What started three decades ago at Cascade Engineering as a question of how to find and keep talented workers has evolved and expanded into company and community programs that support employees and encourage inclusion. During that time, Founder and Chair Fred Keller also has become an advocate for business as a crucial creator of positive social and environmental impact, an educator of future business leaders, and a changemaker in his community and industry.
For Keller, it’s all part of building a strong bottom line as a manufacturing company and a healthy local economy as a community member. “The challenge as a business is that people want to consider the problem and then they want it to go away. They think if I get the right numbers or if I add a department of diversity, I can just push it to the side. I was convinced that was not an appropriate approach,” he says. “We really wanted to do something different. We adopted the phrase that we want to be a place where everyone knows that they are valued as a human being and for the work that they do. That’s a pretty high bar. This really kind of supercharged our thinking.”
His original question eventually led to Cascade Engineering’s Welfare to Career program designed to boost employee retention and empower workers and enhance their well-being — which can be challenging in the manufacturing field. By providing on-site support and connections to workers who had been receiving welfare services, the Grand Rapids, Michigan-based company has seen its monthly employee retention rate climb to more than 90% — a valuable return on investment, Keller says, that also creates a collaborative workplace atmosphere. This supercharged thinking also helped propel him to roles in leadership and education, where he spreads the word about business as a force for good. Keller recently completed 17 years as a Senior Visiting Lecturer at the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University, and served on the W.K. Kellogg Foundation Board for 14 years.
Keller says valuing workers as human beings reflects the values he learned as a child — the importance of nurturing and supporting other people, which in turn nurtures and supports the local community. It also influenced his efforts to shape a workplace that incorporates employee feedback to build inclusion and equity. Like Cascade’s innovative zero-waste initiative I wrote about earlier, the company’s inclusion and equity work is informed and shaped by the people it affects most: the employees. And being a Certified B Corporation is another way the business lives its stakeholder-minded values.
“It’s good for your business, it’s good for your employees, it’s good for the community, and you know what? It doesn’t cost a lot,” he says. To learn more about Keller’s belief that companies should take responsibility for employee-support initiatives that also build a stronger bottom line as part of my research on purpose-driven business, I recently talked again with Keller and his daughter, Christina Keller, who serves as the Cascade Engineering Family of Companies CEO.
Chris Marquis: Share a bit about the company’s founding and your desire to create a workplace where employees feel valued and empowered, and provide equal opportunities for all.
Fred Keller: There’s probably a longer story about how I was raised and my family, which was people-oriented. My father’s 10th-grade education didn’t hold him back from learning on the job and he became very good at that. He also had a heart for people. His approach as a tool and die company leader tended to be paternalistic. I wanted to be more systemic, so that was kind of a differentiator between me and my father, although we had the same roots of caring for people.
The other thing that was a big impact for me was living through the ’60s — that very tumultuous time. As a white male, the human rights struggle at the time was one that I observed and didn’t necessarily participate in, yet I had this feeling that I could and should do something. But I learned later about systemic racism.
Then I worked for a very large organization right out of school and felt like a number. That also influenced my thinking. So those were kind of the influencers. I didn’t start out with the business saying, “I’m going to do it this way.” But I did have that as a thought process, how I could have that kind of impact. It really was just wanting to be a little different.
We stumbled upon a book by Ruby Payne and a framework for understanding poverty. She talks about having a different worldview when you’re living in poverty. With food, if you’re in poverty it’s about quantity; if you’re middle class it’s about quality; if you’re upper class it’s about presentation. With money, if you’re in poverty it’s about spending it; if you’re middle class it’s about managing it; if you’re upper class it’s about investing it. It was helpful for us to understand that.
We added a social worker to our staff from the state welfare program, and she learned that it takes six to nine months for someone to really transition from a poverty environment where everything is in stress all the time. By being able to have a steady job and a social worker, she was able to develop a deep understanding of each individual. At one point we had up to 100 people on her caseload, which was about half or a third of what she would have had with the state. We covered half her salary, so it was a relatively minimal cost. But she was able to connect people with all the state programs. If your car broke down, there’s a state program where you can get a little money. There’s a ride to work program.
