By: Jody Berger Issue: Conscious Capitalism Section: Collaborator Profile
Small Businesses Can Make a Difference
The business started simply enough. A friend of Doug Kirchdorfer’s had taken her car to mechanics all over town, only to be let down and left with a less-than-reliable vehicle. She asked Kirchdorfer to take a look. He fixed the car in his own garage and she told friends. They told their friends and soon, Kirchdorfer had a full-time, full-service car repair business in a rented space.
Two decades later, Doug and Rebecca Kirchdorfer own a thriving business that keeps thousands of Denver drivers on the road. At the same time, the Downing Street Garage looks after the planet, contributes to the community and generates a healthy profit. In other words, it’s a triple bottom line business and the Kirchdorfers have found that each leg of this tripod supports and enhances the others. “The more we grow our revenues, the more resources we can commit to environmental stewardship and corporate social responsibility,” Rebecca said.
In an industry not well known for saving the planet or the neighborhood, the Downing Street Garage has built a growing business by doing both those things.
“We have found out that by doing the right thing, we can attract a customer whose value system equals ours and that customer is willing to pay for it,” Doug said. by doing the right thing, we can attract a customer whose value system equals ours
The environmental stewardship started simply. “We didn’t want to do anything that you could get in trouble for,” Doug said. “I knew you couldn’t dump motor oil but I didn’t know about anti-freeze.”
Doug called the Department of Wastewater to ask. Officials there said it was okay to dump anti-freeze and sent a letter confirming the position. Still, knowing there were heavy metal deposits used in anti-freeze, Doug wondered about the environmental impacts. He knew companies offered to recycle the colored fluid and looked into it.
At the time he was paying $10 gallon for new anti-freeze which he mixed with equal parts water for a $5 gallon final price. If he recycled the fluid, a recycled gallon would cost $3 making the choice an easy one. Recycling was better for the planet and better for the bottom line.
From there, one thing led to another. At a trade association seminar, Doug heard a presentation about recycling oil filters. At the time, the city told him it was okay to drain them and send them to the landfill. But, in the seminar with 30 or so other garage owners, Doug learned of a company that would collect them and recycle the filters for a fee.
“I decided to pass the fee on to customers as a ‘waste removal fee’, and I have never gotten one question about it,” Doug said. “Not to this day, not one question.”
For the Kirchdorfers, keeping oil filters out of the landfill was the right thing to do and when their customers didn’t mind paying for it, the garage-owning couple was encouraged to look for more opportunities to get their business in line with their personal environmental values. Now the Downing Street Garage, a six-bay shop in central Denver, recycles everything it can: anti-freeze, batteries, brake fluid, cardboard, fluorescent lights, Freon, motor oil, newspapers, office paper, scrap metal and transmission fluid.
On some materials, they team with outside recycling companies who come by to pick up the pieces. On others, like motor oil, the Kirchdorfers take care of it themselves.
In 1998, when the Kirchdorfers bought the building they’re in now, they also bought a waste oil furnace to heat the place in the winters. The furnace itself cost no more than a regular furnace and the cost of used motor oil is cheaper than buying natural gas from the local utility. Still, the UL-listed furnace is not exactly cost-neutral. Maintenance on it eats hours of Doug’s time and energy.
“Is the cost worth the benefit?” Doug asked. “You look at it and you know there is an immeasurable benefit to doing the right thing.”
Sometimes that benefit is measurable, or at least wall-mountable. For its environmental stewardship, the Downing Street Garage earned the 2008 Silver Level Designation from Colorado’s Environmental Leadership Program. Customers notice.
“An oil change at our shop, with taxes and fees, costs $52 and someone else might be charging $19.95 but they’re throwing the filter in the dumpster,” Doug explained, “but you know I’m not going to throw it down the drain. And that’s how I make a living doing what I’m doing.”
Every customer has a certain value prospect that’s worth it to spend money on. The example Doug uses is department store jackets. A jacket at Macy’s may be $300 and another at Target could be $100. Customers who value the design or quality or other details about the Macy’s jacket will plunk down the extra $200. And it’s the same in auto repair.
Enough car owners in Denver value Downing Street’s green consciousness and the numerous International Better Business Bureau’s Ethics awards to propel Downing Street Garage to year-after-year-after-year double-digit growth.
And that double-digit growth paves the way for the third leg of the tripod: corporate social responsibility.
The Kirchdorfers liked the mission and method of Habitat for Humanity. They didn’t necessarily want to just write a check but they wanted to offer their unique skills to the non-profit. They called the organization and offered to repair Habitat’s vehicles as an in-kind donation.
The leaders of Habitat agreed. So the Kirchdorchers pulled another business colleague into the deal. “We established an account for Habitat for Humanity with our parts supplier, Havana NAPA,” Rebecca explained. “Now, Habitat gets the parts at wholesale and the labor at no charge.”
The collaboration helps the non-profit and satisfies the Kirchdorfer’s desire to help all while bringing new bodies into the shop. When Downing Street Garage decided to produce 30-second television ads, they asked the site manager from Habitat if he would appear in one. Standing before a Habitat-owned vehicle with the non-profit’s logo on the door, Randy Parker sings the praises of the Downing Street Garage.
Any customer’s whose ‘value prospect’ includes rebuilding communities will now be more likely to enter the garage.
“That’s why partnerships with organizations in the community are so important,” Rebecca said. “Not just donations but actually partnerships where an organization recognizes that the more they help us the more we can help them.”
“The more financially stable we become, the more we can devote our time and attention to environmental stewardship and corporate responsibility.”
Because of the business growth, the Kirchdorfers dedicate many hours a week to helping their community. They’ve developed detailed questionnaires to determine if a non-profit shares their values and, equally important, if the Downing Street Garage and the non-profit can forward each other’s mission.
So far the list of perfect matches includes Brent’s Place… for our kids with cancer, Colorado Public Radio, the Young Americans Center for Financial Education and many others. Undoubtedly, the list will continue to grow.
“How you participate in your world, in your community, it makes a difference,” Rebecca said. Undoubtedly, here too, Downing Street Garage will continue to make a difference.
To learn more about the Downing Street Garage, go to www.DowningStreetGarage.com.
Jody Berger is a writer and communications consultant living in Denver. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.