A Peer-Based Approach to Sustainability
July 19, 2016
Interview with Elliot Hoffman, CEO of REV
Being socially responsible and sustainably aware is imperative for today’s business leaders. But when Elliot Hoffman began aligning his company, Just Desserts, with these values back in the 1970s, it was anything but the norm. In his interview with Mike Gabriel, lending manager for RSF’s ecological stewardship portfolio, Hoffman outlines his trailblazing path from cake maker to CEO of REV, a social enterprise that addresses sustainability challenges at businesses and organizations through peer-learning. REV is an RSF borrower.
Mike Gabriel: To start things off, would you tell us a little bit about your background?
Elliot Hoffman: I grew up in the Bronx, New York, and went to New York University in the late ‘60s. I lived in Greenwich Village at the time of the Civil Rights Movement, which had a big impact on my life. I then moved to California in the early ‘70s and met the woman I fell in love with over a campfire at a place called Lover’s Leap at the Eldorado National Forest. We have been happily married and deeply in love for 43 years.
Thanks. We’re extremely fortunate people.
You two started a business together, correct?
Gail and I started a company that became known as Just Desserts in our home kitchen with no money and no clue and grew it into a wonderfully successful business. We employed over 300 people at its height and had been part of the business for social responsibility movement from its very early days.
There were a variety of things we did back then that were just the right thing to do. In 1982, we moved into a new 32,000 square foot bakery where we installed one of the earliest solar thermal systems, certainly in San Francisco, to heat all of our water without the use of gas and electricity. It was a very large system for that time. It saved us money and saved us from sending tons of CO2 into the environment for 20 years.
Is this where your transition from cakes to conservation began?
In part. In 2004, I was asked to join the board of directors of the Presidio School of Management. I was on their board for six years and chaired it for two. It wasn’t until I joined that board—and got to know all the students and professors—that my deep passion for sustainability took hold.
What did you recognize at the Presidio School that prompted you to start REV?
I realized that many of the professors did consulting work, but primarily focused on large organizations. No one was paying attention to small and mid-sized enterprises. So that’s when I had this idea to sit down and design from scratch a for-profit business entity that would bring the benefits of sustainability to small and mid-sized companies around the country. Now, of course, REV serves companies of all sizes.
Would you walk us through the mechanics of how a REV Sustainability Circle® works?
We bring ten local organizations together for a full day per month over six months. Each group is required to have at least two representatives attend each of the sessions. A fully dedicated coach and assistant coach are assigned to facilitate interaction and take the group through a very specific curriculum. The curriculum we’ve developed is comprehensive, reviewing between two to four topics per meeting. Since we don’t pretend to know or have expertise on everything, we identify local people who are experts at, say, HVAC or lighting and bring them in to make presentations.
Through this process, participants do a deep dive into a wide variety of sustainability subjects—from waste and water to energy efficiency, sustainability marketing, and greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions. As the group learns about these subjects, the coaches guide each organization to create its own customized sustainability action plan. Incorporated in these plans are—on average—30 very specific initiatives with metrics around investment required, return on that investment, payback period, savings, and resource use benefits. Then, the companies go about implementing the changes. The results that these companies are getting are far beyond anything we could have imagined.
How much are we talking about in savings?
On average, organizations identify opportunities to save over $300,000 a year and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by over 1,000 tons per year. And that’s just the beginning. There’s improved employee engagement, more opportunities for innovation, improved brand reputation, the list goes on.
How are REV Sustainability Circles® formed?
It has worked in essentially two ways. One way is self-selection. The other is through local community outreach. We’ll meet with a variety of organizations in, say, San Diego, and we’ll build these circles in that local context. Once we reach a critical mass of nine or ten organizations, we’ll launch the Circle. Most often, the Circles are filled with diverse kinds of organizations with different people in different positions.
I’ll give you an example. We did a Circle in the City of Petaluma in California about a year ago. The city said to us, “we want to be known as a place that is welcoming to businesses focused on sustainability, and we want to attract families to live here who want to work in those businesses.” So the city and the chamber in that community worked with us to fill a Circle of ten organizations that were based locally. That particular Circle had an interesting mix. The city itself was a member as was the Petaluma School District, the Petaluma Valley Hospital, Santa Rosa Junior College, Amy’s Kitchen, Lagunitas Brewery, Traditional Medicinals, Straus Family Creamery, and Petaluma Poultry.
I’m wondering, is there is a social component that makes REV’s peer-based approach so successful?
Absolutely. The sharing of ideas was one of the original pieces in my core thinking, and it’s proven out. Sustainability Circles® force people from different organizations to think outside of the box because the program exposes them to ideas and suggestions that may have nothing to do with their particular business or industry. There’s also a sense of accountability that occurs with participants that stems from working together over six months.
How many companies or organizations has REV supported over the years?
359 to be exact, and that includes those that are in Circles right now.
Is there a goal you’re looking to reach with regard to the impact you seek to achieve?
As a matter of fact, yes. By 2021, we hope to run 500 to 600 of these Circles annually. In doing so, we can save huge quantities of money, energy, water, and between four and five million tons of greenhouse gasses in just one year.
What is REV Net™?
At the core of its design, REV is about the multiplier effect. When we work with employers, we want them to take back what they’ve learned to their colleagues, and to their families and communities. We want these companies to remain on this journey, and we want to help them with it over the long term.
REV Net™, which we’re launching this June, is that community. REV Net™ is where members that have participated in the Circles can continue to share and learn with REV as the glue. REV brings members together every two months to check-in on implementation, facilitate interaction, and present speakers with timely topics. It also helps these companies keep their sustainability momentum going. One of the things we stress in the Circles is that this is a long-term journey.
What’s next for REV?
There are some new products that we’re introducing over the next few months. One, yet to be officially named, distils the essence of the Sustainability Circle® experience into one half-day session. It’s designed to help senior company leaders launch or strengthen their sustainability efforts by helping them orient and identify a path forward.
Next, we’re starting to create and market what we’re calling Inside Circles™. We’re currently working with a large and well-known organization where its senior leaders have said to us, “We don’t understand why people’s hair is not on fire about climate change.” In response, this company wants to be a model for others in their industry. Together, we are going to do a Circle that’s comprised of 12 different divisions of this particular company. Each division will develop action plans for their department, and then, together, one for the whole entity. That’s just the first step. This company wants to engage their entire ecosystem—customers, suppliers, communities, and organizations like theirs around the world—into creating a sustainable and climate-friendly journey.