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Posted: March 19, 2009

17th annual Colorado Ethics in Business Alliance Awards

The power of a greater good is a tonic for tough times

 

When people are focused on keeping their businesses alive and hanging onto their houses, celebrating ethical business practices and community involvement are more important than ever. When headlines chronicle the carnage from Bernie Madoff’s $50 billion Ponzi scheme and politicians lose their coveted Cabinet posts because they “forgot” to pay their taxes, it’s inspiring to hear about people who serve as great role models by heeding their conscience and spreading their compassion.

Ethics in Business Award winner Mike Hommel of Designs by Sundown, a landscape architecture and sprinkler system business, says practicing good ethics has been a primary factor for his company’s success. David Rogers, the chief operating officer of Keller Bros. Auto, another Ethics in Business Winner, says he’s more interested in prospective employees’ sense of empathy that he is about their ability to fix a car. He can teach them that stuff.

Pam Whitaker, executive director of Ronald McDonald House of Denver – the winner of this year’s Samaritan Institute Award, says she most enjoys the gratitude she and her colleagues receive daily by providing a temporary home base for the families of pediatric hospital patients.
Through Character Fort Collins, long-time businessman Robert Powell, honored with the Daniel Ritchie Award, promotes ethical practices to everyone from school children to prison inmates, preaching how they’re a key to success. Harry Lewis, also a recipient of the Daniel Ritchie Award, would appreciate Powell’s work. He says having good mentors growing up – his parents, his teachers, his first professional employers – helped him forge a strong sense of ethics and civic duty.

The Colorado Ethics in Business Award program was founded by the University of Denver, ColoradoBiz and the Samaritan Institute.
Winners are profiled on the following pages. They’ll be honored at the CEBA Awards luncheon on March 26 at the Mariott City Center in downtown Denver. Visit www.ceba.org for details.

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Pam Whitaker, executive director, Ronald McDonald House of Denver


Samaritan Institute Award
RONALD MCDONALD HOUSE OF DENVER

In her role as executive director of Ronald McDonald House of Denver, Pam Whitaker said, “I’m able to hear ‘thanks’ on a daily basis.”
The charity was established in 1979 when it opened a 10-bedroom Victorian at East 16th Avenue and Ogden Street in Denver, becoming the third Ronald McDonald House in the world. Today, the charity – whose primary mission is to provide an affordable “home away from home” for the families of pediatric hospital patients – has served more than 25,000 families.

Many children and their families travel to Denver to take advantage of cutting-edge therapies and procedures offered at regional hospitals for everything from cancer treatment to heart and liver transplants. Some stay for a few nights, others stay for years. In 2007, the Denver Ronald McDonald House families came from 25 states and five countries.

Whitaker joined the charity 18 years ago and has led it as it has grown and relocated from its first house to 76 beds in two modern locations, a 45,000-square-foot facility across from the former Children’s Hospital complex in Denver and a 76,000-square-foot facility at the Fitzsimons campus in Aurora. The houses, which offer multiple kitchens, laundry rooms, and living and play areas — including one play area large enough to ride a bike in — are full every night of the year. Volunteers prepare two meals a day for families, and many other services are provided, including transportation to and from appointments. The charity requests a $15 per night donation to offset operating expenses, as it costs about $76 per night to operate each room. But nobody must pay to stay there. The Ronald McDonald House of Denver also offers Sky High Hope Camp every summer for 90 children with cancer.   

Carol Wright, a volunteer for the charity, nominated Ronald McDonald House and Pam Whitaker for the Colorado Ethics in Business Alliance Award. “In this day and age, nonprofits turn over their staffs frequently,” said Wright, who manages community involvement for Xcel Energy and has volunteered at Ronald McDonald House of Denver for about six years. “I’m amazed by how many people employed there have stayed there a good number of years. I believe the mission is part of what drives that, and how the organization is run is a part of that, too — and that falls on Pam.”

While there are now 285 Ronald McDonald House charities worldwide, each is its own 503(c) organization. McDonald’s Corp.provides some financial support, but the Denver charity largely relies on the generosity of the community at large. Over the past decade, it has undergone two capital campaigns to build its houses, and each year, it hosts fundraising events including a golf tournament, a holiday benefit and a spring ball gala. Third-party fundraisers, individual donations and grant money add to its bottom line, which remarkably is debt-free.
Through the years, Whitaker said, “I’ve felt privileged to work with so many great staff members and families.” Being awarded the Samaritan Institute Award was the “perfect 30th anniversary present” for the charity, she said. 
— Mary Butler

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Ethics in Business Award
KELLER BROS. AUTO

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David Rogers, chief operating officer, Keller Bros. Auto

At Keller Bros. Auto, the mantra driven home to employees is “to teach, never to sell,” and that philosophy has helped the Littleton shop grow to an operation with 11 service bays and 23 full-time employees who service more than 700 cars per month. The business’ roots go back to 1974 when Terry Keller purchased Southglenn Texaco. In 1995 he purchased the shop location at 250 E. Dry Creek Road where it operates today. Although Terry and his wife, Margret, remain the owners, David Rogers has been the chief operating officer since 1998 and handles the shop’s day-to-day operations. Rogers also serves as a consultant for other auto shop owners across the country, instructing them on ways to improve their businesses.

