Helping hand Featured

8:00pm EDT October 26, 2008

By Brian Horn

With so many charities out there, it could be a challenge for Robert Byers Jr. to choose which ones he and his organization will help.

So, the president and CEO of Byers’ Choice Ltd. sticks to helping those charities directly in the community. He also listens to the suggestions of his 140 employees at the manufacturer of handcrafted holiday gifts.

“Where we really see a need and that we know that we can have some impact — those are really the two criteria and, of course, there is an interest level, as well,” says Byers, whose company posted 2007 revenue of about $20 million.

Smart Business spoke with Byers about how to get your company involved in the community and how doing so can help you retain employees.

Q. How can a leader get his company more involved in the community?

I’ve found that if you take a step forward, capable people taking a step forward to contribute are welcomed with open arms. I think there’s room for a lot more involvement from businesses and other groups within to help out in the community.

If an individual has an interest in something, if they just explore it, they’ll find that their skills will be welcomed and readily utilized.

Q. How do employees factor in to what charities you give to?

In the past, we’ve had a committee of employees here who actually review — they both bring ideas and also review solicitations that come into the company directly. So, they’ll vet which ideas look good or which ones they feel will have the most impact, and those will be ones that we fund.

In the past, they’ve tended to head particularly to organizations that will help needy youths. But, also food pantries and things like that. They are really open to anything. But it’s a voluntary committee that any employee can join and bring ideas to at any given time.

Q. How did you manage the number of people that was on the committee?

There is a bit of a self-selection process because there is not a limit as to how many people can be on it. But ... they meet over lunch and things like that. So, it does require them to give up some of their free time, if you will, and, there are people who they’ll feed in information or ideas. But, we don’t have everyone in the plant saying, ‘Yep, that’s for me.’

Q. Is there a risk in letting employees pick the charities?

I’m sure there is a risk, but, by the same token, the parameter is it has to be a 401c3, so it has to be a legitimate nonprofit.

(Plus), they see so much more of the community than I can see myself. They see where the needs are and, as representatives of Byers’ Choice, I can have so much more impact in the right places if I have 140 sets of eyes and ears out on the street working for me.

By the same token, this gives them a lot of ownership in terms of making really good things happen where they see a need. So, there is a risk, but I think it’s far outweighed by the positives that go along with.

In the past, at times, they may have come across a need for a playground in a community — I may live 20 miles to the east and they live 10 miles to the west — that I would just not even be aware of. They know that this is a good project that the community is putting together that just needs a little bit of help to get up and going. By bringing that project in, they can take ownership of it, and they can take credit of it within their own community.

Q. Is there a business benefit to helping the community?

I do think it comes out not directly but in a couple of ways. One, it helps the reputation of the company, both with our consumers and in the community. We do see benefits from that.

Two, and probably more importantly in this case, is most of our employees feel very, very good about working here, and this is one of the key reasons that they do. They feel that they are doing good work, not only in the work that they create but in the mission of the company, and they’re helping people.

They’re helping build a stronger community. From a morale standpoint, there are definitely positive consequences.

Q. How does community involvement help with recruitment and retention of employees?

It has been a very good recruiting tool for us in the past. We’ve been ranked as one of the top medium-sized companies to work for in Pennsylvania, and that has helped attract people.

A couple of the things that drive that are morale and mission, which this plays into both of them, and our retention rate is very high. We typically don’t lose people very often.

HOW TO REACH: Byers’ Choice Ltd., (215) 822-6700 or www.byerschoice.com