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Why a strong company culture and social mission are good for business

July 7, 2021
In this installment of Automation Zone, learn why Hallam-ICS won a 2021 CSIA award for its extraordinary work in corporate social responsibility.

Welcome to the third installment in our quarterly feature, Ask An Integrator, developed together with the Control System Integrators Association and its member organizations.

Hallam-ICS is a 110-person engineering and automation company that designs MEP systems for facilities and plants and engineers control and automation solutions with five offices on the East Coast. In business since 1981, Hallam also ensures safety and regulatory compliance through arc flash studies, commissioning, and validation.

For this edition of Ask An Integrator, Keith Flaherty, president and CEO at Hallam-ICS, took some time to talk with Plant Services about a different side of the business and its company culture, which supports local communities and causes through service work and charity.

PS: Congratulations on your Control System Integrators Association award for 2021. The Social Responsibility Award is given to a member organization that’s achieved extraordinary results in corporate social responsibility and sustainability programs.

What does corporate social responsibility mean to Hallam, and what do you think the company has done that’s most deserving of that award?

KF: Corporate social responsibility is used in a lot of different ways and so it’s a really broad term. For us here at Hallam, we use the word generosity a lot to describe us. We want to be generous with all of our resources. So that’s our time, our talents, and being present for one another. Being generous will hopefully have an impact on the lives of our employees and their families along with our clients and their communities. So that’s kind of what CSR is for us. It’s really weaved into the fabric of who we are in our culture. We don’t think, “Oh, we’re doing CSR today.” This is just what we do.

In terms of a specific event, we’re celebrating our 40th anniversary this year. So Dave Hallam founded the company in 1981 and typically, to celebrate a major milestone anniversary, we get all of our 110-plus employees and significant others together in one location, and we spend the day together sailing, golfing, hiking, knitting, or paint and sip, whatever people want to do, and then we come together at night for dinner. The pandemic has scuttled those plans this year. So we came up with a different idea. Rather than an internal celebration amongst ourselves, we felt like it was appropriate for our 40th anniversary celebration to be externally focused. We came up with the idea of “40 Years of Service and 40 Years of Giving,” and we’ll contribute $100,000 to local organizations in those 40 weeks.

We asked our employees to select an organization that means something to them and 40 individuals came up with 40 organizations. Each week for 40 weeks, one of these organizations receives $2,500 and is promoted on our social media channels for the great work they do.

PS: This obviously isn’t something that the company just started. It’s something you have been focused on for a long time. Can you talk about how and why the company really committed to this social mission and being that positive force to improve not only the lives of your employees, but also the communities where they live and work? And when did this journey first start for Hallam?

KF: Well, it started 40 years ago with our founder. Dave Hallam really instilled a deep sense of humanity into the organization, and an understanding that our work as a company needs to be about more than the systems that we design, program, and commission. We have an obligation to our employees, to our clients, and to our communities. So it’s been there from day one.

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And today, our social mission is as vibrant and important to the business as it ever has been. Some folks see social mission as an expense. We see it as an investment in the business, in terms of making the business better. Doing good and having a purpose plays an important role in employee recruiting, retention, and engagement. We are an employee-based business and our ability to attract and retain top talent is critical for us.

In 2019, we became a certified B Corporation, and that was a way to join other organizations who publicly state the importance of purpose as well as profit.

PS: Can you talk about some of the charitable organizations that Hallam has worked with through your Community Service Award program?

KF: There are so many wonderful people and organizations that we’ve worked with that it’s hard to single out one. We do quite a bit with Spectrum Youth and Family Services in Vermont. Spectrum works with at-risk teenagers and young adults and their families in the state. Every March, they host the Spectrum Sleep Out, where community members sleep outdoors in solidarity with homeless youth. We’ve experienced everything from 15 degrees to 50 degrees when you’re sleeping outside in March in Vermont. We started doing this six years ago, and Hallam has a team every year that participates and it’s impossible to leave the event without being impacted in some way.

During the Sleep Out, you have a lot of time for thought and reflection. I once read that empathy is being able to understand how another feels, but compassion is really about doing something and taking action. The folks at Spectrum take action. They help people on a daily basis.

This year, we raised $26,000 as part of our fundraising. In the past six years, we’ve raised over $100,000 for Spectrum.

PS: When did the Hallam-ICS Service Day start and how is this adding to the company’s social mission?

KF: Hallam-ICS Service Day started in 2014. We would regularly do company-wide gatherings and we’d bring in a consultant and work on some business problems or challenges. One year we brought all our employees from all our offices together and organized a bunch of projects where we could do anything from building shelves to building a shed to cleaning, to cooking meals, to doing landscaping, anything you can imagine that was needed by these organizations. And we organized teams from different offices with people they hadn’t worked with before or they didn’t know before.

It was a great day! The bonds and connections that were formed by working together in a non-office environment, in service to somebody else, to help others, created lasting bonds. We got so much benefit out of it. We helped our community, but we also created connections across offices, which helped tremendously in the future on projects.

For Service Day, we encourage employees to bring their family members or friends, whoever they want to be part of the experience. Last year is the only year we haven’t done in-person Service Day because of the pandemic. So we did the Hallam-ICS Giving Trail instead, but we will be back to the in-person Service Day this fall.

PS: That coworker connection is so important and it’s interesting that you pointed out how it’s really even helping the business side as well. Your company is also focused specifically on children, through its work with the Giving Tree community. What is that group providing and how do they help children in need?

KF: Our Giving Tree committee receives 2% of operational profits every year, to donate to local organizations. Each office receives a share of that 2% and they give it to local organizations that employees are involved with or that they nominate. Our mission is to support to organizations who help children and families in need.

PS: Hallam-ICS is 100% employee-owned as of 2015, so why was it important for the company to make that journey with its employees and how is that investment working to better both?

KF: This goes right back to the first question and the term generosity. Hallam is not about enriching a small group of shareholders. Nor is it about building an organization that can be sold for maximum value for a couple of partners to have their retirement plan. Hallam is built as an organization to benefit all employees. Everyone contributes to the success of the organization, and everyone shares in the wealth created by the organization.

Our employee ownership journey started in 2000. Dave Hallam had done a great job of ownership succession. We had six partners in place, but he was still the majority owner. With Dave’s retirement, we had a large amount of shares that had to be bought out, and we had multiple options. We could select other partners into an internal transaction, we could sell the company and try to maximize our return as partners, or we could look at employee ownership. And it was really a no-brainer for us. Employee ownership was consistent with our values. We’ve always had an ownership culture where everyone felt like this is their company and they want to see it be successful. Creating an ESOP in 2000 provided a financial benefit for employees that supported the existing culture in place. We became 100% employee-owned in 2015 and it’s just been an amazing and wonderful journey.

Having an active social mission is good business. It’s important for every company as more and more research is showing that employees want to work for companies that represent something, that have a purpose and it’s about more than profit.

This story originally appeared in the July 2021 issue of Plant Services. Subscribe to Plant Services here.

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