Petoskey looks beyond the bottom line

Greg Tasker, The Detroit News

Petoskey — Spend any time in this northwestern Michigan town and you’ll find yourself sharing postcard-perfect streets with throngs of tourists who come to browse, shop and dine.

Boutiques, cafes, wine-tasting rooms and bars of craft brewers buzz with visitors throughout the summer months and beyond in this popular resort town of 6,000 residents along the shores of Little Traverse Bay. Noting the downtown’s vibrancy, USA Today recently named Petoskey one of the best small towns in the Midwest.

By almost anyone’s measure, Petoskey is thriving.

Or is it?

Carlin Smith, president of the Petoskey Regional Chamber of Commerce, believes Petoskey can do better and is helping spearhead a chamber-led movement called Thriving Petoskey.

It’s an effort that embraces a “conscious” business philosophy in which companies pursue a purpose beyond profit. The goal is enjoyable work environments with flexible schedules and employee involvement in decision-making. They keep customers in mind when making decisions and see vendors as part of their team. They also create a caring culture — seeing mistakes as opportunities to learn and not to punish.

“Thriving Petoskey goes beyond the thriving and successful business,” Smith said. “It’s about having a thriving and successful community, school system and nonprofit systems. It’s about successful families and people leading successful lives. It’s much more broad-reaching than what visitors might see when they pass people carrying shopping bags in a busy downtown.”

The chamber launched Thriving Petoskey in 2016, after Smith and other members heard Nathan Havey, a founding partner at Thrive, a training company specializing in conscious business, address chamber professionals during a conference at Boyne Highlands.

“What is the true purpose of your chamber of commerce?” asked Havey, a former Lake Leelanau resident who now lives in Denver. After a spate of shouted responses, Havey offered this answer: To build a thriving community.

“It was a light-bulb moment for me,” said Smith, who has been a chamber professional for more than 20 years and has spent the last 14 with the Petoskey organization. “I fell for it.”

Petoskey is not alone in exploring the conscious business philosophy. Initially, the statewide initiative was called Thriving Michigan and a handful of chambers became involved. Since then, education efforts have been expanded to include the public. Chapters have sprung up across the country and internationally.

The philosophy has also caught the attention of the Small Business Association of Michigan, which has more than 25,000 members representing everything from accountants to appliance stores, manufacturers to medical, and restaurants to retailers. The association has developed a relationship with Havey to get more businesses involved and to understand the value.

“I speak to business owners frequently and many feel they are running their businesses in this manner but in reality, they are not implementing the full strategy,” said Ken Root, director of membership and strategic relations for the association.

In Petoskey, Smith and other chamber members have spent the past year educating members and the public about Thriving Petoskey, using a variety of resources, including themed events, webinars and publications. So far, about a dozen businesses have invested in the program and Smith is hopeful 15 percent of chamber members will become involved by the end of next year.

Among the proponents is Ashley Brower-Whitney, co-owner of Harbor/Brenn Agencies, a second-generation family insurance company on Petoskey’s north side, on U.S. 31 toward Harbor Springs. Her interest in Thriving Petoskey prompted her to offer more perks for employees, including flexible work schedules, volunteer opportunities and a dog-friendly office.

“The hook for me,” said Brower-Whitney, who is the chamber’s chairwoman for Thriving Petoskey, “is that there are studies that show 70 percent of employees in the U.S. are disengaged at work. They’re punching a clock or working for the weekend; they are not actively engaged where they are working.”

Jennifer Shorter, the third-generation owner of Grandpa Shorter’s Gifts, a fixture in downtown Petoskey since 1946, has also embraced being a conscious business.

“We have a kitchen table in our backroom and many a day you will find several of us gathered around it discussing things like what community organizations to donate to, how best to train new staff, and how to give great customer service,” she said. “Our customers seem to be happier, and the overall result of the two is that our sales are up, year after year.”

The chamber’s Smith concedes the movement is a bit “pie in the sky,” but as local businesses have demonstrated, practical measures can be taken to make improvements and create a trickle-down effect in the community.

“Businesses want to know if they’ll really see a positive impact on the bottom line,” Smith said. “They’re skeptical about that. But doing the right thing is what the customer will appreciate down the road and it will grow their business.”

Greg Tasker is a Michigan-based freelance writer.