Right now, it's driven by the early adopters, the people who are
looking ahead, says Joel Wiese of the eco-friendly Indigo Financial
Group in Lansing.
Yet environmentally conscious entrepreneurs are
sprinkled all over town. There's no sure way to pick them out, except
perhaps for the newfound spring in their step. The same high energy
costs that threaten to crush other businesses are giving them a
competitive edge over the petroleum-based, mega-wasting businesses of
the past century.
A heightened environmental consciousness, now penetrating even
corporate dinosaurs like Wal-Mart, is lifting their prospects even
There's the green side, and there's the business side, Todd
Thomann, president of the Central Michigan Sustainable Business Forum,
says. The goal is to drive the green side along with the business
And it's not just oil prices driving this, he adds. There's a
maturing in our understanding of what we're doing to the environment.
Lansing's budding green businesses come in unassuming sizes and
guises: a fluorescent, drop-ceilinged processing plant in the
industrial-row area west of the airport; a boxy warehouse showroom and
loading dock on South Washington Avenue; a cramped loan office on the
east side; and a stylish woman with a business card and a Web site,
talking to a client at any coffee shop in town.
Just don't get it wet
Tim Colonnese's KTM Industries, 5597 W. Grand River Ave., seems
to be founded on the oral fixation school of manufacturing: don't
make anything you can't put into your mouth.
The CEO estimates he's consumed about 1,000 of the
corn-starch-based packing blobs used for electronics and other high-end
At a trade show once, a waiter with chocolate fondue happened by
just as Colonnese was talking to a man who was skeptical of the
product's safety. I just reached over, dipped one into the chocolate
and ate it, he recalls. It was the tastiest I've ever had.
Colonnese expects rising oil prices to push his $15 million
bioplastics company into nine figures in the near future, as big guns
like Toyota, GM, Hitachi and Dell jettison petroleum-based packing
materials such as polyurethane and polystyrene in favor of corn-based
One of the biggest pushes, surprisingly, has come from
Wal-Mart, Colonnese says. They've had so much bad press — Moms
Against Wal-Mart and so on—they're looking for ways to drive better PR.
He's gotten a half dozen phone calls in the last three months
from Wal-Mart suppliers, pushed by the retailing giant to use green
When customers shame companies into acts of conscience,
mountains move. More companies are starting to understand there are
implications with global warming, and they have to do something,
KTM's earliest incarnation dates back to late 1996, when three
MSU professors — Mel Schindler, Marcos Dantus and Jack Holland —
approached Colonnese with the idea of starting a company that makes
They started small, with a child's construction toy called
Magic Nuudles. The scrunchy stuff comes in a myriad of forms, from
cutout sheets to colored squiggles, all of which are moistened and
stuck together in infinite combinations. KTM's office walls are
festooned with loony faces, busts of Lincoln and bizarre hats made of
Nuudles by visiting school groups.
It was a fun product line, and it was a nice way to educate the
public that these materials are available and they're safe, Colonnese
What he's really after, though, is the colossal market in
packing materials, which looks more penetrable every day as oil prices
skyrocket and his own technology gets better and cheaper.
As business grows, Colonnese says he'll soon need to expand his
lean outfit of 12 full-time and several part-time employees. We're
seeing a lot more orders for the packaging material, he says. We
haven't seen this level of activity in almost three years.
All three materials Colonnese wants to replace — polyethylenes,
polyurethanes (springy stuff used in car seats and cushions) and the
much more brittle, less expensive and more common polystrenes rely on
oil or natural gas.
If anything happens in Iran — if we decide a couple of cruise
missiles need to be sent in there — we'll see hundred-dollar barrels of
oil, Colonnese says.
Two local assets make Lansing the ideal location for KTM.
First, MSU has the No. 1 packaging school in the world, he says.
Tapping into that resource has been very beneficial for us. Secondly,
East Lansing is the home of the International Safe Transport
Association, which sets the standards for packaging.
Colonnese has also teamed up with chemical engineering
department at MSU to refine his product, which still suffers from
dimensional instability, the water solubility that makes Nuudles so
much fun but tends to melt the stuff when it's doused, much like the
In the meantime, though, Colonnese relies on other properties
that make bioplastics attractive to manufacturers of high-end
electronic equipment, such as their anti-static qualities and multiple
The green factor, while important to Colonnese, is just another
selling point. You don't force your customer to take big honking
pieces of plastic and stick them into the garbage to go into the
landfill, he says. They can put it out into their backyard, or
compost, and let it break down naturally. Or make your gravy with it.
Any color, as long as it's green
Few businessmen brag about their low energy level, but Phil
Mondro of Smart Office Systems, 2110 S. Washington Ave., is downright
proud of it.
