Building a Community

Renee Brown, president and CEO of C.W. Brown Inc., has taken her business from a two-person enterprise in the basement of her starter home to a $40 million plus company with more than 75 employees, including both office staff and field staff. Founded in 1984 by Brown and her husband, Charlie, C.W. Brown is headquartered in Armonk, New York, and focuses on commercial interior alteration and renovation work in the biotech/laboratory, healthcare/hospital, education, and corporate/commercial sectors. Brown attributes her business’s success and longevity to her employees and company culture.

“I don’t like people saying ‘You work for me,’ or ‘This is my boss.’ We work together,” says Brown. “Our culture is something that I’m really passionate about. It’s something that we really work to cultivate.” And they have a good track record with their employees—several have been with the company for more than 20 years.

Employees with Options

About five years ago, C.W. Brown became an employee-owned company. Employees presently own 10 percent of the business under the employee stock option plan. “We wanted all of our employees to feel like they are actually part of the company, that they have input, that their voice matters,” says Brown.

During the recent recession, Brown found herself facing some hard decisions about the future of her business. “One thing that you always can say about the construction industry is that the highs are high and the lows are low,” she says. In 2009, the company had an aggressive five-year growth plan. “We had everything in place, and we were ramping up, and then the economy really went south. So, we had to refocus. We had to pull back. We had to readjust our expectations, knowing that our original plan wasn’t going to happen within five years, and now it was a matter of what we’re going to maintain.”

Brown knew that in order to keep the company going, there would have to be some cuts, but she didn’t want to have to cut jobs. For money-saving ideas, she asked her team. “We put it out to the employees: ‘We’re struggling. You all know that the economy is bad. What would you like to see happen? How would you like to help us cut overhead?’” Their suggestions included everything from losing the Yankees season tickets and stopping the company-bought lunches to cutting gas allowances in half and paying ten percent of their own health insurance. Some team members even took voluntary pay cuts so no one would lose their jobs.

Their ideas worked, and 2011 was a profitable year for C.W. Brown, and 2012 looks optimistic, too. Right now, says Brown, “I’m looking for the next five-year plan. I’m focusing on trying to build a young team. We’ve had years that were challenging, but we’re clearly moving in a positive direction.”

Focus on Community

While they’ve worked with clients like BioMed Realty Trust, PepsiCo, and Dannon, the company is recognized locally for their corporate responsibility efforts. Several times a year, the employees work together and spend time helping out local not-for-profits, and the company also supports its employees’ philanthropic efforts, whether that be by participating in charitable projects or matching donations. Instead of giving clients holiday gifts each year, the staff choose an organization, and the company makes a donation and also spends a day volunteering with the organization. Previous charities C.W. Brown has been involved in include The Andrus Children’s Center (the company spent a day demolishing and rebuilding their kitchen) and a women’s shelter called My Sister’s Place (the company redid their bathrooms, and helped paint and lay new carpet).

Social responsibility is such a core value, in fact, that they’ve turned down potential employees who, although talented, didn’t fit in with the charitable mindset of the company culture. Brown recalls an interview for a senior position with the company, where the candidate was well known and respected within the local industry. Says Brown, “There was no doubt about his qualifications, but the one thing that kind of struck a chord was when we asked him how he felt about community service, and he was like, ‘Oh, no. I don’t bother with that kind of stuff.’ We said, ‘Next!’”

In order to get the right people on board, Brown asks specific questions during interviews, such as “What gets you out of bed in the morning?” “What motivates you?” and, of course, “How do you feel about community service?” “I think it all goes back to culture. Obviously, you want to bring in the most qualified candidate,” says Brown. “But it really all comes down to the fit.”

Taking the LEED

C.W. Brown’s commitment to social responsibility also extends to the environment. For their current office space, they gutted and rebuilt the interior to make it LEED Platinum certified (verified by the U.S. Green Building Council). The construction was done entirely in-house, a project that took only 88 days. Brown and her team felt that it was important to do the construction work themselves, so they could use the experience as a basis for future work with their clients who are interested in green construction.

“We were actually the first LEED Platinum certified building outside of New York City, within New York State,” says Brown. “We don’t expect everybody to do that. We hope that our clients and strategic partners will take a look at what we’ve done and will find a way to incorporate what works best for them. There are a lot of ways to become more sustainable that don’t significantly impact your budget.”