South Mountain Company
Green for the Planet, Green for the Workers – South Mountain Company (SMC) is a multi-faceted employee owned company offering integrated architecture, engineering, building, and renewable energy services to residential, commercial, and institutional clients. SMC combines youthful exuberance with diverse expertise and four decades of experience.
From its founding in 1975, SMC has slowly and deliberately grown to a $10M company with 32 employees. An employee owned cooperative, two thirds of the employees are owners and the rest are on an ownership track. SMC is also a certified B-Corp (Benefit Corporation), meaning it serves a triple bottom line, emphasizing social and environmental progress as well as profits. The company has been selected by B Lab as one of the “Best for the World”, and this year the Great Places to Work Institute named SMC as one of the best small workplaces in the country.
Founder and CEO John Abrams explains, “In the beginning it wasn’t even about business—just about satisfying our passion for design and construction. Now, after nearly 40 years, we are transitioning to Generation Two. People who have spent their careers here are retiring; younger people are replacing them. We are deeply engaged in the work of planning the next 40 and building a multi-generational cooperative.”
As a company, SMC is committed to the Next Economy, and doing its part to deal with the effects of the two great scourges of our time: climate change and income inequality. Part of that effort is membership in the American Sustainable Business Council and supporting ASBC work in the policy arena to create change around issues that are important to SMC. Those issues include two things that directly affect the company: worker ownership and climate change.
SMC maintains a maximum of a 4 to 1 ratio between its highest and lowest earners. In addition to what VP and COO Deirdre Bohan calls “the best benefits on the planet,” SMC awards two forms of profit sharing in ways that partially mitigate the hierarchical wage scale. Each year 35% of net profits are distributed in cash to all employees based on hours worked rather than income. All Owners also share annually in equity dividends that are backed up by an equity fund that is carefully managed in socially responsible investments. Equity obligations to current and former owners (retirees are paid out over a period of eight years after leaving the company) are over $2,000,000.
In 2012, the company began to quantify and measure its overall carbon footprint, with the goal of reducing it over time in a documented, intentional way and eventually becoming a Zero Energy, Zero Waste company. SMC assumed templates for this would be easy to access, and was therefore surprised to find no small companies were doing this work. A methodology was assembled, data was gathered, and SMC continues to measure and reduce their waste and energy use each year.
The company’s focus continues to be zero energy buildings (net energy producers), deep energy retrofits (bringing existing buildings to 21st century performance standards in terms of energy use, durability, health, and comfort), and renewable energy installations (residential, commercial, and institutional solar electric).
Nearly four decades after its seat-of-the-pants beginnings, SMC is still small enough, by design, to stay closely connected to its roots, to do business on a handshake, to all gather in one room, to know each other as people and not only as co-workers, and to recognize one another as collaborators in pursuit of multiple goals.And small as it is, SMC makes a difference.
For their employees, employee/owners, and families, the company is a life-support system and a refuge of good feeling, good livelihood, and meaning.
For their region, the company creates models for local endeavors and initiatives in high performance affordable housing, renewable energy, and economic development.
For the world—whichever small parts with which they come in contact—SMC is a beacon, a traveler and a trailblazer along the path to a positive future. A number of other companies have made transitions to democratic structures after becoming familiar with the SMC story.
It’s a story the employees embrace. As one employee-owner said in a recent survey, “There is a very strong sense of all-for-one and one-for-all.” Another wrote: “Outstanding opportunities are given to employees to shape and change their job descriptions and roles within the company. It is a ‘choose your own adventure’ experience. Dream it and make it happen.”