Month 3: Grounding Business in Commitment to Community


Imagine a Tree

Break into groups of three. Then facilitator reads the following:

We will start today with a visualization. I’d like you to close your eyes and get comfortable.

(read slowly)

Now let yourself wander back in your mind to beautiful place that you have loved. I’m hoping you can find a time, if you wander throughout your life, when there was a tree or a grove of trees, that you loved.

Has there ever been a tree you remember looking up at in wonder? Was there a tree that changed colors near the home where you grew up?  Was there a tree you used to climb? Were there trees where you played with friends? Was there a tree under whose shade you sat, your back against the trunk, whiling away afternoons?

Let’s all bring to mind a tree or a grove of trees that has held some meaning. Does everyone have something in mind? If not — I’ll give you a moment and then if you are really struggling, do your best to imagine another particular lovely and alive place for you.

Okay, now imagine this tree. Imagine the whole scene around the tree – including you.

How old were you?

What did you look like? What did the tree look like?

Where was the tree?

Did you visit the tree more than once?

Why was this tree special to you?

Do you have a particular memory of a time that meant something to you with this tree?

(15 seconds of silence)

Now open your eyes and share your story with your two partners. I’ll give you two minutes each.

(time the groups and let them know when it is time to switch to hear a new person’s sharing)

Okay – now let’s come back together. I’d love to hear from a few people if there is anything that you want to share with the group about something that touched you in someone else’s story.

(encourage a few people to share)

The stories we just heard about each of your trees demonstrate what happens through relationship.

Imagine an acre of land filled with your tree. Now realize that each day we lose upwards of 80,000 acres of tropical rainforest. More than 150 acres every minute every day. 78 million acres per year.

This is hard to comprehend because it is beyond human-scale. It is beyond the intimacy required as a human. Certainly relationships with particular trees can build our imagination and empathy for large swaths of trees, but it is also difficult to muster the affection and caring necessary to protect life, when they are reduced to numbers on a paper… so vast and so far away.


Zingerman’s Community of Business: Growing Deep into a Community

Facilitator: Next we will read today’s parable and reflect slowly. Let the words touch you. We reflect here for these few minutes, less in a book club kind of way, and more in a savoring of a text kind of way. I will read it slowly. Note anything that touches you. When I finish reading we will go around the circle and I’ll ask everyone to share just a word or a phrase that stood out for them. Then we’ll conclude.

In the book, The Third Plate by Dan Barber, there is the following passage:

“Mennonites forbid the use of rubber tires on their farm tractors, instead using steel-tired tractors inching along, slow as oxen.” When asked why, a Mennonite bishop responded with a question, ‘When do you start raising a child?’ Not at birth, or even conception, but one hundred years before a child is born because that’s when you start building the environment they’re going to live in.”

Mennonites, he went on, believe “that if you look at the history of tractors with rubber tires, you see failure within a generation. Rubber tires enable easy movement, and easy movement means that, inevitably, the farm will grow, which means more profit. More profit, in turn, leads to the acquisition of even more land, which usually means less crop diversity, more large machinery, and so on.”

(Emphasize the final sentence):

“Pretty soon the farmer becomes less intimate with his farm. It’s that lack of intimacy that leads to ignorance, and eventually to loss.”

So can you stay in intimate relationship with land, with a place, with people, and expand your business?

In 1982 Paul Saginaw and Ari Weinzweig opened Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, Michigan with the mission to make a Reuben sandwich so delicious that you wouldn’t stop eating it even to mop up the dressing running down your elbows. They offered the Ann Arbor community artisanal cheeses, meats, and other hand-selected delicacies, and local customers became loyal regulars.

After a decade, not only was their business thriving but they were getting calls from across the nation. People from Texas to Mississippi wanted a Zingerman’s too, and they were asking for a franchise. But from the beginning, Zingerman’s definition of success had been, “hitting all three of our bottom lines: great product, great finance, and great service to our customers, our employees, and to our Ann Arbor community.” Paul and Ari did feel the call to grow – both because they had smart young people working with them for whom they wanted to provide more professional growth, and also because they had more entrepreneurial creativity to offer. But they did not want to grow by sacrificing quality or by abandoning the depth of relationship they had with their hometown. They ruled out franchising because, “we had never seen an operation that was really, really good that got better through growth by replication.” Paul and Ari began considering how to grow the business in a way that stayed true to their initial vision. Instead of spreading out of Ann Arbor, Zingerman’s created a path to expand by “grow(ing) our roots deeper and deeper into our community.”

They formed the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses (ZCoB). Their innovative solution was to offer ownership in the brand to Zingerman’s employees who showed promise as an entrepreneur and who had a compelling business idea to serve the needs of the Ann Arbor community with the best possible quality. The Community of Businesses finances the new managing partner’s venture while providing MBA-quality business education and back office support. By staying intimately related to the needs of their place, Zingerman’s just opened up their 10th partner business. These businesses include a bakery, a creamery, a candy company, and a business training company called ZingTrain. They now offer all employees part ownership and today employ 740 worker-owners and bring in $66 million annually in sales. “And we are still here in Ann Arbor” says Paul with pride, “which I think has been pretty good for this place.” The community would agree. In fact not long ago, the non-profits came together to put up a billboard thanking Zingerman’s for “living here.”

Paul told us that for himself, Zingerman’s success has “given me an enormous amount of joy and pride, to have created something that is respected and has helped a lot of people.”

“When I give the orientation to our staff members that are starting out I let them know that they are not just making a sandwich, or stocking shelves, or packing a box to ship,” he says. “They are feeding people. They are sheltering people. I want them to make a connection to know that the work they do is very, very important and it is helping their neighbors.”

Additional Resources:
Watch the Zingerman’s: This is Ownership video, and read the Zingerman’s case study. (You can include these as part of your parable or circle wrap up).

Wrapping Up Your Circle

Facilitator: Now starting on my left, can we hear a word or phrase from each person? Something that stood out or touched you about this parable.

(Facilitator might want to model by starting first, then go around the circle.) 

Thank you. I invite and encourage you all to use these practices & parables in other settings – staff meetings, or at group gatherings with other business and community leaders. We are joining hundreds of other communities in doing this. Together, we can choose to meet these times with courage, and we can #ChooseConnection.

Share Your Stories

Have a story about how your company is defying “business as usual” or how the members of your circle develop a new tool or process to help others? Please share your stories so others may be inspired by your experience. We welcome you to email us stories, feedback, or photos at any time. On social media, use the tag #ChooseConnection so we can repost.