Executive Q&A: Bob Chase, running a fair-trade business

2010-04-24T13:30:00Z 2012-06-19T10:35:17Z Executive Q&A: Bob Chase, running a fair-trade businessBy JANE BURNS | jburns@madison.com | 608-252-6440 madison.com

Time has kept ticking for SERRV International, a nonprofit organization that began with the sale of cuckoo clocks.

SERRV was founded in 1949 as a way to help war refugees, and it continued its 60th anniversary celebration last week when its board of directors met in Madison. For the last 20 years, Bob Chase has been president and CEO, overseeing SERRV's transition from a church-based organization to an independent one and the move of its administrative offices to Madison in 2001.

SERRV partners with organizations worldwide to sell local artisans' work, with fair-trade principles. SERRV also helps develop products and job and marketing skills to further benefit communities. The organization began in New Windsor, Md., where its warehouse and customer service center remain.

SERRV also has two retail stores, one at 2701 Monroe St. and the other in Maryland, and is the wholesaler for another 500 stores. The organization also sells fair-trade goods on its website and sends about 1 million catalogs a year.

For Chase, a former Peace Corps volunteer and former stockbroker, working for SERRV was a chance to meld his business skills with his desire to help others.

Q: Are people surprised your organization has been around for 60 years?

A: We've been around for a long time and a lot of people have never heard of us. Some people have the idea that fair trade is something that was invented by a couple of 22-year-olds last year.

Was it a big career shift going from stockbroker to running a nonprofit?

A: A lot of people think that. In some ways, it wasn't. My wife, Sue, and I were in the Peace Corps and we went back to Brazil to work for another organization. Part of what we learned was that a lot of development didn't seem to be having an effect. People have a lot of grandiose ideas, but in a lot of ways, it's the small things that can really improve people's lives, like having a decent job and being able to send your kids to school.

I realized if I could put together my experience in business and development, I could do something that was meaningful on a small scale.

Do you get applicants or employees who are surprised about the business element to this?

A: It took us a little while to put together the right combination of people here. We've always attracted good people, but they tended to fall into two ends of the spectrum. They were either incredibly idealistic but didn't have business skills or they had really good business skills but really didn't care about the core values.

We believe in the core values, but 95 percent of our day is just like everybody else's — spreadsheets, reports, meetings, talking to customers.

One thing that is changing is we do have young people with an increased interest in socially responsible business. When I was in school, you wanted to go into business, so you really didn't care about ethics, or you were really idealistic so you didn't want to go anywhere near business. That's changing.

Do people now see a job like yours as a bona fide career goal?

A: When I took this job, most of my friends and family didn't think it was a bona fide career move. They thought I was nuts.

One of the reasons we opened the office in Madison is we were located for most of our history in a rural location in Maryland. It continues to be a great place for our customer service, our warehouse, our computer services.

There were a lot of young people who were interested in international development and fair trade but weren't interested in going to a place like that. So we tried to identify places we could relocate to and Madison seemed like a place that attracted young people who are interested in the work we do.

Is there more of a demand for fair trade products now?

A: It's kind of a two-edged sword. There's certainly a rising interest in fair trade and there is a growing interest in our core values.

Twenty or 30 years ago, these products were much more unique. The marketplace is much more demanding today. We have to work harder with the artisans over quality, design and uniqueness.

Part of our goal is to prepare the artisans not just to sell to us, but to customers throughout the world. They need to learn to operate in that demanding environment if they are going to grow.

Do you consider it a success if they don't need you anymore?

A: We do. We work hard to introduce our artisan partners to other organizations who can buy their products because they need to sell to more than us. If their sales increase because they're selling to someone else and not us, that is success for us.

What are your funding sources?

A: About 90 percent of our revenues come from product sales. The remainder is from small grants and donations.

Are there any U.S.-made products?

A: Our focus is international because the organization was created to deal with that. But we do work with organizations in the U.S. We sell products made by a Native American group in Minnesota, maple syrup, wild rice. We work with a Chicago organization called Enterprising Kitchen, a nonprofit that helps women suffering from domestic violence, drug addiction, and they're trying to rebuild their lives.

There's the Women's Bean Project, a similar group out in Colorado. They'll work with local farmers to source the raw materials and package them. Their bean soup is really popular with our customers.

How much traveling do you do?

A: I travel overseas about three times a year. I spend more time going back and forth to Maryland.

People will ask me, "You've been to China, have you seen the Great Wall?" Well, I haven't seen the Great Wall. I feel so fortunate to visit any of these places. I've been to Vietnam, I've been to China, I've been to Russia. It's the interaction with the people, not seeing the tourist sites, and it's a wonderful thing.

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