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We are in the midst of  summer’s “dog days.”  While the heat might be novel to our Stewart Perry team, having a dog around isn’t. For several months, my canine companion has been coming to work with me.

Pal, a 12-year-old Springer Spaniel, used to stay at home whenever I went to the office, enduring what I’m sure were some long and boring days alone. One morning this past winter as I was preparing to walk out the door, Pal looked at me with those sad eyes that only dogs can give you, and I just couldn’t leave him behind again.

“Come on, Pal,” I said. “Let’s go to work.”

Pal quickly became our company dog. He comes to work with me almost every day now, and I think he’s been a nice addition to the office. He wanders around and visits with people, looking for a welcoming voice and a pat on the head. Members of our team will take him out walks, which is a nice way to have a mid-day break for both.

During a recent financial audit, I looked out the window and noticed that one of the auditors was walking Pal. They both seemed to be having a great time.

Studies have shown  pet-friendly environments increase employee cohesion and staff morale and productivity. Research aside, having Pal at our office seems to be nice for everyone. I know Pal definitely enjoys it. Every morning as I’m getting ready to go to work, Pal stays close to my side, making certain he doesn’t get left behind.

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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email

Three years ago we decided to plant a few tomato plants beside our office. That small patch of land has become much more.

Our plot has grown into a full garden featuring silver queen corn, rosemary, strawberries, blueberries, cantaloupes, watermelons, squash, turnip greens, cucumbers, peppers and of course—tomatoes.

Beyond the beautiful produce, the beds have become a way for our company to share with the community. In the height of the growing season we harvest vegetables and put them on our kitchen table.

We share among our employees, friends that drop by and our neighbors. One year we had an over-abundance of tomatoes, so it became a team effort to see what all you could make out of a tomato. You’d be amazed at the creative recipes.

It is a joy for all of our employees to share what we grow with our customers. When we build a building we give them a home for their team, but being able to share from our garden extends into their homes as well.

Those personal relationships are the foundation of our company.

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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email

Every year, we have a Christmas gathering to bring all the Stewart Perry families together.

The first year this reunion was held at our place, we spent one Saturday morning planting several hundred daffodils across the lake on the hillside. We chose that spot because it is visible from our conference room and is a reminder of renewal and hope that comes with each new year.

The experience that Saturday with our team and their families was invaluable. We all worked together to create a nice addition to our campus. In the years since then we have added more daffodils so that now every spring across the lake we have a beautiful vista of flowers.

Our daffodils are the gift that continues to give year after year. When we construct an “owner occupied building”, during the design stage, I share with the client that to me a building should be more than 4 walls and a roof and that it should leverage important values of the company. In our case, the daffodils serve us as a reminder to our team of the importance of being cohesive. I wonder what are the important values that your environment helps to communicate?

 

 

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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email

Are You Saying Thank You Enough?

As the year comes to a close, I wonder what it would be like if more of us said thank you to each other.  Not just at the end of the year, but throughout the year…

I can count on my two hands the amount of times that someone from downstream has thanked us for a material order or a subcontract we have given them over the past few years. Maybe it’s because people were too busy (before 2007)…or maybe they do not think what a wonderful opportunity this would be to build a relationship.

I’m not talking about the obligatory Christmas present or card. I’m talking about genuinely connecting throughout the year to say “thanks.” If you and your business did this, I suspect that your relationships will strengthen more because your competitors are probably not taking the time to say “thanks” either.

Two simple words, expressed in different ways.

From what I have read recently, people who show gratitude have more energy, more optimism, better social contacts and are healthier. We say thank you (a lot) and we try to do it in different ways because we are sincere. It’s who we are. It’s our culture and besides, we enjoy doing business with our customer relationships.

A teaspoon of honey goes a long way to strengthen the relationships for more opportunities which leads to more success.

 

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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email

Last week we finished our United Way campaign in the city but it was not without a real push by its leadership and the United Way. Someone said that while the economy is cyclical, community needs are constant.

I have been thinking of some ways that small businesses can give back to the community that provide value to the recipient organization and at the same time provide some value to the company. A few suggestions came to mind:

  • Give time and services instead of money. Most of us can afford to part with a few hours of our time, and the personal experience usually is much more rewarding than simply writing a check. Like many, we have participated in community service for a number of years, which is fun for our folks and helps worthy organizations. The Pig Iron BBQ competition is one that fits this category we usually do annually.
  • Develop a charitable project for the entire company. Finding something the company can do together is a way to build a stronger bond among your team and help build morale.
  • Donate to non-profits instead of charging them a reduced rate for your services. If you charge the full rate and then donate some of it back to the non-profit, the donation is tax-deductible.
  • Join forces with other companies. If you cannot afford to give as much this year, reduce the amount of your donation but try to find some other companies to match it. A way to turn less into more.
  • We allow non-profits the use of our facilities. A much-needed conference facility can be of much use to a lot of non-profits nowadays.

I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on how you and your company help others. What’s the ROI on helping others?

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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email

My oldest daughter, Chappell, an economics major at Sewanee, spent this summer learning about microfinance lending; first in Bangladesh with the Grameen Bank and Dr. Muhammad Yunus. Then several more weeks in the Dominican Republic working with the Esperanza Bank (Bank of Hope) making micro loans.

Microfinance is a movement whose object is “a world in which as many poor and near-poor households have routine access to an appropriate range of quality lending and thus help the poor out of poverty.  Most of Chappell’s “clients” were women.  It could be as little as $25, to capitalize a business, to buy food to resell on the street or buy a small fridge from which to sell juice.

