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Firms invest in going green, expect efforts to improve the bottom line

When Jim Fonzi began making plans to renovate a 40-year-old building in Henrietta, he knew that using environmentally friendly materials and processes was the way to go. 

"It was a decision that was pretty easy to make," says Fonzi, founder and president of Gates Automotive Center, which specializes in automotive repairs, collision repairs and towing service. 

Fonzi says protecting the environment and the health of his workers was a driving force in his decision to go green. Financial benefits have been a bonus, he says. 

Gates Automotive undertook a $4 million project last year with a focus on green improvements, both in the construction of the building and in the processes there. Its sustainability initiatives range from product choices to energy-efficiency efforts. 

Embracing environmentalism is not cheap. Some critics have questioned whether the focus on sustainability might put companies in the red. But Gates Automotive and other local companies have found that going green ultimately improves the bottom line. 

Gates Automotive, which employs 37 people, spent roughly two years researching renovations. It recently finished participating in the Sustainable Global Enterprise Immersion Program of Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management, and staffers worked with MBA students to examine sustainability as a business practice.

Eye on savings 

This year, Gates Automotive introduced a waterborne paint that has the lowest percentage of solvents of all paints currently used for vehicles. While the product costs upwards of 25 percent more, Fonzi says the health benefits for employees and the reduced impact on the environment are worth it. It also results in an overall cost saving because it cuts the process time from 45 minutes to 20 minutes, requiring only one coat instead of several. 

The paint, produced by Sherwin Williams Co., is used in a temperature-controlled clean room. The room is designed to speed the baking process once a car is painted, thus greatly reducing the amount of energy needed to complete the process. 

The new building also uses systems that help to reduce the building’s energy consumption by 80 percent. 

Fonzi estimates the equipment investments made at the new facility could increase productivity by 40 percent, even though some of the changes involved a sizable investment up front. 

Light fixtures, for example, cost perhaps $150 apiece, while a more traditional light would be roughly $75. However, Gates Automotive is able to take advantage of state rebate incentives for using more environmentally responsible products, and the rebates can slash the cost nearly in half. 

"Sure, the cleaning products cost more, but in the big picture they aren’t a significant part of material expenses," Fonzi says. 

The cost of going green has raised questions in some circles. For example, Joel Kotkin, a presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University in California, wrote in a recent column for Forbes magazine that green power often depends on massive subsidization, with government support levels costing 20 times or more per megawatt hour what relatively clean and abundant natural gas costs. 

Nabil Nasr, assistant provost for academic affairs at Rochester Institute of Technology and director of its Golisano Institute for Sustainability and Center for Integrated Manufacturing Studies, expresses disappointment at critics of green power and its effect on the economy. 

He says going green can decrease energy consumption and materials costs, which results in financial savings that often can be passed on to the customer, making a business more competitive. 

For instance, a few years ago an RIT research team with a grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority developed and implemented better surface-cleaning processes in several regional manufacturing companies. Combined, the firms reduced their energy usage by 45,000 kilowatts per year and more than 350,000 cubic feet of natural gas, while decreasing hazardous waste generation by 98 percent. The improvements resulted in annual savings of $258,000 per year, as well as better overall product quality. 

Going green is no longer an option, Nasr says, "it’s more of a destiny." 

Controlling costs 

Lynn Bellenger, a partner at Pathfinder Engineers & Architects LLP, says eco-friendly practices do not always mean higher costs. 

One way to cut expenses in building design is to make green choices at the beginning of the process and follow through on them, she says. Starting with a more efficient heating, ventilation and air conditioning system, for example, will require smaller pipes and fewer pumps, which contribute to reduced costs. 

"If you start from the beginning and say you know you want sustainable design, it will likely cost the same or even more likely less, even up front," says Bellenger, who is president-elect of the Georgia-based American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers Inc., an organization focused on sustainability. 

David Meyer, also a partner at Pathfinder, says roughly 80 percent of the firm’s clients are interested in green design. 

"What was a rarity five years ago has become very common today," Meyer says. 

The engineering firm has implemented some sustainable policies of its own. It recently moved into a rehabbed three-story brick building on South Fitzhugh Street. The company wanted to make environmentally friendly choices in all aspects of the renovation. 

Since some of those would have been very costly, Pathfinder used more traditional methods at a higher efficiency level than normal, especially with improved insulation and the use of daylight controls to turn off lights if ample natural light is available. 

The company is on track for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Gold certification by the state and says it has saved money in the process. The total renovation cost was some $54 per square foot, or nearly $497,000. Since moving into the building in February, Pathfinder has cut its utility costs from $2 a square foot to $1, Bellenger says. 

 The renovation earned an environmental award from NYSERDA and exceeds the requirements of the state energy code, Meyer says. 

The improvements not only resulted in lower utility costs and better design but also benefited employees. 

Meyer, who oversees Pathfinder’s human resources operations, has been tracking lost time due to illness in the new building. Though it has not yet been a full year, he has seen an improvement in employee attendance, which saves the firm money in the long run. Changes such as efficient HVAC systems result in cleaner air, which affects employee health, officials say.

Long-term view 

For Heidi Grenek and Jeff Seidel, owners of Moonlight Creamery LLC in Fairport, sustainable products and practices are part of every aspect of their business. 

When they opened the cafe and ice cream shop in July 2007, they wanted to ensure that everything they sold was produced in a sustainable, environmentally friendly and socially responsible manner. 

Grenek acknowledges that going green has been more costly. For example, the eco-friendly paper products used by Moonlight Creamery cost four to five times more than comparable products made without regard for the environment. But the duo made a commitment to going green and is not straying from it, she says. 

Long-term energy independence is a goal, and the business is trying to get some state money for solar panel installation, she says. Customers have been supportive of the shop’s efforts, even in a tough economic climate, Grenek says. 

Further helping the business is what Grenek calls the "coolness factor" of being green. Customers have begun to take Moonlight Creamery’s disposable, biodegradable spoons made from SpudWare, a potato- and cornstarch-based material, as souvenirs. 

"People like the idea of what we’re doing," she says. 

Moonlight Creamery recently received a local environmental award for its efforts, and it is not the only firm getting recognition. 

Garlock Sealing Technologies LLC is in the midst of a $30 million renovation project on its Palmyra campus. A focus has been green design, and the manufacturer has received local and national accolades for the work. 

The company’s pollution prevention project, which eliminated use of a volatile organic compound and hazardous air pollutant from production of Garlock’s industrial sheet gaskets, just received an award from the National Pollution Prevention Roundtable. The group is the largest membership organization in the United States devoted solely to promoting pollution prevention. 

Christopher Rockwell, Garlock’s director of North American environmental services, says the environmental focus has changed the way the company is thinking about its facilities and processes, noting that improvements have decreased the firm’s local carbon footprint by some 30 percent and also led to a healthier workplace. 

"It’s about company morale and community involvement," Rockwell says. "Those are things that can be hard to measure on a financial spreadsheet." 

Janet Jessen, Garlock’s director of marketing, says the company’s commitment to the environment extends to its products. While reviewing its product lines, Garlock not only made them environmentally friendlier but improved how well they work.

Despite an economic recession, sales for the products that have been revamped increased 29 percent last year over the prior year, Jessen says. "We have changed the way we do things every day," Rockwell says. 

[email protected] / 585-546-8303

9/25/09 (c) 2009 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or e-mail [email protected].




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