In explaining the ethics at Keller Bros. Auto, Rogers elaborates on the teaching-rather-than-selling philosophy. “It’s simple,” Rogers says. “All we really do is focus on illuminating the truth and the cause, as well as all the options each person may have in regard to their vehicle and whatever repairs or maintenance it might need. We train our staff members to become educators rather than good salespeople. We trust customers to be intelligent enough to make the right decisions if they have all the facts. The key is making sure they do have all the facts.”
Keller Bros. goes to some impressive lengths to illuminate those car-repair truths, as Rogers puts it. That includes showing customers relevant websites, sending them digital photos of areas in need of repair, or inviting them into the service area where the car is elevated to show what was done. Sometimes a completed job is even taken apart to demonstrate a repair to a customer.

“Long gone are the days of the grease monkey,” Rogers says. “Our team members are all highly educated, considerate human beings. Each of them has a natural desire to help other people. I’ve run this for 12 years, and I haven’t got one employee in there you wouldn’t be comfortable handing your house keys and your infant child to. I mean they’re just that kind of human being.” Originally Terry Keller ran the business with a younger brother, who went on to pursue other business interests. Hence the name “Keller Bros.”

Rogers says prospective employees are interviewed three times before they even step foot in the shop for a personal interview. Once they pass the initial interviews, they undergo a personality test to further assess whether they’re a good fit for Keller Bros. Auto. Rogers explains, “I can train them, I can teach anyone how to fix a car. But no one can train you to care about people. That’s a character trait, and it’s my job to find and hire those people who feel that way, who have the potential to become a great technician or a great adviser or manager. It’s an honor to have this wonderful team of people recognized for their commitment and the hard work they’ve done.”
—  Mike Taylor

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Daniel R. Ritchie Award
HARRY LEWIS

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Harry Lewis

Ask Harry Lewis about how he developed his sense of ethics, and he has no grand theory. He had great mentors, he says. “I learned about ethical conduct in undergraduate school and through good parenting,” says Lewis, who earned a bachelor’s degree in art history from Dartmouth College and an MBA from Dartmouth’s Amos Tuck School of Business. “Mentors count for a lot in your life as far as what type of business practices you adopt.”

Lewis, 76, remembers having to spend time as a college student interviewing Harvey Hood of H.P. Hood & Sons as part of a class project. The Boston-based dairy had been accused of price fixing in the 1950s, and the school used the incident to teach business ethics as part of a pilot program. Those lessons were reinforced when he went to work as an accountant for Peat, Marwick, Mitchell & Co. in Denver in 1958 following two years of service in the U.S. Navy. “They made sure no lying or cheating was going on and put some clients out of business,” says Lewis, who grew up in Denver.

Sitting down to talk with Lewis at the Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce offices downtown, it’s hard to know where to start. The longtime Colorado resident is one of those city leaders whose civic resume tells as much about the history of Denver as it does about him. In 1967, he joined a task force designed to resurrect the city’s streetcar system that became the Regional Transportation District. His stint since 1979 as a trustee for the Denver Museum of Nature & Science led him to help create the Scientific & Cultural Facilities District, the taxing structure that supports nonprofit entities throughout the Front Range. His current board memberships include Downtown Denver Inc. and the Stapleton Foundation, to name just a couple.

These days, Lewis runs an investment firm from his home, but he spent most of his career as a certified public accountant, including a long stint with Boetcher & Co., where he was hired by E. Warren Willard, a man he considers one of his most important mentors and the person who pushed him to get involved in civic affairs. “I really learned how important the nonprofit world and community activities can be,” Lewis said.
Lewis left Boetcher in the early ’80s to work for Dain Bosworth Inc., where he served as senior vice president and was a member of the New York Stock Exchange. He started his own investment firm in 1989.

Hart Axley, president of the Colorado Ethics in Business Alliance, nominated Lewis, whom he met nearly 50 years ago when both men served on Colorado ski patrols. Axley and Lewis share a passion for the arts and cultural groups Lewis helped support through his work on the Boetcher Foundation. “He’s spent a long time doing things for Denver and Colorado that have really done a great deal to enhance the enjoyment of Denver and Colorado for all of us who live here and for the people who have visited here,” Axley said.
— Mike Cote

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Daniel L. Ritchie Award
ROBERT POWELL

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Robert Powell

After 40 years as a successful businessman, Daniel L. Ritchie Award winner Robert Powell looks back on his career and sees a missing link – the link between success and personal ethics. Eight years ago Powell retired from his business career and began seeking an organization to involve himself with in the Fort Collins area. That year he attended a national convention for the Character First organization, and was so inspired by his experience that he decided to start a spinoff group known as Character Fort Collins.

