First Person: Commentary from Barry Russell, CEO of Encore Ceramics

| Print |  Email
Thursday, June 01, 2006

{safe_alt_text} Waste not

A small business aims for a big impact on the environment.

By Barry Russell

In 2000, my wife, Debbie, and I started Encore Ceramics. Having just left our successful previous company in a dispute with the financial partners, we were starting our professional lives over in our late 40s. We weren’t finished doing what we loved, so we took the leap and began again. We stayed with our particular expertise: designing and manufacturing handcrafted ceramic tiles. Little did we know what a learning curve lay ahead.

Encore’s first factory just fit in our two-car garage. Undercapitalized, we raced against time and money to develop a process and product for a larger facility. Our business plan said we had one chance: get to $30,000 a month in shipments, fast, with five people.

Energy issues loomed large. We were in Northern California, where the Enron-induced energy crisis was happening. Which day would the brownout happen in our sector? Would we lose a firing? What was all this talk about global climate change, and what was our role in that? If we survived, how would we grow our energy-intensive process? The future of energy seemed tenuous and fraught with challenges to the planet’s health.

Our experience had been to fire with natural gas — once considered “clean-burning.” In the new context, I saw that if we used gas we would be depleting a fossil fuel, while at the same time emitting greenhouse gases (GHGs) directly into the atmosphere. On the other hand, electricity seemed in short supply but held the promise of one day originating from a clean, renewable source such as wind or solar. The same could not be said of gas.

In 2001, we moved to Oregon, where energy was plentiful (think hydro) and less expensive. Taking our five-person, $30,000-per-month operation to Grants Pass, we set about growing our business nationwide. Our sales climbed, our staff grew; we were on our way. It felt good. Until early 2004, that is, when I opened our power bill.

I still remember the shock. Inside the envelope was a small report. What it said threw me: 78% of the power we used came from burning coal in Utah. I don’t know about you, but when I think about burning coal, what comes to mind is sulfur dioxide and acid rain. A climate-change cocktail. Our little company by then was using 60,000 kilowatt-hours per month, and the growth curve still looked steep. Visions of a brown, overheated earth played in my head as I imagined a conversation with a future grandchild. “Grandpa, why didn’t you do something? Didn’t you care about me?” It was time to do something.

Scrambling, I launched a nearly full-time effort to obtain the largest solar photovoltaic setup I could get. If we needed so much power, we’d just generate it ourselves. I soon realized that even a $1 million system would provide only 30% of our usage. Undaunted, I searched for $1 million. The Department of Energy financed these systems, I was told. Their representative took our application and not-so-politely rejected it, saying our ratios were upside-down. After two rounds of project downsizing, we asked: “Is there any size project you will finance for us?” “No” was the reply.

This couldn’t be the end. Months of effort could not come to this. That day, our contractor spoke to the president of Bonneville Environmental Foundation, Angus Duncan. He explained our project to Duncan, who seemed to admire our determination. Duncan called me and said, “We have never made a loan like this before, but I have a question for you: How would you like to ‘green’ all the energy your company uses?” When I responded with interest, a unique partnership was born. BEF would lend us money for our project if we would buy their Green Tags to offset the GHGs from the rest of Encore’s energy use: electricity, gas, auto miles and airline seat-miles. And when our system was producing electricity, Bonneville would buy the green attributes of that power from us, adding it to their inventory for customers who similarly “green” their energy.

I couldn’t be happier with the relationship. Surprisingly, our customers love the idea of tile made from clean energy. We received $80,000 in tax credits and an Energy Trust grant of $35,000 for installing our system. Our company’s operations are “climate neutral.” Two years from now our photovoltaic system will be fully paid for, and it is guaranteed for 25 years.

Consider this: For March and April 2006, our manufacturing was up 30% over 2005 but our imported electricity was down 6%. This gives me hope for the future. Our monthly purchase of Green Tags is developing an infrastructure of wind and solar energy projects. I no longer worry about our growing business. And our customers love it.

If we’ve learned one thing from our years in business, it’s this: Wherever you put your attention, you will soon see improvement. Where is your attention? Isn’t it time you do something about your energy use?

 

More Articles

See How They Run

January-Powerbook 2015
Friday, December 12, 2014
BY LINDA BAKER

Studying ground-running birds, a group that ranks among nature's speediest and most agile bipedal runners, to build a faster robot.


Read more...

Live, Work, Play: Amen Teter

February 2015
Tuesday, January 27, 2015
BY JACOB PALMER

Catching up with Amen Teter, Portland-based global director of action sports for Octagon Olympics & Action sports talent agency.


Read more...

Convention Wisdom

February 2015
Monday, January 26, 2015
BY KIM MOORE

After more than a decade of wrangling, construction on a convention center hotel in Portland is slated to start this summer. But debate over project financing continues.


Read more...

Finding a Balance

Contributed Blogs
Thursday, January 29, 2015
012915-passinvst-thumbBY JASON NORRIS | OB GUEST BLOGGER

Active vs. passive investing: what you need to know.


Read more...

Tackling the CEO-worker pay gap

January-Powerbook 2015
Thursday, December 11, 2014
BY OREGON BUSINESS STAFF

An SEC rule targets the disparity between executive and employee compensation, reigniting a long-standing debate about corporate social responsibility.


Read more...

Editor's Letter: Tortoise and the Hare

February 2015
Monday, January 26, 2015

The day after this issue goes to press, the city of Medford will host its annual business conference. The event features Minoli Ratnatunga, co-author of the Milken Institute’s annual “Best-Performing Cities” report. Preliminary data suggests that Medford is likely to retain its No. 1 ranking among best-performing small cities for having a higher concentration of high-tech firms than the national average. 


Read more...

Taking the lead in boosting Oregonians’ health and strengthening our economy

Contributed Blogs
Thursday, January 08, 2015
0108-injection-thumbBY CAMBIA HEALTH SOLUTIONS & OREGON BUSINESS COUNCIL | OP-ED

Businesses have a significant stake in the health of Oregonians. In fact, we cannot succeed without it. By committing to using our companies as levers for good health, we invest in our people, our business, our quality of life and our economy. 


Read more...
Oregon Business magazinetitle-sponsored-links-02
SPONSORED LINKS