Got green game? Local companies cut costs, impacts in Better Business Challenge

Virginia Eagle, a local beer distributor, took an innovation prize in last year’s challenge for installing solar panels to power lift gates and charge batteries in half a dozen of its delivery trucks. Photo: Brad Theado Virginia Eagle, a local beer distributor, took an innovation prize in last year’s challenge for installing solar panels to power lift gates and charge batteries in half a dozen of its delivery trucks. Photo: Brad Theado

Charlottesville’s second Better Business Challenge, a year-long sustainability competition for local companies, wraps up in May, but founder Teri Kent wants business owners to know there’s still plenty of time to get onboard—and save a lot.

Kent, creator of local environmental blog Better World Betty, kicked off the first challenge in 2012 as a way to encourage businesses to chip away at waste and inefficiency. Participants use scorecards to track things like energy use and recycling, and can take advantage of workshops, energy audits, and other tools along the way. Last year, 106 companies joined in. This year’s crew is up to 67 so far, and includes some bigger corporations, like Whole Foods and Plow & Hearth.

“It just takes one person to take initiative and come up with out-of-the-box ideas, and if they have the support of the company owner or manager, they can really fly with it,” Kent said.

Brad Theado is one of those people. He’s vice president of operations at Verona-based Virginia Eagle, a regional beer distributor that took an innovator prize in last year’s challenge for a clever, energy-efficient fix to a persistent problem. The lift gates on the company’s fleet of delivery trucks were powered by batteries that often died partway through the day, requiring costly trips out by other staff to recharge them.

Theado oversaw the installation of solar panels and solar-powered charging systems on six of the trucks, a move he said quickly paid for itself. Each system cost $750, he said, while a service run to recharge a dead battery set the company back about $500. The steady trickle of energy also offered a boost of juice to batteries on cold mornings, when drivers often had trouble getting the trucks started. It was, in short, a perfect example of what the challenge had set out to do: Get businesses to adopt practices that helped the planet and their bottom lines.

Early in the second challenge cycle, Theado was sitting in on one of the workshops when another attendee mentioned a very simple practice.

“Somebody said that they did an analysis of what was in their trash dumpster,” he said. “I said, ‘Why haven’t I done that?’”

When he realized half his company’s trash was plastic wrap and cardboard, he decided it was time to tackle Virginia Eagle’s waste stream. Theado worked out a deal with a recycler to install a $10,000 compactor and pay off the equipment with money earned from baled cardboard and plastic, which brings $80-$120 per ton. It meant the company was also saving hundreds per month on trash collection fees. Already this year, Theado estimates the company has kept hundreds of tons of material out of landfills.

He said the experience has changed the way he looks at the company’s operations. “Here’s a solution where not only did I cut my disposal costs almost in half, but now I’m also making money on it,” he said. “Where I used to just look at things from a cost perspective, now I’m saying ‘Can we turn that around somehow, and at least break even?’”

Even better, he’s watched the corporate culture shift. The recognition the company received after last year’s challenge has brought with it a sense of pride.

“It’s starting to spread, and every time we’re on the news or something, I’ll get a call almost immediately afterward from an employee saying, ‘Hey, have you ever thought about doing this?’” he said.

Get involved

Got a business? There’s still time to enter the competition. Learn how at cvillebetterbiz.org.

Already participating? Step up your game and get neighbors involved at the upcoming the Sustainability Innovation Pitch Night, 6-8pm Thursday, January 23 at the iLab at UVA’s Darden School of Business. Participating businesses are encouraged to present their plans to increase sustainability, and the public is invited to vote on its favorite ideas. The overall winner will receive one-on-one mentoring from innovators at the iLab. RSVP to present by e-mailing info@cvillebetterbiz.org by January 17.

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