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Xavier Magazine | October 26, 2014

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A Different Business Approach

A Different Business Approach
By Skip Tate

Larry Blanford was walking through the hallways of a Catholic high school in Guatemala, checking out how his company’s strategic business plan was working.

The 1984 MBA graduate was president and CEO of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, and carefully etched into the company’s mission and corporate strategy was a goal to, yes, make a lot of money, but also to make sure that its financial success was felt by more than just shareholders.

The people in the small Guatemalan town weren’t just coffee bean pickers. They were human beings who played an integral part in the company’s success. As such, the company felt they should enjoy its rewards as well. So they paid them fair trade wages and provided support for the local school so its workers’ children could get a better education.

As Blanford walked, he was approached by one of the students, a senior, who asked to speak to him. Because of the support his company gave the school, she said, she was accepted into nursing school. She would have to leave the community, but as soon as she received her nursing license she was going to return to the village and give health care to the people.

Today, several years after the fact, Blanford nearly tears up as he retells the story. It was, he says, a transformative moment—a confirmation that his philosophy and approach to corporate leadership were correct. Leadership, he says, is about using business to make the world a better place. Make a lot of money and then share the rewards. “Do good by doing well,” he says.

During his six years at the helm of Green Mountain, he not only put such beliefs into practice by implementing everything from fair trade practices to packaging its products in biodegradable bags, but he also changed how analysts understand this idea of helping others. Rather than continue with the common terminology of “corporate social responsibility,” he changed it to “sustainable business practices.” The first, he says, is more secondary in nature, something done as an aside to the business, while the latter implies that the idea of helping others is not only built into the business mission but is required for long-term survival. Although he admits his approach to business is “somewhat different from how business is frequently done today,” he in no way admits that his approach is wrong. Quite the contrary, in fact. And he’s not alone in that belief. Corporate Responsibility Magazine recognized him as the Responsible CEO of the Year—twice. 

That’s not to say he overlooked the foundational aspects of business. Hardly. He grew Green Mountain at a compounded annual rate of 75 percent, with sales quadrupling to $1.4 billion in just three years and the stock price growing 1,500 percent during that time. 

But maintaining a moral compass in a world where money is god can be daunting. “A failure of values can lead to egocentric, unethical leaders,” he says. “That invites stifling regulations and increased costs. I would say that a majority of CEOs are trying to do the right thing. But every one of them has the power to do what’s right. That’s why teaching values to business students needs to be the foundation of their education. It’s critical for business and for the country.”

For Blanford, such a belief came from the collection of experiences he gained—in part—during his climb up the corporate ladder. He actually began as a chemical engineer for Procter and Gamble but became intrigued with business. That led him into a variety of management positions including, eventually, the head of several businesses. He was president of Maytag Appliances, Philips Consumer Electronics and Royal Group Technologies before being tapped for the Green Mountain position.

“I was learning and growing all along the way,” he says. “By the time I got to Green Mountain, I was in a unique position to bring to bear all of the experiences I gained from all of the companies where I was CEO.”

But his business beliefs were equally formed during his days in Catholic school in suburban Dayton, Ohio, and in church.

“Somehow people think you must check your faith at the door when enter the workspace,” he says. “But you have the opportunity to live out faith with every person you interact with. And the Church has much to offer business with its call to advance the condition of the human spirit. We are all called to a greatness greater than ourselves. It’s like Pope Francis reminding us of our responsibility for those less fortunate. Or like the comment [Catholic motivational speaker] Matthew Kelly makes—and I truly believe this—that when you use your talents to help others to be the best they can be, that is a moment of holiness.”

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