This Family Business Has Helped Clean Up Industry for Generations
This post celebrating a timeless small business is brought to you by GOOD, with support from UPS. We’ve teamed up to bring you the Small Business Collaborative, a series sharing stories about innovative small businesses that are changing business as usual for their communities and beyond. Learn how UPS is helping small businesses work better and more sustainably here.
Mindful consumption means things like buying local, finding goods made from recycled products, avoiding excess packaging. But when we consider the toll of human activity on the planet, our storeroom choices hardly stack up to the massive outputs of industry—how we produce power or run our factories. Our most powerful machines can discharge pollution, spray oil, and grind with a cacophony of noise that punishes those whose labor supports our economy. Yet in the context of such grand machinery, it’s the little things—filters, scrubbers and silencers—that can dramatically change impacts.
In the village of Itasca, Illinois, on the northwest outskirts of Chicago, there is a family business that has been cleaning up industry for generations. In 1966, Charlie “The Cheese” Solberg, Sr. was a salesman working a job selling electric motors. He realized that there was a market for an improved filter design and invented a filter silencer for air compressors. This launched what became Solberg Manufacturing, now a registered B Corp that produces blowers, fans, and ventilation systems that limit emissions potentially hazardous to both the environment and employees.
Today, Solberg Manufacturing’s product line spans multiple industries. A range of high-quality scrubbers, separators and filters improve the efficiency of natural gas compression equipment. According to Travis Solberg, Corporate Social Responsibility Manager, the company does plenty of sales in the oil niche market, adapting crank-shafts or turbines that otherwise lose oil as exhaust. Now thanks to new governmental regulations, “companies are more attuned to their environmental impact. So companies will purchase products which will help collect 99 percent of the oil that would be emitted and actually recycles it back into the equipment.” That recycling of oil not only stems emissions, but saves Solberg’s customers money by allowing them to reuse what would otherwise be lost.
This is how regulations that protect the earth can spur new technologies, and as Solberg Manufacturing has seen over the years, that can be profitable. Brian Salerno, senior portfolio manager and creator of the EcoLogical portfolio at Huntington National Bank supports this notion, saying that “If there’s one thing we can gather from the past is that regulations get tougher and tougher and tougher over time, especially with regard to the environment. And that’s a good thing.” It’s good for the planet, but as Salerno points out, those who go above and beyond to clean up their businesses “are making an investment in their future that will protect them from future regulations, especially versus competition.”
Through its products, Solberg Manufacturing tries to balance industrial growth with environmental responsibility. As government incentives help grow the conversion of landfill gas to electricity, Solberg’s products remove particulates from gas so that it burns cleanly. One of the company’s biggest markets is power generation, supplying component parts for solar panels, and crankcase ventilation for gearboxes and turbines for the wind and hydroelectric industries. Solberg recently started supplying filters to the steel-making industry to eliminate discharge pollution, through a process that also substantially reduces operating costs. The company expects this market to double in sales this year.
But sales aren’t the company’s only metric. According to Travis Solberg, starting with his grandfather Charlie, it’s become part of the company’s ethos to consider how their products will affect future generations. Rather than holding the company accountable to a triple-bottom line, Solberg Manufacturing uses a P7 Tree: people, planet, power, product, philanthropy, property, and prosperity. Says Travis, “We use it every year now to measure our success.”
During the worst of the recession, most companies connected to manufacturing took their lumps, and Solberg Manufacturing was not untouched. Yet, notes Travis Solberg, “During the recession, we cut zero jobs, but once we started feeling something coming” the company temporarily eliminated overtime, some had reduced hours. “But,” Solberg repeats the point with an air of significance in his voice, “no one lost their jobs.”
It’s a company that seems to genuinely care about its staff. The company runs a garden club open to all employees, encouraged its workers to participate in an eight-week pedometer program, and dozens of employees participated in the company’s “Don’t Gain, Maintain” weight program over the holidays last year.
It’s also a mindful workplace. Each year, one percent of pre-tax sales are donated to charity. Last year, 90 percent of Solberg Manufacturing’s waste was diverted away from landfills, in part due to recycling and reusing wood crates and repurposing scrap parts. The company actually insists that if any company ships them crates, the wood must not be chemically treated so that employees who use wood burning stoves can take it home for personal use. All the power for the company’s two facilities is offset with renewable energy. The Energy Star headquarters has over three hundred solar panels and is being readied for LEED certification. With all those layers of care, Solberg Manufacturing has shown how one grandfather’s life philosophy can remain relevant, while their products demonstrate how small-scale components make machines more efficient and industry cleaner.
Image via Solberg Manufacturing. It shows a processing system that converts the methane gas in animal manure to electricity.