Mike Wasserman can’t figure how other business owners come to different conclusions about investing in green technologies like the 137-panel solar array on the roof of their 100-year old warehouse in Cleveland’s Midtown neighborhood. The solar panels at Kalman & Pabst paid themselves off with energy savings three-and-a-half years after they were installed.
In 2014, Wasserman and Craig Brown purchased the commercial photography studio from founders Jan Kalman and Bob Pabst, who they lovingly describe as “a big Hippie” with good instincts.
Pabst recalls the rough shape the building was in when they purchased it in 1997. They spent the first year—and half a million dollars—gutting and rebuilding it into a loft with post-and-beam construction, cozy fireplaces and refinished hardwood floors. In the early Oughts, Pabst found himself at the Great Lakes Brewing Company for networking nights held by Cleveland green business pioneers, Entrepreneurs for Sustainability.
“While researching for possible ways to become more green and sustainable, Mike suggested solar,” Pabst says. “I wasn't excited at first. I didn't think solar energy would be beneficial in Cleveland. But the research proved otherwise, and, at the time, there were great government incentives that made it profitable.”
If he had followed, instead, the conventional thinking of CEOs that renewables should have a 12- or 18-month return on investment, Kalman & Pabst would have missed out on a golden opportunity to save $8,000 in electricity costs.
“I know a lot of things we do aren’t textbook and that MBAs wouldn’t agree with it,” says Wasserman, a recent graduate from Cleveland State University’s MBA program. “We were told not to go with our gut. But you do have to balance that with the vibe around here.”
“They love coming to work,” Brown, a 20-year veteran of the shop, says about the 12 full-time staff and freelance stylists and chefs (their niche is food photography). “You don’t want to mess that up.”
The classic example are the “chicken buckets.” Whatever food they use in the shoots that cannot be donated to local shelters goes into five-gallon, orange plastic containers for the backyard chickens belonging to staff photographer, Clarissa Westmeyer.
Everyone, including clients, coworkers and stylists, know that any food scraps can go into the chicken buckets, Westmeyer told local foodies at Spice Kitchen. “Chickens actually eat more than just chicken feed, more than people would think. They love everything from lettuce to grapes and blueberries, to even cupcakes and shrimp!”
“She sees the bigger picture,” Wasserman says, “and she has us trained (to use the buckets). It fit with our idea of mutual respect. We want to be good neighbors.”
Now he gets to experience the detail work it takes to run a green business—setting up contracts and dealing with vendors. It helps if the expectation is set by more than the top dog.
“It’s generational, a little. People my age grew up recycling,” says Wasserman, referring to his cohort of Millennials. “When we started, a bunch of us were pretty adamant about recycling.”
When it came to the solar panels, the State of Ohio was offering a valuable tax incentive in 2010. Along with the federal tax credit, it cut their installation cost in half. On top of that, the state, through its (recently frozen) renewable energy mandate had created a market where companies could sell credits from installing renewable energy systems. At the time, there was a lot of optimism for renewables because of the state support, and that market enthusiasm and stability meant that their credits fetched top dollar, Wasserman says.
Walking up steep stairs through a hatch, we see the solar panels mounted over a roof that K&P painted white to cut down on heat gain in the summer. He points to the spot where Pabst dreamed of planting a rooftop garden to supply their kitchen with fresh herbs and veggies for the shoots.
“It outperforms what they estimated,” says Pabst, “and I still smile every time I go up there.”
Symbolically the solar panels take top billing, but arguably the energy audit K&P had done was the biggest step in corporate responsibility. It led to an extensive insulation and air sealing investment and replacing many lights with LEDs.
“COSE (energy consultants) came through here to evaluate what can be done,” recounts Wasserman. “We couldn’t have done this on our own. I also give (turnkey solar power installers) Bold Alternatives credit for really handling it all.”
It has led to reduced energy use, and inspired them to want to do more. “If we can afford to, we would like to have wind power. The biggest thing on our radar is probably (updating) the HVAC system and smart grid technology. Whatever we do has to make sense from a business point of view.”
In their search for how to be a greener place to work, Pabst and now Wasserman want to be fiscally sound, but openminded.
“It just seemed like the right thing to do,” Pabst says. “Like the Golden Rule, it seems so obvious. Anything we do like that is only going to be good for us as owners, good for our employees, because they have to be here 8 to 10 hours a day, and good for the environment.”