She really worked individually with each individual as these issues came up. The key lesson for us was you can try to train folks ahead of time about how to behave and all that sort of thing, but until you’re dealing with an actual incident, that’s when you need to have that support. That’s what really turned our program around and gave us the legs we needed to be able to do it. We found out these employees are very loyal; they want to stay for a long time and are very appreciative. It turned out to be a positive thing for us as well as for them and the community.
Marquis: How are these supports designed to especially help newer employees in their first six to nine months on the job? Why is that such a crucial time?
Fred Keller: They’re all the standard things, normal life circumstances when you’re living in poverty: The car breaking down, the kids are sick, an abusive partner. You tend to freeze and focus on that thing and forget about your opportunity or your job. But when you have a social worker calling and asking why you didn’t show up this morning — and they help you work through it, and learn about resources to work through that issue, then they’re able to get through things.
Christina Keller: COVID has really surfaced some of these issues anew. We had public transportation, for example, out to Cascade that was relatively reliable and people were able to come from inner city Grand Rapids. But during the pandemic the routes weren’t as regular, sometimes it didn’t work with the schedules. The Wheels to Work program that we worked for with Hope Network got dialed back because they couldn’t find drivers.
There were lots of different barriers that re-emerged during the pandemic — additional challenges and additional barriers that I think many people felt, not just those in poverty. Trying to navigate where your child is supposed to be for school, in person or virtual. And how you’re going to get from one place to another when the used car market is quite expensive. It added some challenges.
Marquis: One of the things that really sticks with me is how you’re not just about doing these programs for Cascade, you’re actually involved in creating systems in Grand Rapids and beyond to help the community. Tell me about the motivations behind the Source program and how Cascade collaborated with other Grand Rapids companies to shape the launch of a nonprofit agency that supports workers and employers through training, services, and professional development.
Fred Keller: The story behind the SOURCE is pretty pretty fun. I’d gotten to know Mark Peters here in Grand Rapids who had his family business handed to him after his father died suddenly. It’s called Butterball Farms, and they make little round butter balls that go all over the country and they make the butter packets for McDonald’s. Mark’s business was having a real struggle, so he actually commuted from Grand Rapids to Cornell to audit my class at Cornell. He was just impressed with the nature of what we were trying to get across and how business could have a positive impact on the community.
As we were doing our work he was saying, “I can’t afford to do what you’re doing. I don’t have a big enough operation, but I need what you have.” Because he had a lot of entry-level employees, he said “I’m going to try to do something like you’re doing, but I’d like to have a conglomeration of these folks.” He asked me to come to his first meeting, and there were a lot of crossed-armed people asking “What are we trying to do here?” But he got four or five folks who were willing to take a stab at it, and he put together the SOURCE. Then he hired state social workers and private social workers, and they now have 19 organizations with over 8000 employees involved with the Source. We also now utilize the SOURCE, so that it’s a little more cost efficient than doing it ourselves.
Marquis: You’ve also been involved with other programs that promote inclusion and equity, like the Institute for Healing Racism. Share a bit more about that.
Fred Keller: Similar to the SOURCE, this initiative started when Bob Woodrick of D&W Food Stores called together a bunch of CEOs in Grand Rapids. It was really the first time we had gathered around an issue. Bob’s family had adopted a child of color, and it was the first time he experienced racism and wanted to do something. From that group, the Institute for Healing Racism was created as part of the Chamber of Commerce, which was an unusual place for that to reside. We’ve had thousands of people go through the program, and it’s grown in its impact and influence. Now we have people lining up to sponsor it.
We’re also thinking deeply about how we could make our organization a place where folks that are black and brown feel safe. That it’s a place where they are comfortable. And we were also working in the area of learning about what true dialogue meant. We had a series of dialogues around this issue and it became clear then.
One of the workers said I feel safer here than I do back at home.
Over the years we’ve done employee attitude surveys that we disagregate by self-identified race, and we’ve seen that over the years the satisfaction leveled out. People of Color are equally satisfied.
In 2002 I joined the Kellogg Foundation as a trustee and became influenced by the board’s efforts to address racism/ While I was of the belief that I was doing just fine,it took me to a new level, and it was important for me to move that along in our organization as well. So in the mid-2000s we declared Cascade to be an anti-racism organization, and I think we were one of the earliest to do that.
