Fred Keller Leads and Lives Sustainability

So there is a method to the madness. One less bill means more money toward Keller's other projects, like the Welfare-to-Career program. A successful product within one of the company's primary divisions allows him to fund Triple Quest, a joint venture with Grand Rapids-based equity fund Windquest Group, which markets and sells water filtration and related products to developing countries. While Triple Quest is doing the ultimate good -“ bringing clean water to the masses -“ Keller will admit it is not profitable. At least, not yet.

Hard work, not luck
In case you think he was born lucky, know this: Not everything goes Keller's way. He is quick to admit Cascade struggled through two other attempts before finding a way to successfully employ welfare recipients. He has started and funded divisions that never quite find their spark. And Cascade was among those companies that felt the hit when the automotive industry went into freefall. While some may define these experiences as failures, Keller seems to view them as steps toward a higher end.

Keller believes his company's commitment to the triple bottom line -“ People, Planet and Profit -“ is what has made it shine among competitors.

"When I started the company nearly 40 years ago, there was a real deep desire to demonstrate something about how a company could be successful and be good with and for people at the same time. That came out of my '60s upbringing. That carried with me," Keller said.

So did the lesson that you need to have a basic rulebook for people to follow. Keller describes his standards as guidelines for the greater good. Then, around the 1990s, the term "sustainable" started to pop up within the conversation around environmentally and socially friendly business practices. It was then that Keller, who had already found his own version of "First, do no harm" in terms of corporate culture, truly started to define his strategy.

"We certainly have thought about our purpose as an organization. We've decided as an organization that our purpose is to make a positive impact on society, the environment and be able to make a profit doing that," Keller said. "It's an important element for us as to how that can be a 'both-and' scenario. That sets the tone. And our objective as an organization is to be all about sustainability and innovation so we can have those two working hand in hand."

Cascade started in 1973 with a loan from his father, Grand Rapids businessman Fred M. Keller. Then, Cascade Engineering had six employees and was considered a plastic injection molder. That's a far cry from the Cascade of today, which employs more than 1,000 people through its self-described "family of companies," a group of 14 divisions that range from its Automotive Solutions Group to Cascade Renewable Energy to its newest baby, Cascade for the Home, a line of retail products made from recycled plastic and related materials sold in mega stores including Meijer and Whole Foods.

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