Synopses & Reviews
Socially responsible investments have grown exceptionally in the same year that "moral values" determined a presidential election. So why has business been so slow to catch on? In a new book, The Company We Keep, small business owner and entrepreneur John Abrams makes a case for a return to workplace values, and shows how we can ultimately profit by them.
The Company we Keep is more than the success story of a revolutionary company. It sets down a framework for a model of employee ownership and community involvement that has piqued the interest of entrepreneurs around the country. In the words of Abrams, "This is a book about a different way of doing business in today's world--a way based on workplace democracy, shared ownership, staying small, building community, commitment to a place, and long term thinking."
John Abrams founded the South Mountain Company, a design and building firm, on Martha's Vineyard more than thirty years ago. Through a commitment to place and community entrepreneurship, he has seen the company grow and prosper, while at the same time experimenting with a revolutionary employee ownership model that has challenged the traditional business rhetoric of unchecked growth.
There is a revolution going on in corporate America, and social entrepreneurship is leading the way. Rejecting the myth that short-term profits are the only indicator of business health and wealth, John Abrams shows how building a company to serve the needs of people (employees and owners), community, and the environment can be a successful business plan as well. Part entrepreneurial business plan, part guide to democratizing the workplace, and part prescription for strong local economies, The Company We Keep marks the debut of an important new voice in the literature of American business.
Vol 6 No. 11 September 2005 Required Reading: "Building a Business Foundation for a Brighter Future"
It's interesting that in this day and age, so many companies continue to balk at the idea of adopting a genuine model of true social and environmental responsibility. Aside from the fact that the need for this kind of positive change has long since been past the point of obvious, it's just the right thing to do from both a moral and an economic perspective. Socially responsible business simply makes all kinds of common sense. A new book shows us how people can make it happen but why they should.
Like virtually all titles in its category, The Company We Keep: Reinventing Small Business for People, Community, and Place, by John Abrams, Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2005 makes a case for strong workplace values and shows how we can ultimately profit from such a strategy. But unlike most of its fellow volumes, this book is also a personal tale, one liberally sprinkled with wisdom about ideas small and large that the author has accumulated during his 30+ year journey as founder of the South Mountain Company, a Martha's Vineyard design and building firm. Through a commitment to community entrepreneurship, Abrams has seen the company grow and prosper. At the same time, he's experimented with a revolutionary employee ownership model that challenges the traditional business model of unchecked growth. While The Company We Keep tells the personal success story of this revolutionary company, that's just the beginning of all the places it goes. Written in a down-to-earth conversational voice and laced with insightful side trips that offer additional lessons, Abrams examines the role business can and should play in creating and sustaining healthy communities. He sets down a framework for a model of employee ownership and community involvement that works. In the words of the author, "This is a book about a different way of doing business in today's world, a way based on workplace democracy, shared ownership, staying small, building community, making a commitment to place, and long term thinking." Rejecting the myth that short-term profits are the only indicator of business health and wealth, Abrams offers eight cornerstone principles. He shows how building a company upon these principals to serve the needs of employees inside, the community outside, and the environment both depend upon can create a business that's successful by traditional and nontraditional measures alike. To that end his book is part entrepreneurial business plan, part guide to democratizing the workplace, and part prescription for strong local economies. A series of detailed appendices explain how his company set up its employee ownership program, how meeting facilitation and consensus decisions work, and how Abrams performed a community visioning for Martha's Vineyard. This places much of the how-to nuts and bolts in the back of the book, preventing this technically oriented material from bogging down the breezy main text with nitty-gritty. The result is a thoroughly readable and eminently enjoyable book, and an important new addition to the library of anyone concerned with finding better ways to create a better world.
"John Abrams is a philosopher disguised as a businessman. His chapter challenging the gospel of growth ought to be read by every business person struggling to keep up with a crushing workload, and wondering why we're all so determined to grow bigger and faster when it's killing us (and the planet). John shows how we can step off the treadmill and back into life."
--Marjorie Kelly, editor, Business Ethics
"The Company We Keep . . . is a must-read for anyone considering employee ownership or striving to create sustainable companies and communities."
--Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund
"John Abrams is not only one of my favorite builders on the planet, he's also one of my favorite thinkers. In this age of mergers and acquisitions, where bigger is always better and money is the only bottom line, The Company We Keep offers hope for those of us who value craft, compassion, and community."
--Kevin Ireton, editor, Fine Homebuilding
"John Abrams gives entrepreneurs what they really need: proof that sustainable business works."
--Ben Cohen, Co-Founder of Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream and President of Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities
"John Abrams tells a wonderful story, full of ideas about our society. We all need the South Mountain Company--and its human lessons."
--Anthony Lewis, New York Times columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner
"The Company We Keep is a great read with a great message that should have relevance to virtually any company that cares about more than making money."
--Alex Wilson, Executive Editor of Environmental Building News
"This book has irreversibly changed my attitude toward business and life altogether. It's powerful."
--Martin Knauss, Lehigh Construction Group
"John Abrams takes readers on a journey that is as rich, fulfilling and purposeful as the company that he has lovingly helped to shape and steward over the last two decades. The Company We Keep is a soulful and refreshing reminder that businesses are no different from families, communities or for that matter any other human organization--without mission or purpose, they can be lifeless, irrelevant and even destructive, but infused with intention, they can sow the seeds for a hopeful future. Abrams' employee owned South Mountain Company serves as an example that entrepreneurs are only limited by our imaginations when it comes to prioritizing care, kindness and compassion for employees, community and the environment."
