Editor's note: Looking for our online exclusives? Thom Filicia's additional design tips are at the end of this article. To read about last year's makeover and to view a slideshow, read "To the Rescue."
"Please excuse our outdated office," Randy Sprecher would begin, standing in a drab space that pretended to be a lobby. And if people looked down the narrow room filled with cubicles and doorways, they would see décor that smacked of the 1970s--even though the business had come into being in 1985. Sprecher would explain to visitors that his brewery put all its resources into its beer, root beer and other sodas. And if the office appeared to be having a particularly bad day, Sprecher might go further in his act of contrition, saying: "We put all the emphasis on quality control, training our people, making payroll, providing a good health plan ..." Then he would try to change the subject.
Sprecher never held important meetings in the Milwaukee offices of Sprecher Brewing Co. Inc. He did his best to take people anywhere else. Or if they dropped by unexpectedly, he would take guests on a tour of the brewing facilities, which he was understandably proud of. Above all, he avoided leading anyone into the nucleus of his operations.
Sprecher, now 58, would have liked to do something about the offices, where about a dozen of his 54 employees work, but the reasons he gave his guests for not doing anything were accurate: If there were available funds to spend, he put them into the rest of the business.
His wife, Anne, 44, married him in 2001 and joined the company a year ago. She was in love with Randy, but wanted to divorce his office. The low ceilings weighed on everyone, and the threadbare carpet and dark paneled walls were depressing. Meanwhile, the computers seemed to be something from the Stonehenge era, and the furnishings from a rummage sale. In fact, the countertop in the center of the offices resembled something found in a hospital nurses' station--it was big, bulky and a catchall for clutter. Clutter, in fact, ruled in the office. Paperwork was everywhere, despite the fact that no one wanted to do paperwork--it could take the printer up to six minutes to spit out a single color page.
Randy was sympathetic, but he always had an excuse as to why any extra funds had to go somewhere else. And so when Anne learned about Xerox and Entrepreneur's "Most Deserving Small Business" makeover contest, it seemed like her last chance to bring redemption to their motley collection of desks and offices.
The Sprechers' situation isn't unusual, according to Dave Burdakin, president of The HON Company, one of the nation's leading office-furniture manufacturers and the furniture provider for the makeover contest: "Entrepreneurs are very busy people, and sometimes office décor is not their top priority--until they wake up one day, look around their office and realize it's a hodgepodge of material that looks like they acquired everything at a rummage sale." As an example, Burdakin notes that Sprecher Brewing Co. was using a wrought-iron plant holder for their document storage: "It reminded me of something I used to see in my grandmother's backyard."
The judges who chose the winner from this year's batch of contestants consisted of Burdakin; Dan Holtshouse, director of corporate business strategy for Xerox; Stephen Jordan, vice president and executive director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Center for Corporate Citizenship; Rieva Lesonsky, senior vice president and editorial director of Entrepreneur magazine; and Thom Filicia, interior-design specialist on NBC/Bravo's Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. The criteria for winning included considerations on how sorry an office looked, of course, but there was another twist. The business had to be practicing social entrepreneurship--that is, giving something back to its community.
Pay It Forward
The 2000 book and movie Pay It Forward put that expression into the popular lexicon and re-inforced an idea that has been around presumably as long as humankind: Do something good "just because," and almost inevitably, good things will also happen to you.
The corporate world has been onto this for some time now. But you already knew that. Just think about Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, Ronald McDonald Houses, or Ben & Jerry's and their environmental causes. But being involved isn't just a matter of being nice--it's sound business practice, points out Jordan.
"Being a good neighbor in the community is part of the DNA makeup of small companies," says Jordan. "What companies [sponsor] the local Little League team? It's the local bicycle shop, the dry cleaner, or the local bar or restaurant. And why do they do that? In part, it's because of community relations and marketing. If they don't have good relations with the people they're close to, their sales are affected."
The judges were particularly impressed with Sprecher Brewing Co. and its owners' commitment to both their business and their community. "We chose them because, like so many entrepreneurs, they were so focused 0n growing the business, they neglected their own needs. And to top it off, they were so active in their community, they just rose to the top," says Lesonsky.
Adds Holtshouse, "[Sprecher Brewing Co. has] done a superb job integrating with the community and community events, from grass-roots efforts to the board level."
The evidence: Sprecher Brewing Co. has donated tens of thousands of dollars worth of beverages for fundraising events to numerous groups, including the Muscular Dystrophy Association, Milwaukee Children's Hospital and Sam's Hope, a reading program. The company has also operated an annual charity festival for the past 16 years. "Sprecherfest," a one-and-a-half-day, family-friendly event, is often able to raise $20,000 a year for the local PBS station. Considering all this charity work, and the effort involved in maintaining a brewery that contains everything from massive fermenting tanks to a lab that analyzes yeast cultures, it's no surprise that whenever conversation turned to fixing up the office, or at least streamlining its infrastructure with better technology, Randy resisted.
"We don't expect much," says Tim Wright, Sprecher's IT manager and an employee for the past 10 years. "I think we've always had this attitude that we make do with what we've got."
The Grand Tour
Thom Filicia tries to be kind when Randy and Anne first accompany him through the offices. "It looks like there are a lot of ideas going on here," Filicia says diplomatically when analyzing exactly what he and his interior design firm are up against.
"I'm going to correct you. There were no ideas here," admits Randy, who explains that as the years went by, the office-space situation was fluid. As employees moved, desks, phones and filing cabinets were moved around. How the office looked--and ultimately how it made employees feel--was never really considered.
"You have the fraternity basement look going on," says Filicia, clearly amused by the level of tackiness that has permeated the offices. He picks up a sickly looking plant. "If it could see itself, it would probably be dead."
Filicia enters a bathroom. "Oh, my goodness," he exclaims breezily, turning to the Sprechers: "So you poop at home?" By now, Filicia is completely relaxed, putting on the head of a giant crow costume, the Sprecher mascot. From the darkness of the giant crow's head, Filicia quips, "It's more attractive in here than in your office." He finally concludes, "This is a great place, but it's not being utilized to its best ability."
Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.