A Holistic Approach to ‘Green’

By Dan Markham, Senior Editor

The McNichols Company, a leading distributor of metals with holes, is being recognized for its commitment to the environment at its plants and through its products.

McNichols recently intrduced ECO-MESH to the building products market. ECO-MESH encourages plant life to grow through its grid system.
The McNichols’ Company, distributor of perforated, expanded, wire mesh and other decorative metals, is writing the blueprint for service centers interested in becoming more environmentally friendly.

In February, the Tampa, Fla.-based company was recognized by Earth Charter US with its Sustainable Business Award, given to companies that embrace social, economic and environmental responsibility. Award recipients must maintain responsible business practices focusing on environmental health, community well-being and local economic impact. The local award followed the company’s designation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as an Energy Star Partner.

For McNichols, its commitment to sustainable business practices is a sensible outgrowth of its company mission “to do the right thing, whether it’s for the community, for the country or for our folks,” says Herb Goetschius, vice chairman. “It was kind of natural for us to fit into that space. We developed a green strategy.”

The program’s primary focus is on energy savings. McNichols is taking multiple measures, with impacts both large and small, to reduce its energy usage company wide.

The most meaningful effort is its transition to a more energy-efficient lighting system. Begun in its Houston and Dallas branches, the program is systematically making its way through its facilities across the country. It was the switch to the more energy-efficient lighting that earned an Energy Star Partner award.

In the program, McNichols is replacing its old T-12 halogen ballasts with more energy-saving T-8 fixtures. The company completed the retrofit in its two Texas facilities and is now undertaking a similar effort in Chicago, its largest branch.

By staggering the implementation of the new lights, the company is also making best use of the old bulbs. Rather than tossing them out, the expensive bulbs are repackaged and shipped to other locations where metal halides are still in use. Old fixtures and other materials are scrapped for recycling.

Since the installation of the newer bulbs at Dallas and Houston, combined with other measures, the company has cut its energy usage by more than half—from 433,475 kilowatts per year to 184,576.
Of course, the energy reduction doesn’t just lead to a smaller carbon footprint, but a smaller electric bill as well. McNichols will save thousands of dollars annually through the conversion to the more efficient lighting.

Even better, the company’s participation in the Energy Star program has made it a risk-free endeavor. McNichols was not required to make a capital investment in the lighting up front. It will pay for the fixtures over time, but realize the energy savings immediately.

“In Chicago, we’ll save $84,000 the first five years after paying only $788 per month [for the cost of the new lighting]. The reduction in annual energy use is staggering,” says Chris Custer, McNichols’ national operations manager, who has overseen most of the company’s green efforts. “We saw a return from the day we saw our first electric bill.”

The total savings McNichols will realize from the lighting project are substantial. In Chicago alone, over a 10-year period, the savings will be an estimated $219,000.

From an environmental perspective, Custer says, over 20 years the Chicago changeover will prevent about 3,082 net tons (6,163,201 pounds) of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere, equivalent to planting 851 acres of trees, removing 665 automobiles from the roads, saving 9,244 barrels of oil, or saving 338,299 gallons of gasoline.

Following the installation, McNichols will take the procedure on to its New Jersey site, then others will follow. Ultimately, the entire company will get retrofitted with the new lighting.

The branches are not chosen randomly. McNichols is making the move first in areas where the energy market has been deregulated. By going into deregulated markets, the company is able to negotiate for the best electric rate possible.

The lighting project represents the bulk of McNichols’ energy reductions, but its major endeavor is being supplemented by dozens of smaller ones that also add up to savings. In the office, the company keeps a tighter watch on the thermostat. In the plant, employees are asked to leave only emergency lights on at closing and to unplug all hand tools and other appliances, which use energy even when turned off. “We’ve put together closing procedures to make sure we’re catching even the smallest things,” Custer says.

Implementation of the process actually was made easier by the economy. The recession called for cost-containment measures throughout the company, so the sharper eye on energy usage was just part of the changing workplace culture. Moreover, the company had already adopted lean manufacturing principles, which involves the same kind of mindset required for conspicuous energy savings.

