WisBiz People: Enviro Leader Pushes ‘Green’ Business

This is a new edition of WisBiz People, a column from WisBusiness Editor Brian Clark. If you know someone with a good business story to tell, write to [email protected] with your idea.

By Brian E. Clark

MADISON – But for a near fatal traffic accident that left John Imes with a broken neck, he might never have read Rachel Carson’s "Silent Spring."

He might never have led QuadGraphics’ recycling efforts or become executive director of the Wisconsin Environmental Initiative (WEI), a business-backed group whose aim is to improve the state’s economy and ecology.

And Imes might never have opened, with his wife Cathie, Arbor House, an inn that has won national acclaim for its eco-friendly design, use of recycled materials and energy efficiency.

The couple married in 1986 and have four children. They opened Arbor House in 1994.

"I’m lucky to even be alive," says Imes, 43, whose personal and professional motto is "doing well by doing good."

Imes garners praise from both corporate and green quarters. However, enthusiasm for his work varies in the environmental community.

"Some might say I’m too cozy with corporations," says Imes, who makes no apologies about working closely with the business community.

"But I’m not worried about that. I just want to be judged on whether we are producing a better environment and better economic outcomes. The two are not incompatible."

Don Last, a former president of 1,000 Friends of Wisconsin, calls Imes a "master" at getting disparate groups to sit down at the same table to attempt to work out solutions.

"WEI has a unique niche and John does a great job running it," said Last, a WEI board member. "Too often, business and environmental groups talk past each other. John works to bring them together.

"Moreover, he walks the talk with his own enterprise," says Last. "He’s been able to test the best environmental principles in design and operation and make it a bonus for his business. That inn is the greenest of green."

Richard Lehmann, a partner at the Boardman Law Firm and current chair of the WEI board, calls Imes a "gem."

"He’s a real innovator," he says. "He started as an environmental compliance officer at QuadGraphics and took that company to a position of national prominence for cutting waste and recycling.

"He lives and breathes what he believes in," Lehmann says. "Wisconsin is lucky to have him."

Caryl Terrell, director of the Sierra Club’s John Muir chapter, describes the Imes’ Arbor Inn as a "wonderful, environmentally friendly place" that her group has used for meetings and to board visitors.

She also says the WEI has produced useful reports about environmental issues affecting businesses.

"WEI plays a role, but I would not call it an environmental group (like the Sierra Club)," she says.

"It is a forum for people with environmental concerns in the business community, government and community organizations to talk about issues from a business perspective," she says.

As head of WEI, Imes worked in partnership with the Madison Area Builders Association to create the green-built home initiative. The program certifies residential home construction that meets a lengthy checklist of sustainable building and energy standards. Currently, WEI is working with 45 builders, including Veridian Homes, the state’s largest.

"My hope is that this program will spread throughout the Wisconsin and become mainstream," he says. "We were the first green-built program east of the Mississippi. The National Association of Builders now has green-building guidelines.

"In the Madison area, every Veridian home is green-built. There is a hell of a lot of residential construction going on around here and I’m proud that we have been able to reduce the environmental footprint of home building while creating market distinction for companies.

"I think that Wisconsin has a branding opportunity in that area," he says. " After all, we are the state of John Muir, Aldo Leopold and Gaylord Nelson."

If it weren’t for his car accident in 1982, Imes might have stayed in the restaurant business and never made the jump to a job where he energetically promotes everything from clean air, triple-glazed windows, waste reduction and non-toxic paints to greywater reuse and sod roofs.

His group – as part of statewide Green Tier efforts – pushes corporate responsibility while working to reduce the regulatory burden on businesses that have a track record of meeting – or exceeding – government environmental standards.

"There are turning points in every person’s life and that crash was definitely one for me," says Imes, who was returning from a deer-hunting trip when a drunk driver hit him.

"It was during my recovery that I read my grandparents’ copy of ‘Silent Spring.’ That helped redirect my life."

Directly out of high school in 1980, Imes stood in line with 6,000 people hoping for a job with the new Hyatt Hotel in downtown Milwaukee.

Luck was with him and he, along with 600 others, got work.

"It was a hard time to be looking for a job, so I was really happy that I landed work at the nicest hotel in the state," he says.

Eventually, Imes rose to a management position. But he was often working 70-hour weeks while also taking courses at both Marquette University and Milwaukee Area Technical College. He eventually earned his degree from Carroll College in environmental management.

"It was a hectic period for me and my accident helped push me down a route that I had been considering," he says.

"It took me 18 months to recover and I had a lot of time to think."

A product of the ’70s, Imes fondly recalls celebrating Earth Day in elementary school.

"I had mentors who were interested in ecology," Imes says. "Also, I was a scout and my dad was into hunting and fishing. I remember drawing pictures of outfall pipes dumping pollution into lakes and thinking what a bad thing that was."

