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The Land Of Small Giants

In a land of industrial giants, a community of  "small giants" is thriving: small businesses concerned more about product and service quality, work life, and contributing to the community, than rapid growth, expansion, and profit.

Following the publication of Small Giants by Bo Burlingham in 2005, virtual "Small Giant Communities" have sprung up throughout the world:  SmallGiants@Brazil, SmallGiants@Romania; SmallGiants@South Africa; and SmallGiants@Michigan.


The emergence of Michigan as the first and only state to sponsor a small giant community is largely the work of Marisa Smith, a partner with The Whole Brain Group in Ann Arbor.

"A lot of us were already feeling these [values] about how to run our companies, but we felt we were alone or didn't have the language to describe it," says Smith. After reading Small Giants, featuring Zingerman's Community of Businesses, Smith realized that there were several small giants operating in the Ann Arbor area.
That led to the idea of creating virtual communities of small companies aspiring to be "small giants". Last fall, Smith hosted a community mixer in Ann Arbor.  30 companies attended. "I wanted to have local events in Ann Arbor because there are so many of us around here." A second mixer in November drew 60. On April 19, the third one drew a diverse group of 100 from Detroit to Grand Rapids and Traverse City, in conjunction with a Small Giants seminar hosted by ZingTrain – Zingerman's training company.

Renee Malone, principal of Kick the Moon, a training company in Northville, attended the November and April mixers. She says she is invigorated by the mixers. "I get a lot of optimism. I get vibrancy. It's like the hierarchy model is thrown out of the window. No one really talks about the old business model. It's like a language that's obsolete. It's a transparent, energized, optimistic community, where I feel there is genuine interest. When a culture is being built, you look for people that appreciate the same things. That's what I'm finding in this community. As young as it is, I get tremendous value talking to some of the brilliant people I've met."

Jim Meredith, principal of Meredith Strategy & Design, LLC, found the mixer enlightening. "It's nice to come to what might be called illumination, when you come to a place where there are many people in Southeastern Michigan who have companies, who have companies and are working with purpose, who are thinking very carefully about the way they do their work and the way their companies grow."

Small giants are interested in profit. But that's not their only goal, according to Burlingham. "They're also interested in being great at what they do, creating a great place to work, providing great service to customers, having great relationships with their suppliers, making great contributions to the communities they live…and in many cases, place significant limits on how much and how fast they grow."

Zingerman's Bakehouse had an opportunity to provide dinner rolls for the former Northwest Airlines. "The business we would have gotten from Northwest probably would have doubled our sales and would have required that we increase our fixed overhead," explains Amy Emberling, Zingerman's partner. "We would have had to buy new equipment and it would have taken us down a path of making an item that we didn't already make and wasn't going to match the criteria we were trying to fulfill in the bread that we were making."

They decided to pass on the deal.

Torrance Learning, an online company based in Chelsea, initially turned down an opportunity to train Dow Chemical Company workers. "That would have been a darn nice feather in my hat to have such a brand name as a client," says owner Megan Torrance, but "it would have forced me to triple my staff and lay them off at the end [of the contract], the [profit] margins would have been very tight, [and] I would not have been able to control the way in which we do the work. It would have been a high volume shop…. That's not how we want to work."

Small giants aren't adverse to profit, Torrance contends. "I like profits. Profits are good. Profits are what feed the rest. [But] profits aren't the only thing. It's more about building something special, the giving-back, and the connection to the community."  
"What I find fascinating is that these arise out of interests that may have some kind of financial reward, but they in fact grow by other purposes – some interest in doing things better or more excellently than people have been able to do it in the past," says Meredith. "Certainly, many of these people seem to be motivated by what kind of contribution they can make to the world, or some kind of contribution to others. What is very interesting too is that there is continuous innovation in business models."
Given the bad news that permeates the Michigan business culture, you wouldn't expect a thriving small giant community. On the other hand, why wouldn't you expect new growth in a fallen forest?

“Given the kind of economic collapse that we've experienced in this section of the country, how marvelous it is to have this as part of the conversation, the illumination, in our own area," says Meredith.

According to its website, the Small Giants Community rejects "the pressure of endless growth to define success by not only [the] bottom line, but by contributions to the community, dedication to great customer service and creation and preservation of workplace cultures of excellence."  Local and international small giants are connected by "mojo-mindedness," a kind of attitude and energy that defines the way these companies choose to do business.
Smith sees evidence of that "mojo" here. "People in Michigan have been hearing bad news longer than other states. They may be sicker of it and ready to do something about it. Maybe that's why it's resonating here so well."

Torrance suggests that the values of being part of a small giant community are akin to flowers growing toward the sun. "People are excited about the small giants' concept because the small giants are successful. They're doing something that's positive. They're embracing the world with an abundance mentality. It's not, 'How can I beat down everyone just to get ahead.' Because of that welcoming, more inclusive approach, people are leaning toward that kind of sun. … There's something cool going on, it's very attractive to people, and the organizing energy comes with it."

Small giants also know how to mix business with pleasure. To complement periodic social mixers, Smith is planning to organize a "beer and blog" session this summer. A group of small giants will meet somewhere with their laptops and a favorite after-hours beverage.
"We're saying that we're all supposed to be blogging and it's really hard to fit it in," she says. "Maybe if we all had a beer and decided to do it at the same time we'd actually get it done. … Almost anything is more fun when you're doing it with other people."

Dennis Archambault is a small giant among men. He is also regular contributor to Metromode and Model D. His last article was Metro Detroit Goes Au Natural.

All Photographs © Marvin Shaouni Photography
Contact Marvin here


Megan Torrance and her team at the offices of Torrance Learning - Chelsea

Marisa Smith, principal of The Whole Brain Group and her team - Ann Arbor

Zingerman's Bakehouse - Ann Arbor

Amy Emberling, partner with Zingerman's Bakehouse - Ann Arbor

Online educational tools developed by Torrance Learning

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