Still, old habits aren’t easily shaken, so the company runs internal audits to make sure the processes are being followed.

When McNichols underwent an information technology overhaul in 2008, it ran an energy audit along with its hardware efficiency survey. The subsequent upgrade resulted in a move to a more efficient network, including consolidated servers, replacement of PCs with less energy-intensive thin clients or notebooks, plus consolidated and modernized printer and phone technologies. “Periodically, we have a third party review our systems looking for energy savings, and generally we require Energy Star-compliant hardware,” Goetschius says.

Beyond energy savings, the other side of McNichols’ green effort is recycling. As a metals processor, recycling metal has been an important part of the business for years. That approach has been extended to just about every material the company uses. Paper, cardboard, skids, cutting fluids and printer cartridges, much of which once went into the garbage, are now recycled. Where possible, materials that aren’t recyclable, such as Styrofoam, are phased out in favor of more sustainable substitutes.

Back in Chicago, the company purchased a cardboard baler at a cost of about $3,500 to handle the large amount of cardboard waste that accumulates each month. The company now recycles about two tons of cardboard monthly, receiving a modest $58 to $61 per ton for the commodity. “The ROI will be a couple of years,” Custer says, “but the benefit is we’re being pretty good stewards of the environment.”

The amount of cardboard that has been rerouted from the dumpster to the baler has other branches in the company researching the merits of purchasing a machine for their sites.

To institute such a broad green policy, the company couldn’t just put it in the hands of Custer. Success depends on the entire organization thinking of energy savings and recycling as part of every work day. “It’s not just management or leadership, but every employee in the company,” Goetschius says. “Every employee can have control over their environment. I’ve always believed the success of the company is the sum total of all of our associates.”

It’s not just about taking the obvious steps, but thinking of new ways to reduce waste or save energy. “When you start to put something under the microscope, you recognize there are a lot of different ways you can impact the environment. I never thought about printer cartridges before,” Goetschius says.

For McNichols, instituting green practices is just part of the package. The company is also making the environmental nature of its commitment, and its products, a major part of its marketing strategy.

Since so much of McNichols’ product line is targeted for the building industry, where green design is continuing to grow in importance, having an environmentally friendly philosophy and product line is crucial. “As a maker of architectural products, a lot of architects, engineers and specifiers are concerned with LEED certification. That’s where we got in,” Goetschius says.

It helps to start with material with a long history of sustainability. Distributing metal products, which are completely recyclable and have a high percentage of recycled content already, is the first effort on that front. But McNichols has gone well beyond that with its product line.

The latest product it is marketing to green builders is ECO-MESH, a modular wire mesh grid system designed to support a variety of plant life. The product can exist as a freestanding structure or can be applied to the exterior of buildings and other structures. It can also be employed around HVAC, machinery or pipes to create privacy screens, while providing some thermal benefits.

But simply providing environmentally friendly products isn’t enough. “If you’re going to tout the benefits of your product as being green, you’ve got to make sure your company is green as well,” Goetschius says. “Otherwise, you’re not lining up your sales mission with the mission of your company. I think it goes hand in hand.”

Sometimes, those hands are tied. In many LEED programs, the builders aren’t simply required to follow green procedures, but must source material from similarly inclined businesses. Satisfying LEED requirements can demand greater scrutiny of your suppliers and customers.

To that end, McNichols is considering the pursuit of ISO 14001 certification, the highest environmental management system developed. “It’s not that difficult for us to get, given we’ve already got momentum in that area,” Goetschius says. “It’s another Good Housekeeping Seal. It will probably help us resonate with our customers more on the international side, but eventually it will get recognized in the U.S.”

McNichols is already looking at its vendors through green glasses. For instance, to create its new catalog, a company was chosen that uses recycled, less toxic ink. It’s a mindset that needs to exist throughout the company.

“[President] Scott McNichols and I have talked about creating a more conspicuous green strategy within our corporate culture so it resonates more internally. Just as we previously did with our thrust toward customer service, before any new initiative is launched we must make sure we give thought to how this will effect the environment,” Goetschius says. “We need to look at what can we do to make sure we’re not leaving the environment worse off than we found it.”
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Wednesday, March 21, 2018