Good Corporate Citizenship Is a ‘Growth and Learning Experience’
MIDDLETON, Wis. — Established some 63 years ago, it’s no irony that Hy Cite Enterprises set down roots in a community that long ago dubbed itself “the good neighbor city.”
A local, family-owned seller of cook- and kitchenware, its goods stocked the hope chests of generations of young adults planning to marry in and around this suburb of the Wisconsin state capital, Madison.
And as a thriving local business, its good intentions help support a number of local school, athletic and community activities.
However, the question that confronted Hy Cite not so long ago was how do you keep practicing good corporate citizenship as one grows first into a national concern, and later, into a thriving international business?
“You know how it works,” said Jessica Marquez, Hy Cite’s chief legal officer and chair of its new philanthropy program, “Hy Cite Gives Back.”
“You start out and one of your executives or employees has a kid that goes to X school and the school asks for your support for one program or another,” Marquez said. “It’s all very organic and the decision to help is very straightforward.
“The challenges begin when you reach a certain size, and suddenly the process isn’t quite as organic as it used to be,” she said. “There comes a point where, if you want to continue to be a good corporate citizen, you really need to formalize the program and be more diligent about the contributions that you make.”
As they mulled the creation of their new social impact program, the leadership at Hy Cite said their number one goal was to be “authentic.”
“In other words, they didn’t want to simply throw money at high profile causes because it would make them look good,” Marquez said.
“So the first thing we did was to step back and look at the donations we’d made over the past five or six years,” she said. “The idea being to see what we did organically when no one was really looking at this or paying attention.
“From there, the next step was reaching out to our employees, using a questionnaire, and asking what causes were important to them,” she continued. “We did the same with third parties who are important to our business.”
It was only after that information was assessed that Marquez and her team went to the Hy Cite board and asked it to sign off on a concrete approach to good corporate citizenship going forward.
“It was a conversation that started with, ‘this is what we gathered from all of our stakeholder groups, and based on what they said, this is what we think aligns best with what is important to the company,’” she said. “From there, it became a far more focused discussion on what we wanted to support.
“We thought about that a lot,” Marquez added, “because whatever we did needed to be authentic … and it needed to be a true commitment over the long haul.”
Once the initial soul-searching was done, Hy Cite put together a standing committee with members culled from every part of the organization and most of its locations.
That committee reviews whatever applications and funding requests have come in over the preceding month and makes a decision based on how the request conforms to three pillars or subject areas for support: Hispanic Empowerment, Nutrition, and community support.
“Sometimes we say yes, other times we say no, but whatever was decided, we know we’ve made a strong decision guided by a specific goal,” Marquez said.
“That’s the thing about the pillars. You’re not just saying, we’ll give to this today and to that other thing tomorrow; what you’re doing is establishing a framework for renewed commitments to certain areas, and that’s important for a number of reasons,” she said.
“First, having an overall alignment on goals is a good way to boost employee motivation and company morale, you’re not just sprinkling a little support here and there, you’re pursuing a specific goal,” she said. “At the same time, it keeps us honest and on track.”
Marquez said she believes the most important benefit of this kind of engagement is creating connections between the customers and distributors Hy Cite serves and its employee network.
“For instance, our products are very kitchen-focused, and nutrition, of course, is kitchen-focused, and so it is a perfect fit for us, and it’s something that’s very important to everybody, right?
“And that’s what I mean by being authentic in the commitments you make, rather than working on things that come out of left field. There are all kinds of causes that sound really cool, but in the end, they just wouldn’t be right for us. Nutrition, on the other hand, is very much a compliment to what we do as a business,” she said.
That’s not to say there aren’t exceptions to strict adherence to the program’s pillars. Such was the case after Hurricane Ian barreled into Fort Myers, Florida.
“Disaster relief is not something we typically do, but realizing we have a large number of distributors in Florida, we felt like contributing to a disaster relief fund was something we had to do,” Marquez said.
For Hy Cite, hurricane disaster relief was an opportunity to show the company was able to extend a helping hand beyond Madison and beyond Wisconsin to its wider network of distributor and supplier communities when a situation warranted it.
To date Hy Cite Gives Back has provided financial and other support to more than 20 different organizations, including, nationally, Feed the Children, United Way and the Wounded Warrior amputee softball team.
In its first year, that support approached $500,000, and this past year, it was only slightly less.
“It’s difficult to know how much you need to give when you first start a program because you really don’t know what you’re aiming at, and what the most effective investments are,” Marquez said.
“Now that we’ve started Hy Cite Gives Back our goal is to find long-term partners that we can work with and establish metrics so that we can commit to increasing our support for them on an annual basis,” she said.
“That’s an important lesson learned, I think,” she said. “You may start out with a very well-intentioned goal, but you don’t really know what the job is and how much you need to donate to be effective, until you’re really into it.”
As part of the fine-tuning, Hy Cite recently hired a new ESG program coordinator, Megan Zielke, formerly corporate environmental, social and governance analyst with Spectrum Brands Inc. in Middleton.
“She’s been able to really put the program on a more formal footing, enabling it to do more, more effectively,” she said.
“But, you know, that’s the thing about striving to be a good corporate citizen, it takes time, it takes resources and it takes commitment,” Marquez added. “I think to date, where Hy Cite has been great is in saying, ‘Yes, we are committed to this.’ And now we’ve got the person in-house to ensure we’re going to do it right.”