a small giant community is largely the work of Marisa Smith, a partner with The Whole Brain Group
, in Ann Arbor.
"A lot of us were already feeling these [values] about how to run our companies, but we felt we were alone or didn't have the language to describe it," says Smith. After reading Small Giants
, featuring Zingerman's Community of Businesses, Smith realized that there were several small giants operating in the Ann Arbor area.
That led to the idea of creating virtual communities of small companies aspiring to be "small giants." Last fall, Smith hosted a community mixer in Ann Arbor. Thirty companies attended. "I wanted to have local events in Ann Arbor because there are so many of us around here." A second mixer in November drew 60. On April 19, the third mixer drew a diverse group of100 from Detroit to Grand Rapids and Traverse City, in conjunction with a Small Giants seminar hosted by ZingTrain
– Zingerman's training company.
Small giants like Zingerman's are interested in profit, but that's not their only goal, according to Burlingham. "They're also interested in being great at what they do, creating a great place to work, providing great service to customers, having great relationships with their suppliers, making great contributions to the communities they live…and in many cases, place significant limits on how much and how fast they grow."Zingerman's Bakehouse
had an opportunity to provide dinner rolls for the former Northwest Airlines. "The business we would have gotten from Northwest probably would have doubled our sales and would have required that we increase our fixed overhead," explains Amy Emberling, Zingerman's partner. "We would have had to buy new equipment and it would have taken us down a path of making an item that we didn't already make and wasn't going to match the criteria we were trying to fulfill in the bread that we were making." They decided to pass on the deal.
Zingerman's also had an opportunity to establish a Bakehouse in West Michigan. "It would mean that we wouldn't be living in this community and we wouldn't be giving to this community. So, we said we're not going to grow in that way," says Emberling. "We don't want to make more and more and more." Zingerman's wants to grow within their community, she says. Most recently, the Bakehouse came up with an idea that would cultivate artisan baking skills in the community while making money – baking classes. "That was a way of growing, but staying in the community and giving to the community in a different way."Torrance Learning
, an online company based in Chelsea, initially turned down an opportunity to train Dow Chemical Company workers. "That would have been a darn nice feather in my hat to have such a brand name as a client," says Megan Torrance, owner, but "it would have forced me to triple my staff and lay them off at the end [of the contract], the [profit] margins would have been very tight, [and] I would not have been able to control the way in which we do the work. It would have been a high volume shop…. That's not how we want to work."
Small Giants aren't adverse to profit, Torrance contends. "I like profits. Profits are good. Profits are what feed the rest. [But] profits aren't the only thing. It's more about building something special, the giving-back, the connection to the community."
Smith says that rapid growth may have contributed to the demise of many companies during this recession. "They were either in a bubble that burst and they didn't ave enough diversification or they weren't agile enough to switch direction or they didn't collaborate enough with other companies to be able to use each other's resources and sharing ideas." She sees a more collaborative business environment evolving, particularly among those espousing small giant values.
When Emberling discussed Zingerman's and the small giant values with students at the Columbia School of Business, where she received an MBA, they rolled their ideas. That's not what students are taught about doing business.
"Why would you do that?" they asked. "It was about how much money you could make and not about what the quality of their life was going to be like or how they were going to relate to their employees or what they were going to give back to their community."
Given the bad news that permeates the Michigan business culture, you wouldn't expect a thriving small giant community. On the other hand, why wouldn't you expect new growth in a fallen forest?
"I am very impressed with the amount of energy that I'm sensing and hearing about in the community towards entrepreneuralism in Michigan since the decline of the economy," says Emberling. "Small giants are about local. In Michigan we need a lot of local grassroots development to help us. It may also be a reaction to being dependent to the big car companies for a long time, and some desire not to be dependent on big companies. It can be a very good fit from that perspective."
According to its website, the Small Giants Community
rejects "the pressure of endless growth to define success by not only [the] bottom line, but by contributions to the community, dedication to great customer service and creation and preservation of workplace cultures of excellence." Local and international small giants are connected by "mojo-mindedness," a kind of attitude and energy that defines the way these companies choose to do business.
Smith sees evidence of that mojo in Michigan companies. "People in Michigan have been hearing bad news longer than other states. They may be sicker of it and ready to do something about it. Maybe that's why it's resonating here so well."
Torrance suggests that the values of being part of a small giant community are akin to flowers growing toward the sun. "People are excited about the small giants' concept because the small giants are successful. They're doing something that's positive. They're embracing the world with an abundance mentality. It's not, ‘How can I beat down everyone just to get ahead.' Because of that welcoming, more inclusive approach, people are leaning toward that kind of sun. … There's something cool going on, it's very attractive to people, and the organizing energy comes with it."
A version of this story first ran in Metromode.
Dennis Archambault is a small giant among men. He is a freelance writer and regular contributor in Metromode. His previous story was Metro
Detroit Goes Au Natural.
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