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Western Extralite’s best idea yet: “Go green”

By Jan Niehaus

tED magazine’s 2012 “Greenest of the Green” award caught Western Extralite CFO Pat Doolan off guard. Busy documenting the Kansas City, Missouri headquartered company’s 2011 return to pre-recession revenue levels, Doolan admits that he was distracted by the fact that February 2012 was the company’s best February ever. “I hadn’t even realized that we had entered the competition,” he recalled, “but I wasn’t surprised to learn that we had won.” Nor was anyone else at Western Extralite, it seems.

“Everyone is aware of the steps we’ve taken from a green perspective,” Doolan explained. “We all know about all of the things the company has done over the years to green our facilities and our operations.”

These “things” Doolan speaks of include a new LEED certified service center, roof top solar systems installed at six service centers, and lighting retrofits in 15 service centers. There is also the installation of new exterior LED lighting and new high-efficiency heating and cooling systems at company headquarters, a new office and warehouse facility that features energy efficient lighting and controls, and a new corporate fleet management strategy.

Employees at Western Extralite are aware of the company’s green initiatives, not only because they see them on a daily basis, but also because this is the kind of company where people talk. Employees talk amongst themselves, and they talk with top management.

In fact, some of the sustainability improvements started as employee suggestions. The company’s longstanding, cross-functional, interdepartmental People’s Task Force routinely develops ideas and presents them to the executive team, which conducts the appropriate financial analyses and, when appropriate, deems the grassroots proposals worthy of top-level support. That’s how the box crusher came to be added to warehouse operations in 1995, how the now routine practice of recycling office paper was put in place in 2007, and how the company made the switch from paper to electronic pay stubs in 2011.

It’s also how PV ended up on the company’s rooftops: A suggestion from Western Extralite’s Energy Solutions Group resulted in a multisite solar installation completed in 2011.

The bottom line: Employees play a pivotal role in operations at Western Extralite. “We don’t have a formal green organizational structure,” noted Tom Isenberg, president, offering that the company’s commitment to sustainability is woven into the corporate cultural fabric. For example, “green” is a standard agenda item at monthly meetings of operations managers, who are encouraged to share best practices and updates on their projects.

“One of the things that I like about our efforts is that they just kind of bubble up. We’ve created a culture where people feel free to offer their ideas,” Tom Isenberg noted. “I am proud of everybody involved in our winning the ‘Greenest of the Green’ award. It’s a wonderful thing for the company and for the people who work here.”

tED magazine isn’t the only organization to honor Western Extralite for its leadership in the community and industry. In June 2011, the Kansas City Business Journal presented Western Extralite with an ImpacT Award, a recognition program implemented in 2011 to honor companies that leverage technology to improve operations, performance, and sustainability.

The Business Journal recognized only 15 companies in five award categories, one of which was environmental impact. According to the publication, Western Extralite was honored when it set a new state record for solar investment by making the largest one-time purchase of solar equipment in Missouri’s history. The result: a 25kW solar system on six service centers in the state: Kansas City, Sedalia, St. Joseph, Liberty, Warrens burg, and Lee’s Summit. Each system consists of 108 PV panels, with the capacity to generate 30,000kWh of power annually.

According to Doolan, the pay back period on the six solar systems is five to six years, with an ROI in the mid-teens. “The percentage of electricity usage that each system offsets varies, depending on each site and its historic usage. For example, the Kansas City location uses much more energy than the other five locations, so the percentage in Kansas City is significantly lower than at our smaller service centers. At the smaller locations, our utility savings could be anywhere from 60% to 100%, while it’s probably less than 10% in Kansas City,” Doolan explained.

THREE GENERATIONS OF INNOVATION

Western Extralite is a family-owned firm that was founded by Ludwig and Anne Isenberg in 1938—one year after they emigrated from Dusseldorf, Germany, and settled in Kansas City, Mo. Their active involvement in the business continued through the mid-1950s, when their son and daughter-in-law, Ernest and Vera Isenberg, took charge and managed the business until 1992. Vera Isenberg still comes into the office nearly every day to tend to administrative and financial matters. Grandsons John and Tom Isenberg started working for Western Extralite in the 1970s and assumed responsibility for the company’s success in 1992.

Doolan sees John Isenberg, executive vice president, as the primary driver of the company’s “Go Green” initiative, described as follows on the company website: “Through our ‘Go Green, Save Green’ initiative, we commit to bring you sustainable solutions. Our goal is to make incremental changes that lower demand for electricity and lead to a healthier business environment and world.”

