Peter DiStefano sees his business, DiStefano Brother’s Construction, as more than a firm turning profits from work. He wants the community to profit, too.
“We have more of a responsibility then to come in and make money and get out. We have a community responsibility,” he said about his firm’s helping in community activities when charitable groups’ resources are low, money is tight and assistance in short supply.
He’s not alone either. Many other South County businesses lend their hands and money to help scores of organizations – such as the Easter Seals, animal rescue groups or parent-teacher groups – with fundraising and other activities.
Mark LaHoud, owner of Java Madness coffee shop on South Kingstown’s Salt Pond Road, said he frequently gives gift certificates to many organizations wanting help with a raffle, raising money for a project or an item for a gift basket.
“I think it’s important that local businesses support the community that supports them. The business community helps to make the whole community thrive,” he said.
The modern term devised for this philosophy is corporate social responsibility. There are many businesses in South County that know that helping communities is good for all businesses, as well as communities, because both are woven tightly into each other’s fates and futures.
When one grows, so can the other, and failure can happen the same way.
So, raising the flag and working hard to boost any number of community and individual groups are priorities, several business owners said in recent interviews.
For instance, Wakefield’s Mews Tavern has sponsored for 30 years a popular canoe race to raise money to support local charities. Nine years ago, it joined this event with the R.I. Chapter of Wounded Warriors and it has grown from 90 to nearly 400 participants.
“Our philosophy has been the community supports us and we have an obligation to give back to the community,” said Mews business manager George McAuliffe.
In Narragansett, the Lions Club’s annual Blessing of the Fleet in Point Judith, along with an accompanying festival and 10-mile road race, draws scores of contributions from more than 20 business sponsors, including Whalers Brewing Company, Narragansett Rubbish Removal, South County Financial Group and SpeedCraft Volkswagen in Wakefield.
David Chandler in his recently updated book, “Strategic Corporate Social Responsibility: Sustainable Value Creation,” points out that contrary to economist Milton Friedman’s 1970 opinion that a publicly-owned company’s primary responsibility is to maximize returns to shareholders, in today’s society some businesses act differently.
“Firms are again adopting a broader stakeholder outlook, extending their perspectives to include the communities in which they operate and social issues about which they feel passion,” he wrote.
DiStefano, 41, a near life-long resident of South Kingstown, couldn’t agree more.
“Get your people involved. As a boss, to have employees passionate about something I’m passionate about, to be able support that, I think that’s great,” he said about his 42 employees in his business pulling about $6.5 million in sales last year.
Inculcating a view about giving back starts with the kind of people he hires, DiStefano said. He finds committed people to work developing his business as well as themselves and then fashions a job for them, he said.
“I’m willing to help you from 9 to 5, but what are you willing to do to help yourself from 5 to 9? I am willing to kick in, but what are you willing to do for yourself?” said the former South Kingstown High School football player who prizes team work and personal growth.
In turn, this personal growth includes sharpening the view of the company’s key underlying core values, which include safety and respect as well as “Delight Your Customers.”
“I had a one-on-one with Warren Buffett, I really admire him, and he asked me what am I doing each day to delight my customers. That made it crystal clear to me – what’s the expectation?” said DiStefano.
This translates into understanding and fulfilling expectations for community service, he said.
DiStefano encourages his staff to find causes for corporate sponsorship that are important to them. Tapping into each person’s passion, he said he wants them to find a project that can bring the “delight” alive in the hearts of people being helped, he said.
For instance, Human Resources Director Rebecca Downing discovered and led a project last year to set up instruction on building and construction for the Providence YWCA’S Rosie’s Girls Summer Camp designed to teach skills in the trades, science, technology, engineering and math.
Among other community contributions are installing a floor at the South County Museum, clearing land and building stone walls for the South Kingstown Land Trust, and giving a financial donation of money or time to the Chariho Rotary and the Domestic Violence Resource Center of South County.
DiStefano said he wants to give upwards of $80,000 in various forms of assistance this coming year and his staff is now looking at potential projects.
Joseph Viele, executive director of the Southern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce, said corporate and business give-backs to communities is common among his chamber’s members.
“Companies that do good in the community do well in business. If you show that you have a strong reputation, too,” he said, “Others join in and it becomes an important part of community support.”
For example, the Mews Tavern also has sponsored for two decades a “Gear ‘N’ Beer” 6.9K road race. It has drawn thousands to Wakefield each year to run and watch. In the last 11 years it also has produced $300,000 for Easter Seals of Rhode Island.
This one activity, McAuliffe pointed out, builds the community commitment by drawing in other supporting business to help.
They included last year Toray Plastics, Unifirst, POSitouch, Performance Food Service, Rhody Sports Properties, Tufts Health, Narragansett Lions Club, Southern Rhode Island Newspapers, Adler, Pollock and Sheehan P.C., MetLife, Manic Training Wakefield and So Co Cycle.
In addition, Mews owners Dan Rubino and Dave Barnes also support many other charitable causes through various events including a month-long Pints-for-Paws in which a portion of certain beer sales go to Animal Rescue Rhode Island.
The same kind of business commitment to the community flourishes in North Kingstown, too, said Greg Mancini, North Kingstown Town Council president.
He noted that Ocean State Job Lot, headquartered in the Quonset section of town, has its charitable arm leading the way for turning the former West Bay YMCA on Post Road into a health and wellness center.
“North Kingstown is a great community and we have great corporate partners very involved in giving back to community at large and in a number of areas like education, the food pantry, health and senior activities,” he said.
Kristin Urbach, executive director of the North Kingstown Chamber of Commerce said that corporate social responsibility – from large to small assistance – is part of many of her members’ business plans.
The companies range from large enterprises, such as Anvil International, General Dynamics Electric Boat and Home Depot to smaller businesses such as Tate’s Italian Kitchen, Massage Envy and The Inside Scoop, she said.
At DiStefano’s office, his new marketing director, Elizabeth Berman, formerly heading up the Southern Rhode Island Chamber, said that any contribution is a worthwhile one.
“What I would hear in my role at the chamber is that this (small amount) really wouldn’t make a difference. It does. It would make a huge difference,” she said.
DiStefano looked up at her. He tapped his pencil. He stared out the window to the busy intersection of High and Main Streets in Wakefield where his office is prominently located.
“I want people to hear that DiStefano Brothers is a good company. It didn’t just come in, take advantage and leave. And, I want my staff to do things for love...to do things from a place of compassion rather than compliance, do things because it’s the right thing to do,” he said.