Inside Track: Impacting communities through business
President of Cascade Business Team believes in power of business for social change.
In keeping with Cascade Engineering’s family business model of social responsibility, Christina Keller, president of Cascade Business Team, is passionate about the abilities of businesses to make a positive impact on their communities.
Keller’s experience with Cascade Engineering began with a few internships before her college career at Cornell Business School.
Keller said she always was interested in trying to make a positive impact. During and after college, she spent summers working for nonprofits in Africa and Latin America, installing solar panels for schools and hospitals, working with clean water and other types of initiatives.
Unfortunately, she found out nonprofit efforts sometimes can have a negative impact on the culture they are trying to benefit.
“I realized that when you go into a community, you make an impact, and then you leave and come back, sometimes the positive intentions can end up with negative outcomes,” she said. “In Africa, we put a solar panel in an area that was relatively poor, and when we came back, there was a fence around the building, the solar panel had been stolen, there was a lot more crime in the area.”
When her travels took her to Ghana, she discovered a lot of the population was homeless because a humanitarian organization had donated grain, which compromised the livelihood of the grain farmers living in the region. Keller said the donations had forced the local grain prices to zero.
Keller’s experiences with nonprofits got her interested in global economics. She said one of her favorite classes in college was on the political economy of developing nations. She learned developing countries will never become fully developed because they don’t do value-added work.
“In a country like Uganda, they create the tea leaves, but then they send them to Europe to be bagged and they buy them back as Lipton English Breakfast Tea,” she explained. “So, they actually lose money as a country.”
Keller returned to the family business in 2009, leading a water filtration program. When she joined, the program was running into financial trouble and was unable to cover the cost of the filters. She helped create a social enterprise, generating outside funding through the Windquest Group. Cascade grew the enterprise, which now resides with Native Energy, a greenhouse gas emission registry organization. She explained the cost of water filters is offset by the prospective carbon emissions reduced by not having to boil water.
Keller said she is interested in similar types of models that try to solve problems through business rather than nonprofits.
“Not that nonprofits are bad,” she said, “just that it’s more sustainable if you can solve it through a business problem.”
Some examples she gave were Cascade’s Welfare to Career Program, which seeks to employ and retain welfare recipients to give them a career opportunity, and the Returning Citizens program, which offers career opportunities for former inmates. Cascade Engineering does not ask applicants whether or not they have been convicted of a crime.
“As manufacturers, we have an opportunity to employ people out of poverty, to give people a starting place,” she said.
Keller argued public assistance can “put a Band-Aid” on the problem, but when people are given employment, they have the opportunity to pull themselves through a career and have a more sustainable livelihood.
In 2013, Keller took the role of president of CK Technologies LLC, a division of Cascade and manufacturer of heavy truck components. She said the switch was her biggest career break. She went from leading Cascade’s smallest division, the water filter project, to leading the company’s largest division. She took over about 800 people and was on the supplier council for Navistar, alongside presidents of Cummins, Eaton and Meritor.
She also led CK through three record years of sales and as it improved its safety scores. She gave a commencement speech to Northwest State Community College (NWSCC) while pregnant with her second child.
“I went through a lot of experience down there,” she said. “It was kind of a proving ground for me. I had done a lot of things to date, but leading this kind of big division and leading it successfully was probably my biggest career break.”
Keller added CK as a whole has had a lot of opportunities to succeed in the trucking components industry. The company has manufactured a lot of “industry firsts,” having made the first chrome electroplated grill in the industry, the first all-plastic bumper, the first plastic chassis skirts and the first chrome sun visor.
“We basically took everything on the exterior of the truck that used to be metal and made it out of plastic,” she said. “So, it’s great for over-the-road trucks because it’s lighter weight.”
Keller said her time at CK taught her about innovation and how to capitalize on breakthrough technologies. CK also taught her how to lead large teams in multiple different facilities.
“Up here (at Cascade), we have a lot of different locations and each location gets its own culture,” she said. “So, understanding the nuances of managing multiple locations has been interesting.”
Keller came back to Cascade’s main campus in 2016 and assumed her current role as president of CBT. She oversees the entirety of Cascade’s Grand Rapids campus. Most of the commercial team, the operational team and engineering team are under her leadership.
Following her passion for changing the public perception of manufacturing, Keller is proud of the company’s partnerships with Grand Valley State University, Grand Rapids Community College and Davenport University. She cited the U.S. Public Opinion on Manufacturing Study by the Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte, which said people age 19-33 ranked manufacturing as their least preferred career destination.
“I just think that’s too bad, that high schoolers don’t want to go into manufacturing,” she said. “And West Michigan has 23 percent employment in the manufacturing sector versus the national average, which is 8 percent.”
Keller said every dollar spent in manufacturing adds $1.37 to the U.S. economy, and every 100 jobs in manufacturing create an additional 250 jobs in other sectors. She projected there will be about 3.5 million manufacturing jobs available over the next decade as the existing workforce approaches retirement.
As a female leader, Keller said she was influenced by the Minister of Foreign Affairs and first woman secretary of El Salvador, Mayu Brizuela de Avila, whom she befriended and was mentored by on her travels.
“I think I have a double whammy being young and being a woman because I think people have assumptions,” Keller said.
Avila recounted to her an experience where she was leading a meeting and a man came in and asked her to bring him coffee. Rather than explain that she was the Minister of Foreign Affairs, she left, came back with coffee, sat down and started the meeting.
“I think what she taught me is, when people make assumptions about you, it’s more on them than it is on you and to not let that shake you,” she said.
When she became President of CBT, Keller herself was assumed by a customer to be the company’s new administrative assistant.
“People will make assumptions, as a young woman, that you’re not leading the organization, you’re in some other role,” she said.
But possibly the person with the greatest impact on her life is her father, Fred Keller, whom she praised for his contribution to Cascade and his role in bringing business leaders together to solve social problems through a business model.
“I really think West Michigan has a lot of opportunities to continue to be on the forefront,” she said, “and his vision and leadership over the years are inspiring for me, and I hope to do the same thing over the next 30 years.”