Chris Marquis: What insights did you gain as part of the Kellogg Foundation, and what things did you do at Cascade to focus on becoming an anti-racist organization?
Fred Keller: The challenge for business leaders as they consider the problem is they just want it to go away. They think if I get the right numbers or if I add a department of diversity, I can just push it to the side. I was convinced that was not an appropriate approach. We really wanted to do something different. We adopted the phrase that we want to be a place where everyone knows that they are valued as a human being and for the work that they do. That’s a pretty high bar.
This really kind of supercharged our thinking. There’s also a theme similar to how we did our environmental work — and that’s using the role of leadership to empower employees and to make change OK. The point is that if you empower people in your organization, they can make the change.
Chris Marquis: How do you respond when people question why a business should hire a social worker — when they question why you’ve taken on that responsibility?
Fred Keller: I have found over the years that when you’re talking to reluctant business leaders, the standard thinking is — especially in the nonprofit world when they’re trying to sell their programs — they talk about return on investment. They think that will get the attention of the business folks. What I’ve found is that the best place is to start with the heart. Everybody’s got a heart somewhere.
You probably know Yuval Harari. He shows the science now has uncovered that we have this kind of common gene that makes us want to care for each other. But we learned in business school that the role of business is to maximize profit for the shareholder — we still have Milton Friedman’s words in echo chambers through our hallways, encouraging business people to maximize profits and forget the externalities.
So the way I pitch this stuff is to start with people’s heart. It’s good for your business, it’s good for your employees, it’s good for the community, and you know what? It doesn’t cost a lot. It costs a little bit, but there is a return on investment. You’re going to get this money back, and you’re going to feel better about it. That’s what I think is missing in the current narrative.
The other thing that’s missing is we’re not going to make a big difference until we think in terms of the impact of our business on community. Not our country or our state or the world, but our own local community. When we do that, the idea of taking care of each other is much closer.
Christina Keller: The other thing I would say to build on that would be couching it within talent. Our population is aging. In addition, manufacturing ranks dead last in terms of what high schoolers want to go into. So as manufacturers, we have to create new talent pools. We look at new immigrants, returning citizens. In our community, we actually improved the recidivism rate for returning citizens, and it’s not just us. It’s different groups taking that on.
Fred was part of creating a group of business leaders who came together around talent — all these things that we’ve been doing as an organization for so long have a new meaning now as basic building blocks, that if you want to get the best and the brightest you have to be doing these things.
Marquis: How do you suggest other companies start on wraparound initiatives like these?
Christina Keller: There are two things that I would suggest. One is partnering with local folks, so you’re not going it alone. Find out if there is a program like SOURCE, if there is an employee resource network. We found that any program that has social workers is really helpful overall because they can ask questions that your human resource department can’t ask, and they can connect your employees with existing resources. It doesn’t have to be on-site, it can be online resources that are available. We partner with a local mental health facility as well for resources.
Second is to really dive deep to learn about the barriers that your employees are experiencing. We came up with this share program where we can pay for child care — part us, part the state, part other sources. The program didn’t have a big adoption rate because people were not even using formal child care — many were using their parents or their cousins — so the program kind of fell flat.
It’s important to sit with the issues. We put together a program to try to help people go from renting their homes to owning their homes. We did a survey of employees asking if they rent or own, and had to redo and add another category for those who were in transition, maybe living on a friend’s couch. So we’ve learned to listen and adapt to learn what experiences your employees are going through and then try to understand what resources can be tapped to help address some of those concerns.
From a leadership perspective, we’ve found that people who are closest to the problem have the most effective solutions. So if you can find those ideas, enable them, then people can more organically work together as leaders to move things forward.
Fred Keller: The first thing I’d suggest is just be present. Present with the problem, present with people to more deeply understand what they’re facing. Let that soak in as part of your problem-solving process. Business leaders like to solve problems, but when it comes to social issues, they want to believe that they are somebody else’s problem. Really, we have to take it on as ours and acknowledge that we have a systemic social problem to address. Governments can assist, but business has to take the lead.
There’s an accountability issue as well, and we try to do that with our Triple Bottom Line report. It’s not easy to be accountable, but I think it’s important to attempt that. We’re looking at real results. It’s a challenge to hold yourself accountable for what you really want to do with your mind as a result of searching your heart.