A typical day for Chappell involved assisting her host family before heading to the bank to visit “associates” (borrowers) ,meeting with staff members or visits to the countryside to visit to met with the borrowers,  which they tried to do a couple of times a month. On their visits they would collect a small repayment toward the loan and offer suggestions for the on-going business. These loans are not without risk, typically without collateral but with the upside so positive, these lenders have devised different ways to help provide somewhat of a social net to help lessen loan defaults.

A Different Process at the Grameen Bank….similar, yet different.

While they are also involved in the microfinance process, Grameen strives to assist in furthering education of the children of borrowers. One way that they have accomplished this is through the development of their own nursing school.  This is in addition to the already existing pre-schools and elementary schools.

Grameen is a story in itself and is very inspiring. They are led by Dr. Muhammad Yunus, who has received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009 and the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006.

You can read more about Chappell and her travels at her blog here.

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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email.

A few weeks ago I asked my nearly grown children, ages 25, 20 and 17 to accompany their dad to a rustic Inn that has been welcoming guests since 1922 – High Hampton. This is a place where you will not find TV, Internet or even air conditioning in the rooms. Instead, you will find yourself in the middle of a mountainous estate – and at 3,600 feet elevation, removed from the chaos of work and everyday living. A special place to connect with your family.

Our days have been made up of hiking, swimming, canoeing and conversation. Evenings that begin with dinner – where coats and ties are still required –moved effortlessly into the main Lodge room where we gathered with other guests for  lively rounds of bingo, followed by more laughs and conversations. Yesterday we visited nearby Rainbow Falls where the water cascades down a 150’ tall rock face, as we swam in the swimming hole at the base of the falls.

High Hampton is nestled in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains near Cashiers, North Carolina. Tall hemlocks and mountain laurel accent the mixed hardwoods of this 1,400-acre setting which also includes a 35-acre lake, gardens surround and a mix of majestic mountains. Rock Mountain and Chimney Top are the two you can hike. I recommend them both.

The lodge itself is of a classic shingle style with poplar and chestnut exteriors that reflect the mountain setting, bringing to mind the Great Camps of the Adirondacks. Our rooms were woodsy featuring hand-hewn twig, yet elegant with tasteful mountain crafted furnishings.

As we left this morning we all agreed this was a great vacation spot to be together and wish to do it again next year. Maybe you might give it a try as well.  Enjoy.

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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email.

We at Stewart Perry like where we live, and we like our neighbors. Donna Sue Groves believes you can express those feelings through her relatively newfound art—barn quilts.

“The barn quilts are public art that celebrates the place people call home. They make people feel good about themselves and where they live.” – Donna Sue Groves

We decided to give it a shot on our woodworking barn. We plan to paint several quilts over the coming year to reveal the unique diversity within our small community.

Ms. Groves originated the barn quilt project in Adams County, Ohio in 2001. Almost ten years later, this simplistic concept of painting a quilt square on an eight foot square piece of plywood and hanging it on a barn for others to enjoy is now called the National Quilt Barn Trail, spanning more than 20 states and British Columbia.

She feels this phenomenon sweeping the nation reveals something about our communities. “When we all become part of a team, we actually weave the fiber that brings people together,” she says. I agree wholeheartedly.

Our first effort could not be a better illustration of how teamwork builds a better community. Mitchell’s Place, our across the street neighbor, is a center specializing in services for children, young adults, and families affected by Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).  This past Saturday, several Stewart Perry and Mitchell’s Place families joined together to paint our first barn quilt. As I watched everyone, especially the children, painting the 128 triangles that would make up 64 squares to finally form one large quilt, I could not help but be reminded of how rewarding it is when everyone comes together to accomplish a common goal. Even more rewarding was the laughter of the children, the smiles from the parents and the fun had by all as we got to know our neighbors better.

The geometric design, created by our own Lynn Wilkins, symbolizes the colors representative of autism awareness. All of the pieces, painted by several and pulled together as one, reveal our individual perspectives with collective aspirations. Our hope, like Ms. Groves, is simply for all to enjoy.

The barn quilt will be hung this week end. Please let me know if you happen to drive by. We’d like to hear your thoughts.


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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email.

Since Planting Acorns evolved primarily as a forum to discuss views, encounters and takeaways from my professional life, it’s rare that I have the occasion to mention my family. With that said, I think facets of our personal lives shape the way we think professionally, so it’s important you know I’m a fortunate father of three healthy and reasonably bright children—a high schooler, a college student and a medical student. I’m thankful for a million things about them, including the connection they’ve given me to the next generation of American leaders.

It concerns me when I see the media paint their age group as a self-absorbed, unpatriotic bunch. From my perspective, I feel there’s a spirit that resides in the youth of America. Passion for freedom, patriotism and community has been passed down through our history, and I can’t dream that it skipped this generation. I was glad to get evidence last week.

Just after I posted the piece about our post-hurricane trip to New Orleans, our controller asked if I knew about the recent surge in college applications for New Orleans’ major universities—Tulane, Loyola and Xavier. Before Katrina, Tulane had around 16,000 applicants annually. Now they’re up around 34,000 for a freshman class of 1,400. Xavier is up approximately 20% and Loyola is projecting a 40% increase during the same period.

Post-Katrina, New Orleans has become a place to make a difference, where citizens can be a part of putting a battered community back on track. Judging by the influx of college applicants, our youth clearly want to be involved in this kind of movement.

Tulane has even started a public service requirement for graduation. What does all this tell me? There is a vital force inherent among Americans, no matter their age.  Sometimes it takes adversity to remind us of the common drive that calls us to action, but it’s very much alive in our youth, and it runs deep.

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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email.