Mondro likes to talk about embodied energy, a quality
brand-new products are saturated with, and his company's products —
especially its reconditioned office cubicle partitions — lack.
Think of all the energy it takes to make a brand new panel —
the electricity, the water, and everything else it takes to squeak out
this new Lego piece that's already been done years ago. he says.
S.O.S. took its present form in 2002, and has quickly grown to
is a $16 million to $17 million company headquartered in Lansing, with
five branch offices throughout the state. The company deals not only in
cubicle partitions but entire office furniture systems.
We're doing pretty well despite what the economic trends are, Mondro says.
Although S.O.S. sells new as well as recycled and reconditioned
furniture, Mondro credits the recycled market for much of the firm's
recent growth. It's one of the reasons people seek us out, he says.
It's not all we do, but it's great to have this in our repertoire, for
green-conscious and budget conscious clients.
I'm like an ice cream store, he adds with a grin. What do you want? I've got 31 flavors. I've got used walls.
For Mondro, a typical deal begins when a company dries up,
downsizes, or reconfigures. We buy, say, 700 cubicles, catalogue and
inventory them, find an opportunity for resale, clean it up, Mondro
says. It's the truest recycling process there is. We're eliminating
tons and tons of product from going into the landfill.
Picking out fabrics for office cubicles may not be some folks'
idea of rapture, but Mondro loves to point out a small revolution on
his sample wall. When clients ask for a particular texture or fabric,
Mondro shows them swatches of Terratex, a material made by Interface
Fabrics of Maine — a company so green it gets all of its electricity
from certified renewable energy sources.
The fabrics themselves are made out of recycled water bottles or fabricated from corn.
I'm pretty sure you can eat this stuff, Mondro says, fondling
a swatch of sandstone-colored fabric. (What is it with these green
businessmen and their oral fixations?) After a joke about the fiber
content, Mondro greets Todd Thomann, one of the founding partners of
S.O.S., on his Saturday morning rounds.
Thomann explains that many entrepreneurs grossly underestimate
start-up costs. By the time they get to the last phase — physically
putting the office together — they're strapped for cash. Furniture is
the last thing you look at, Thomann says. Reconditioned or
remanufactured starts looking pretty good.
Add to that the growing green consciousness of corporations
large and small, and you have sunny prospects for the big yellow
warehouse on the south side. We're doing business with GM now,
Thomann says. We're doing Saturn offices all over the United States
Mr. Carter goes to Michigan
Most Realtors today aren't ready to sell energy, Wiese of
Indigo Financial, 2216 E. Michigan Ave., says drily. They're ready to
sell granite countertops and hardwood floors.
Ignoring the 800-pound gorilla in the room is one thing.
Ignoring the six to ten tons of greenhouse gases most homes put into
the air each year (way more than the biggest Hummer) is quite another.
And ignoring the wads of cash that fly out of homeowners' bank accounts
to the utility companies is downright perverse.
Still, Wiese was nervous when he began offering his clients energy efficient mortgages, or EEMs.
The first one we did was the first conventional EEM ever done in the
state of Michigan, Wiese says. I was nervous. We didn't know if our
clients would actually save money.
The EEM is an ancient federal program, launched in 1979 under
Jimmy Carter (of course), but Wiese says nobody offered them in
Michigan until he did.
Now 95 percent of the people who approach our company are
because of what we do, he says. From last year to this year our
on-line applications grew 400 percent. The jump from two EEMs in 2004
to 25 in 2005 took even Wiese by surprise.
In fact, as Wiese sits at his desk explaining the mortgage, a
man from Howell calls asking for EEM info. I'll call you back in 45
minutes, he tells the man.
Although a growing number of new home builders are green
conscious, Wiese says, most existing homes are still big loose
shoeboxes leaking tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Unit
for unit, homes are worse polluters than cars, Wiese says. Watch the
snow melt off your roof next April if you don't believe it.
If your home was built to code, that just means it was built so it won't fall down — not to perform efficiently.
With an EEM, he explains, home buyers get a comprehensive energy
evaluation of the house they have picked out. They receive a list of
recommended improvements— everything from new heating and cooling
systems to insulation to new windows. The buyer decides which
improvements to make and rolls them into the financing package. A key
element of the mortgage is that all the work must be done within the
first three months of occupancy, so the energy savings start to accrue
right away, more than offsetting the bigger mortgage payment.
It's a systems approach to a systems problem. Piecemeal
improvements don't work well, Wiese says, because the components of a
home all interact with each other. The furnace has to be sized for the
heating and cooling needs of your home, and if you're installing
insulation, you size it smaller, he says.