The greening of Western Extralite actually started 17 years ago, long before the Isenbergs had any notion of launching a “Go Green” campaign. The company’s first green capital investment was a box crusher. “The driver was strictly economic,” Tom Isenberg admitted. “Not that the environment wasn’t already part of the culture—because it was—but the box crusher was a capital expense, so we did the numbers, and it made sense.”

Incremental changes made by the company that lower demand for electricity and lead to a healthier business environment and world accelerated in the 2000s, expedited by an array of tax incentives and utility and product rebates.

In 2008, Western Extralite doubled the capacity of its Manhattan, Kan., service center by building a new 20,000-squarefoot facility with an Inspire Solar Wall system, the first such installation in the Midwest. Thanks to the solar system, daylight harvesting, energy-efficient lighting, and occupancy sensors, energy usage in the new building is almost the same as it was in the former 10,000- square-foot facility.

During the final months of the Manhattan project in 2008, Western Extralite broke ground on a second completely new facility: its LEED-certified service center in Lawrence, Kan., which was completed in May 2009.

“Mike Higgins, our Lawrence service center manager at the time [he is now a regional vice president], felt strongly that we should do LEED, and so that is what we went after. Our builder was excited too, because this was the first LEED-certified building in Lawrence,” Tom Isenberg recalled.

PRODUCT AND PROCESS

With every project, there’s the product and the process.

The product in this case was a new office building and warehouse—LEED certified at the silver level—that saves the company thousands of dollars every year through energy efficient lighting and occupancy sensors, innovative skylights, and high-efficiency HVAC systems. According to Doolan, the 20,000-square-foot LEED facility consumes about the same amount of electricity as the former 12,000-square-foot building.

Regarding the process, “The LEED certification process is not a straight line,” said Tom Isenberg. “We looked at a lot of options, and not every idea that comes across is a good one. What we learned going through the process has been helpful. Having LEED as a target pushed us to find ways of doing things that really helped. For example, we found these skylights with a prismatic shape that spreads out the light. We get a lot more light than with flat glass. We really don’t have lights on in the warehouse, at least not very often. When it’s sunny, even in winter, you just don’t need the lights.”

Based in part on the lessons learned from its LEED experience, in 2011 Western Extralite renovated its headquarters facility—replacing the parking lot lights, flood lights, and wall-mounted outdoor lights with LED bulbs and installing sensors. These retrofits decreased the use of electricity at the facility by 27,000kW a year, saving approximately $3,000 annually. The lighting, now brighter and more even with fewer shadows, has also improved building security.

Moving inside, the lighting in the headquarters offices and warehouse was upgraded, LEDs were installed in the warehouse, and occupancy sensors were placed throughout. The retrofit cut annual electricity usage by 114,000kWh, leading to annual savings of $12,500.

Also at headquarters, four 1994-vintage, energy-guzzling HVAC units were replaced with three 15-ton and one 20-ton high-efficiency units, which together use 40,000 fewer kWh and save $4,400 annually.

All in all, Western Extralite had a busy year in 2011. In addition to its many facilities upgrades, the company implemented a company-wide, energy-saving, fleet management strategy.

 Because deliveries are now assigned to service centers based on zip code and routes have been reconfigured for greater efficiency, the company enjoys a 25% to 30% reduction in fuel costs and, as a bonus, elevated customer service.

GOOD IDEAS ARE GOLDEN

Currently, Western Extralite has no plans for new construction or major renovations, but the company does intend to apply the lessons learned to whatever comes next.

“We have no immediate plans to replace any service centers, but certainly, if we were to get to the point where we are going down that road again, we would look again at LEED certification,” Doolan added.

“We’ve gained some institutional knowledge that will help us as we move forward. If we were to build another facility, there is no question that we would put skylights in it,” Tom Isenberg noted, adding that the participatory culture that Western Extralite has established almost ensures ongoing greening.

“Too often there’s a breakdown of trust inside organizations,” he said. “We try to run an operation where people feel like they can make a contribution through their ideas, whether it’s an energy-saving or a process-improvement idea or some other suggestion. The important thing to me is to create a culture that encourages people to bring their good ideas forward.”

Niehaus is an active member of numerous environmental and building industry organizations, and her commitment to green runs deep: Her St. Louis home is built with materials recycled from 1904 World’s Fair buildings. Contact Niehaus at Jan@CommunicationByDesign.net or visit her website, CommunicationByDesign.net .

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