So Imes switched gears and entered a management-training program at QuadGraphics, run by the late Harry Quadracci.

"I went from being the beverage manager at Hyatt who was responsible for 25 people to working at the end of a binder bagging ‘True Story’ magazines," he says, chuckling.

"But I had great exposure to Harry Quadracci, who was a real visionary," he says.

Most of the QuadGraphics trainees ended up in sales, but Imes followed his heart and became the firm’s environmental manager.

"I thought it was an area where I could add value to the business," says Imes. "When I joined the company, it was doing a pretty good job with resources and recycling, but it wasn’t a strategic value."

But Imes got Quadracci’s attention with what Imes’ calls a couple of "home runs" from both an environmental and economic standpoint.

In the first homer, Imes convinced printers to filter and recycle unused ink and cut the number of waste drums from 16 a month to one at the Pewaukee Plant. When the program was implemented company-wide, it saved QuadGraphics $500,000 the first year.

"The printers – who became champions for this – liked it because it increased profit-sharing from $3.5 million to $4 million and I liked it because it was saving resources. Upper management, obviously, liked it, too, because it cut storage and disposal costs besides saving money."

The second winner was a pallet repair program. Instead of dumping 60,000 broken pallets a year in landfills and replacing them at $6 a pop, the company instituted a program to repair them at $2 each. That saved another cool $500,000 annually.

"Harry thought this was an area where our company could lead and it took off," says Imes, who became active with a group called Business for Social Responsibility.

"Recycling, waste reduction and thinking green became a priority for all management units. Why we even had a recycling mascot, ‘Gruff’ the goat, who had his own email and company newsletter."

Nor did it hurt that in 1990, the head of the Times Mirror Corp., with which QuadGraphics did no small amount of business, announced that the environment was his primary concern, Imes recalls.

"It was a very satisfying job," says Imes, he says. "I really enjoyed it and got to do a lot, including fly around the country in a Learjet to talk to major publishers about what we doing.

"Even if we didn’t get always a printing contract, I think we raised the bar for environmental standards throughout the industry."

But Imes was feeling another pull. He and his wife wanted to start a family. And living in a condo – where the managers were probably over-fertilizing the lawn – didn’t allow him to practice what he preached in his own back yard.

He also had become intrigued with the Minnesota Environmental Initiative – which was launched in 1992 – and wanted to help create something like it in the Badger State.

In 1994, he and his wife – who was then an advertising executive in Milwaukee – bought the old Plough Inn on Madison’s west side. It is on Monroe Street, directly across from the 1,280-acre University of Wisconsin Arboretum.

The couple figured running an inn and raising children were compatible. Besides, Cathie had a business development plant that she had done as part of her MBA.

The somewhat dog-eared Plough Inn, a former tavern and stagecoach stop that dates to 1853, became the Arbor House, an urban environmental inn.

"The Plough Inn had a somewhat colorful reputation dating back to its early days," Imes recalls. "In fact, its nickname was the ‘Plough Inn and Stagger Out.’"

They saw potential in the property and the opportunity to offer high-quality hospitality and showcase eco-efficient design, technology and practices. Rates range from $110 to $230 a night.

They purchased the place with $60,000 in savings and money from the sale of their Pewaukee condo. They remodeled the inn and within two years had added a 3,600-square-foot annex. That gave them a total of eight rooms, plus 1,100-square feet for their young family.

"Arbor Inn is a scratch test," Imes says.

"It’s not theory. We got a chance to practice what we preach here. Nearly everything about this place is green. We got the opportunity here to dispel the myth that building green costs more and results in other compromises."

Though the annex is 20 percent larger than the original Plough Inn, it uses only half the energy because of its passive solar design and other energy saving features.

Each room at the inn has an environmental theme. Bathrooms have low-flush toilets and low-flow showerheads and offer natural personal care products in refillable containers. The inn uses recycled floor and bathroom tiles, organic cotton and wool mattresses and energy-efficient fixtures. The great room of the annex is framed with large Douglas Fir timbers and the lawns have been turned into displays of native grasses, flowers and ponds.

And the sauna? It’s also made with recycled wood.

Cathie runs the inn with a five-member staff and John pitches in when he’s not occupied with his job running WEI, which he helped launch in 1995. After the couple bought the inn, John commuted and carpooled from Madison to his job at QuadGraphics for several more years. He eventually grew weary of the drive.

So when the WEI director left in 1998, he took the position. He was serving as the group’s board chairman at the time.

"Arbor House was doing well, so I was able to take a salary cut of 50 percent to switch careers," he said.

"Sure it cost me money, but I gained a lot in other ways. Instead of commuting 140 miles a day about four days a week, I changed to a 3-mile bike ride.

" I also gained 20 hours a week to spend with my family, so I’m not complaining," he said. "I found a way to strike a balance I my life. I’m a pretty fortunate guy."