Today, Character Fort Collins stands as the model for character-building organizations across the country, having trained and interacted with thousands of individuals in the Fort Collins area – from police officers, to business owners, to elementary school students, to prison inmates.
“At the end of a 40-year business career, despite all the training I did, I realized that I never once was taught about good character,” Powell said. “I only discovered the missing link after I retired from my business.”

Powell, who was formally trained in business ethics and even taught a business ethics course on a voluntary basis, said that prior to his exposure to Character First he had never regarded personal ethics as the foundation for character or success. Instead, business ethics seemed merely to be the adherence to some established code, he said. “I realized that a lot of the problems and challenges I faced in business, I would have taken a different approach, and likely been successful,” he said.  “We’re a very outcomes-based society,” Powell said. “Because of this, people see this as the only way that they’re going to meet their goals. And this leads to character compromise.”

There seems to be a constant focus on business gains and personal achievement, he said. And this creates a very prevalent drive to cheat in the classroom or at work; also to perceive good character as a liability, rather than an asset, Powell said. Between 2001 and 2007, Powell served as the founder and president of Character Fort Collins. The organization adopted 49 specific character traits that, to Powell, help define good character in individuals – including initiative, responsibility, creativity and compassion. Since this time, Character Fort Collins has grown into Character Colorado, with which Powell is still very active behind the scenes. He even donated $50,000 to make the executive director position with Character Fort Collins a paid position.

“The more you work with Bob, the more you realize that he has one of the most sincere approaches to the enhancement of good character of anyone that you would hope to meet,” said Character Fort Collins Board Member Bonnie Titley. Powell is a man who embodies the qualities at the heart of Character Fort Collins, Titley said. After almost 20 years of working with him, Titley has come to admire Powell and appreciate all of the projects that he has become involved in, she said. “Let’s just put it this way: Bob Powell is an ethical man, and there is no need to embroider,” Titley said.
Dan Ray

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Ethics in Business Award
DESIGNS BY SUNDOWN

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Mike Hommel, Designs by Sundown founder

After graduating from Colorado State University with a political science degree in 1984, Mike Hommel wanted to join the FBI. But upon learning the agency expected three years of law-enforcement experience, Hommel rethought his career plans. He launched Sundown Sprinkler Systems in his parents’ garage with two trucks and a couple of college buddies who couldn’t find jobs. Two years later, Hommel expanded the irrigation business to include landscape architecture and changed the company’s name to Designs By Sundown.

Honing his irrigation and landscaping craft in fast-growing Highlands Ranch, the company began migrating in 1994 to the high-end custom market of homes $1 million and up in areas like Cherry Hills Village, Greenwood Village, The Preserve and Castle Pines. Today, the Englewood-based company employs more than 100 people, has about 65 company vehicles on the road and serves about 120 clients a year. To Hommel, ethics is a simple concept. It’s also the biggest reason his company has flourished for nearly 25 years, through one major recession in the mid-80s and amid an even worse economic downturn today.

We do what we say we’re going to do when we say we’re going to do it,” says Hommel, 47. “And we don’t break our promises. It’s so common in the construction industry not to show up when you say you’re going to show up or not do what you say you’re going to do. A company that stands behind its work is so far ahead of the competition.” Quality control is a steeper challenge for a business whose employees primarily are out in the field and not in a central office. For that reason, Hommel says it’s all the more important that he has a team that’s aligned with his business philosophy.

Designs By Sundown has its own warranty department, and it’s typical for the company to visit a job site three or four times during the course of the year after completing a project. “We look at things like dry areas in the turf, plants that are dead, trees that are dead,” Hommel says. “The bottom line is, we take care of those problems.” Hommel calls his fleet of company trucks, all of which are equipped with GPS devices, “moving billboards on the street,” and so it’s vitally important that they reflect positively on the company. Designs By Sundown employs two in-house mechanics to service the fleet.

Over the years, Designs by Sundown and its employees have volunteered for projects such as Habitat for Humanity for which they spent Saturdays and numerous evenings landscaping and installing irrigation systems for homes in an Aurora community; they also renovated the landscape for The Delores Project, a shelter for women requiring assistance in Denver. The last three to five years have been fairly revolutionary for the landscaping industry with the emphasis on sustainable systems and water conservation.

Hommel cites green initiatives such as LEED certification for buildings and says, “We’re trying to spearhead that on the landscape architecture side. We’re real proactive in water management, installing weather-sensitive controllers that only water the landscape when it needs to be watered. The sophistication today is amazing.” Hommel says his high-end clients are surprisingly price conscious and expect to get their money’s worth. “They don’t mind paying a premium for your service, but they want a premium on the quality of product they get and in the service they get,” he says. “They want you to be better educated than the rest of the guns out there. They want to know, ‘What can you do to save me water and make my yard look better and make sure my beds are prepared better and make sure my turf looks good all summer long?’” — Mike Taylor

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