Wiese's nervousness about the EEM faded fast. His first clients,
a young couple he met at the Hispanic Business Association, saved $740
their first year. This year, they saved about $1,000, he adds. In
about five years, they'll have paid for the cost added on to their
mortgage — about $5,000 — in utility savings alone.
Every few months, Wiese talks to the couple to see how things
are coming along. This past winter in January, when the highest
utility bills were out, their highest bill was $101 for a
1,300-square-foot home, he says. They had a lot of friends who paid
two, three times that.
Another family, Wiese said, saves $2,100 a year from EEM-financed improvements. They were incredulous at the projections.
Wiese says lenders need to learn a new vocabulary and conquer old mindsets to spread the gospel of EEMs.
Most lenders don't talk about energy efficiency, he says. It's not
our job. Our job is to say 'You qualify for X amount of money. Whatever
you do is up to you.'
As word about the EEM gets out, Wiese and his three employees
get busier and busier. He's hustling to keep the processing period
between nine days and three weeks, which he says is about the same as a
It's a good problem to have, he says.
No such thing as away
Deanne Nelson is a living, breathing package of green
entrepreneurship. She hasn't got 12, six or even three employees — she
is all of Ki Design Solutions, a one-woman force in local green design.
Only a few months after launching her own environmentally
conscious interior design firm in September 2005, Nelson was tapped by
Lansing developer Gene Townsend to work on Printer's Row, a new complex
of townhouses going up on South Washington Avenue.
Now Nelson is helping Townsend build living spaces that make a
minimal footprint on the planet while avoiding paints, stains, carpets
and upholstery she says off-gas potentially harmful vapors.
The mix of health and aesthetics makes Nelson's job uniquely
satisfying. Green is not Birkenstocks and burlap bag clothing and
everyone smelling like patchouli, eating seaweed or whatever, she
says. It's just smart. It's using what you have, being resourceful.
A Lansing native and recent graduate of Lansing Community
College's interior design program, Nelson spent several years living in
It's such a small island, you can see where things go, she
says. Something gets thrown in the water Thursday, it washes up on
People say, 'I'll throw it away.' Where is 'away'? Where is it?
It's not like it just evaporates. I never really thought about that
before I saw what happens on an island.
Nelson returned to Lansing five years ago, when her mother was
diagnosed with cancer. (She recovered.) In the course of helping her
with her cancer therapy, I got concerned about keeping the house as
healthy as possible, Nelson says.
While caring for her mother, Nelson read up on holistic healing
and got a bug for reorganizing and repainting, spurred on in part by
avid HGTV watching. The design program at LCC put her various goals in
focus. I come from both a health and aesthetic perspective, she says.
Working on Printer's Row, Nelson found her goals in harmony with
Townsend's. Gene thought things out the right way — low-V.O.C.
[volatile organic compounds] paint that's not going to off-gas, so the
indoor air quality is good. They really thought about ventilation, too.
When planning a living area, Nelson likes to start with the bedroom,
insuring proper ventilation and purity of materials. You're not just
resting in there, she says. That's when your body is rejuvenating
itself and your kidneys and liver are doing their whole thing.
She admits it's sometimes not cost-effective to be green. But a
lot more people are willing to be as green as they can be, she says.
She says it's not always a scientific, balance-sheet calculation.
People already starting to want green as a style, like retro '50s,
The people who care, who are green, should be having the most
fun, she grins, pointing at the medium house blend coffee on the table
before her. Look at this — it's a coffee cup today, tomorrow it can be
As Nelson imagines what may come of the molecules in the coffee cup,
her face lights up with the double gleam of virtue and money peculiar
to her passion. Keeping body and soul together is an old expression
for eking out a living. These days, green entrepreneurs are eking in
Energy Fair set to light up summer
Passionate Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell, who says it's up to cities to save the world in the absence of federal action on alternative energy, will energize the state's big alt-energy conclave this summer.
Heartwell, three other stellar keynote speakers, dozens of exhibitors and workshops, and a festive lakeside setting promise to make the Michigan Energy Fair the place to be in mid-June.
The fair, sponsored by the Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association in Diamondale, will be June 16 to 18 at the Manistee County Fairgrounds in Onekama, 10 miles north of Manistee, on the banks of Portage Lake. (To register or get more information on the fair, go to www.glrea.org.)
Heartwell, one of the state's most dogged supporters of alternative energy, will discuss his ambitious plans to run Grand Rapids on non-fossil fuels. He'll share the keynote duties with Daniel D. Chiras, an expert on residential green building and solar design; David Konkle, energy coordinator of the city of Ann Arbor; and David Milarch, co-founder of the Champion Tree Project.