--Gary Hirshberg, President and CE-YO, Stonyfield Farm, Inc.
"If faced with the proverbial literary quandary--a deserted island--I most certainly would set aside all those fictional masterpieces and cart along this endearing and irresistibly hopeful book on how to reconstruct my home and livelihood on an island.... Abrams' work is a compelling and celebratory reminder that companies like South Mountain are desperately needed in a time of real estate boom and inevitable bust and the ruins left in their wake."
--Jeff Biggers, The Bloomsbury Review
"I am using your book as a required text in my course on social entrepreneurship at Berkeley this semester. I recently finished reading it and really love what you wrote. I won't go into all my thoughts in this email but suffice it to say I think you have built a model which is exemplary and others should emulate if we want to make our lives, families, communities, nations, and the world a more meaningful, prosperous, healthy, and enjoyable place. Looking forward to sharing more thoughts and ideas over a brew or coffee next time you are out this way."
--Paul Frankel, Lecturer, Center for Responsible Business, Haas School of Business, University of California at Berkeley
"While The Company We Keep tells the personal success story of this revolutionary company, that's just the beginning of all the places it goes. Written in a down-to-earth conversational voice and laced with insightful side trips that offer additional lessons, Abrams examines the role business can and should play in creating and sustaining healthy communities. He sets down a framework for a model of employee ownership and community involvement that works."
"Useful to organizations everywhere that appreciate that bigger isn't always better, money isn't always the endgame and true success comes from the meaningful work of dedicated people."
--E: The Environmental Magazine
"One of the best, most exciting business books I have ever read."
--Anne Alexander, Authentic Alternatives Business Breakthroughs Coaching
"The Company We Keep [is] a manifesto outlining . . . passionate belief in employee ownership, corporate responsibility, sustainable design, and the spirit of craftsmanship."
--James McCown, Boston Globe Sunday, "Vineyard Mover and Saver" (Real Estate section)
"An exceptional, insightful guide for socially conscious business."
--The Midwest Book Review
Some business books try to teach success in a competitive marketplace. In The Company We Keep, John Abrams shows how a company can flourish as a part of a thriving community of people dependent on one another. His eight cornerstone principles, including employee ownership and long-term thinking, express the entrepreneurial spirit as a potent force for change?with profitable results that extend across multiple bottom lines. Part visionary business plan, part guide to democratizing the workplace, and part prescription for strong local economies, The Company We Keep marks the debut of an important new voice in American business. With a craftsman's eye, a storyteller's sensibility, and a CEO's pragmatism, Abrams brings his experience to bear on the challenges faced by progressive small businesses everywhere.
About the Author
In 1975, John Abrams and his best friend Mitchell Posin ventured to Martha's Vineyard to build a house for John's parents. What began as a summertime detour and a passion for woodworking became permanent residency and business success. Since 1976, John has served as president of South Mountain Company, which, today, has 30 employees (over half of whom share ownership in the business), has designed and built more than 100 major renovation and new housing projects, and earns $6 million in annual revenues.
As a proponent of working for the benefit of people and community, John explores the role of business in promoting community, creating social equity, and maintaining ecological balance. He challenges conventional business concepts: that bigger is better, that profits come first, and that location is incidental. The narratives found in his resonant memoir, The Company We Keep, demonstrate that one can bring high personal values to the workplace, protect natural resources, uphold high standards of craftsmanship, control growth, and still run a successful (and highly collaborative) enterprise.
John and his co-owners have made a long-term commitment to using their business to preserve community and help solve the Vineyard's affordable housing crisis. John is deeply involved in community service. Currently, he chairs the Island Affordable Housing Fund and serves as Vice Chair of the Island Housing Trust. Over the years he has held more than 20 social and civic posts, ranging from municipal boards, transportation task forces, and renewable energy groups, to a variety of affordable housing committees and non-profits. John is a member of the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association (he was presented with their Lifetime Achievement Award after many years as a board member), Corporation 2020, the North American Timber Framers Guild, and the advisory board of Environmental Building News. He frequently lectures to university audiences, building associations, business groups, and environmental organizations on the topics of affordable housing, socially responsible business, and ecological design and building, and has trained several groups in meeting facilitation and consensus decision-making. John and his co-owners are currently considering several new endeavors to complement South Mountain's core activities.
John's articles about green building and workplace democracy have appeared in national publications such as Business Ethics and Fine Homebuilding. He and South Mountain have been featured, as well, in The New York Times, Cape Cod Life, Custom Home, Designer/Builder, Environmental Building News, The Inspired House, Solar Today, The Martha's Vineyard Times and The Vineyard Gazette. The work of South Mountain Company has appeared in 10 published books, including How Buildings Learn (Viking Press), The Naturally Elegant Home (Little Brown), The Healing House (Hay House), and The Houses of Martha's Vineyard (Monacelli Press). John lives on Martha's Vineyard, off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, with his wife Chris, in a co-housing neighborhood designed and built by his company.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Cornerstones
Chapter 2: Cultivating Workplace Democracy
Chapter 3: Challenging the Gospel of Growth
Chapter 4: Balancing Multiple Bottom Lines
Chapter 5: Committing to the Business of Place
Chapter 6: Celebrating the Spirit of Craft
Chapter 7: Advancing People Conservation
Chapter 8: Practicing Community Entrepreneurism
Chapter 9: Thinking Like Cathedral Builders
Chapter 10: The Company We Keep
1. South Mountain Employee Ownership Particulars
2. Meeting Facilitation and Consensus Decision Making
3. South Mountain Company's Vineyard Future Sketch
Selected Bibliography and Resources