When Paying it Forward Pays: Image Microsystems’ CSR Case Study

BY IAN EDWARDS

For companies committed to corporate social responsibility (CSR), there is a belief that all those good deeds will be rewarded with new business – but scant hard evidence.

Image Microsystems (IM), of Austin, Texas, stands as one of the few companies that can ascribe new business gains to its core values of sustainability and community, which are achievements that have been squarely leveraged by public relations to even better effect.

  • IM has the world’s only patent-pending technology that can recycle e-waste into a substrate product that can replace, for example, aluminum in road signs. Called MicroStrate, this new product recycles dirty plastics like ink jet cartridges.
  • 40% of IM’s 250-person workforce is deaf or has special needs, which is a commitment to diversity few other companies can imagine, let alone match.

This impressive Double Whammy of CSR makes a compelling pitch in IM’s quest for new business at a time when more companies are adopting sustainability and looking for proven partners that can enhance CSR performance.

“CSR is more important to companies,” says Liz Walker, Image Microsystem’s Vice President, Marketing and Business Development, “and we have companies seeking us out knowing that we have the same mindset. Word gets around.”

Walker says that, IM’s revenues in the first six months of 2011 already match revenues for all of 2010, putting the company on target for 100% growth in the current year.

"Got Deaf" T-shirt at Image Microsystems

“I can directly attribute much of the growth [to] our diversity initiatives and our closed-loop, cradle-to-cradle process of converting e-waste into signage,” she explains.  “Dell increased and extended its printer cartridge recycling contract with Image Microsystems because of our CSR commitments.”

“It’s an ideal partnership between companies with a shared philosophy,” says Dell in a blog post, which goes on to laud IM for being “a responsible partner” and “good community partner.”

Other clients include Office Max and NEW, the major extended warranty company for computer tech.

The Critical Role of PR
The Image Microsystems case study highlights the key elements of leveraging CSR elements for new business development:

  • Integrating CSR values seamlessly into products, services and operations
  • Broadcasting substantiated successes through effective PR channels.

In other words, it’s not enough to do a good job, you have to be seen doing that good job – or, even better, publicly praised for doing that good job by credible third parties.

Walker, who splits her time between marketing and stewarding the new MicroStrate business, says public relations has been her main outreach strategy, with a regular schedule of media-friendly press releases documenting achievements.

Tactically, Walker focuses PR on:

  • Awards: Identifying, applying to, winning and leveraging awards ceremonies among key market sectors has put the IM brand squarely in the lap of new customers. Since October, IM has won the State of Texas Alliance for Recycling Sustainability Award, Green Reverse Logistics Award from the Reverse Logistics Association and the Green Product Showcase Award from the International Sign Association and was named a Green Supply Chain Award Winner by Supply and Demand Chain Executive.
  • Speaking Engagements: As with other CSR programs, success is heightened by CEO-level champions who lead the crusade. At IM, the senior team regularly speaks about its CSR lessons, especially diversity. “We proselytize the concept to help other businesses grow,” says Walker. “No matter the person’s disability, there is something they can do and succeed.”
  • Strategic Partnerships: As a way of building strategic alliances, IM invited the Texas Department of Transportation to tour its MicroStrate plant, which proved to be the pivot that introduced the road sign opportunity. Independent testing shows MicroStrate to be a strong alternative to aluminum road signs because of its durability, low value for scavenging thieves, substantially lower carbon footprint and recyclability.

Media pick up of IM’s releases has resulted in global news coverage and solicitations from far-away markets such as Mexico, the UK, Canada, Germany and most of the Scandinavian countries, with signed letters of intent to purchase.

In November, IM will ramp up production to meet the new MicroStrate demand in a new 91,000-square-foot plant in suburban Austin.

From there to here
While Image Microsystem’s business trajectory was firmly set toward the reverse logistics and recycling sector, the diversity push was an unexpected goldmine.

IM was founded in 1992 as a manufacturer and seller of computers, but shifted focus over the years toward IT parts and components and now to “reverse logistics” – meaning, in this case, that IM diverts IT parts, equipment and waste from garbage heaps and incinerators by repairing, remarketing and recycling.

According to the UN Environment Program up to “50 million metric tonnes of e-waste are generated worldwide every year, comprising more than 5% of all municipal solid waste. In the US alone, some 14 to 20 million PCs are thrown out every year.”

In 2005, Toni Abadi, an expert in American Sign Language, convinced her Image Microsystems CEO husband, Alex Abadi, to hire two deaf workers.

As a pilot project, the first hires were so successful, that IM entered into partnership with Texas School for the Deaf, offering internships and employment opportunities. It was an experiment with substantial cultural and business development dividends.

Special needs employees, says Walker, are generally reliable, hardworking, appreciative and have lower turnover.  In one case, a team overseeing printer returns at IM is 80% deaf, including the supervisor.

Corporate Trust as a CSR Dividend
When companies like Image Microsystems adopt sustainable business strategies, the mantra is “People, Planet and Profits” – the vaunted Triple Bottom Line that guides organizations through their commitments to Corporate Social Responsibility.

One way to evaluate the “pay off” for companies that invest in CSR is the gain in improved levels of corporate trust.

“Sustainability and trust create a virtuous cycle,” says Barbara Kimmel, the Executive Director of Trust Across America, an independent research company. “Because trust is an inherent element of optimism that buoys any economy, companies that understand the correlation between trust and sustainable business create greater value for all stakeholders, in addition to ’doing the right thing.’”

She adds: “A trustworthy organization is innovative and collaborative, leading to an even more sustainable business, driven by new products and their resulting revenue.”

In November 2010, Trust Across America identified 59 companies – the “Gold 59” including brands like Aflac, Fed Ex, Lexmark and Cigna — that met its benchmark standard for trustworthy business behavior and compared their performance since 1999 against the S&P 500.

 

SOURCE: Trust Across America

“These companies have already outperformed the S&P by approximately 35% since we began tracking them in November 2010, and it’s no fluke,” says Kimmel. “If someone had been smart enough to have picked those same companies in 1999, they’d have outperformed the S&P by over 500%.”

The Halo Effect
At Image Microsystems, PR has proven to be the bridge between good deed and new business – catalyzing customer development, improved brand awareness, industry kudos, and enhanced employee morale, among other benefits.

As a take away, the strategy at IM boils down to this:

  • Communicating CSR values by living CSR values (integrated throughout products, services and operation)
  • Bragging effectively and in the appropriate channels when there is substance about which to boast
  • Engaging CEO champions as prophets of CSR business strategies
  • Converting audiences to customers through good deeds that reflect positively on those customers.

“Focusing on CSR and publicizing it through public relations tactics has a direct and positive impact to not only your bottom line but also for employees and how your company is perceived in the marketplace,” says Walker. “It creates a halo effect for customers.”

Ian Edwards is Executive Vice President of Arcadia Sustainability Communications in New York City. www.arcadiasustainability.com.

This article has been accepted for publication at the Public Relations Society of America, due in October.

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