At the forefront of all things green

March 2, 2010
| By Pete Daly |
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Renae Hesselink is about as green as a person can be. So green, in fact, that in January she was elected chair of the U.S. Green Building Council of West Michigan, an organization with members throughout the entire western half of Michigan's Lower Peninsula.

Hesselink, who is vice president of sustainability at Nichols Paper and Supply Inc. in Spring Lake, is also one of the founding members of the Muskegon Area Sustainability Coalition, launched in 2006.

The 52-year-old Muskegon native joked that "a lot of these young kids" who are becoming seriously involved in green building issues and sustainability can tend to make some of us feel kind of old.

Her perception and worldview is anything but old, however. Apparently, Hesselink had a knack early on for recognizing some of the trends that ultimately change how the world does business.

Hesselink began her corporate career at Clarke Floor Machine in Muskegon, where she was a customer service representative. From there, she went to S&K Products, where she was a purchasing agent. Then she spent several years at Sealed Power Corp. in Muskegon, where, as the material control planner, she managed about $10 million worth of inventory for various automotive product lines. She joined Nichols almost 17 years ago.

With a 1988 degree in business administration from Grand Valley State University, and after having spent years before that working in purchasing and production management, Hesselink began work on her master's degree in 1994. That foray back into academia led her into an intense interest in the new-fangled Internet that was starting to get people's attention. She soon learned how to develop Web sites, at a time when many companies and organizations didn't have one yet or even understand their potential as a marketing toolbox.

At the time, Hesselink was on the board of directors of the National Association of Purchasing Managers. That organization realized it needed a Web site, so she created one for it. Later, she would teach Microsoft FrontPage for Web site design for six years as an adjunct professor at Muskegon Community College.

At the time she created the NAPM Web site, Hesselink was manager of Nichols' supply chain for the janitorial, paper and food service products it distributes. Eventually, the company took advantage of her expertise in online marketing. From January 1999 through December 2001, she was e-business manager at Nichols, planning, developing and implementing the firm's e-commerce system, which now represents 11 percent of its business.

Today, Nichols is the largest independent distributor of its type in the state of Michigan, with more than three thousand customers. It provides custodial supplies, products and equipment for cleaning buildings, and packaging supplies for the industrial, education, health care and lodging markets in the Great Lakes region. Founded in 1936, sales today total almost $50 million, with about 90 employees in five locations throughout the state. The company has a total of 158,000 square feet of warehousing space in the Muskegon area, Holland, Grand Rapids, Traverse City and Wixom. The corporate headquarters and main distribution center are in Spring Lake.

The environment is a major concern of Nichols because cleaning chemicals can have an impact on indoor air quality and the natural environment. Hesselink said that about 10 or 12 years ago, the cleaning products industry saw the introduction of some "green" products — "but frankly, they didn't work very well and they were more expensive, so they didn't stick around long." Green cleaning products, she said, "should be easy to obtain and at a competitive price compared to traditional products."

About six years ago, the industry began to shift toward permanent adoption of green cleaning compounds. That was when Nichols formalized its green program. "We've been in the forefront of green cleaning," said Hesselink.

Renae D. Hesselink
Nichols Paper and Supply Inc.
Position: Vice President of Sustainability
Age: 52
Birthplace: Muskegon
Residence: Muskegon
Family/Personal: Single
Community/Business Involvement: Chairwoman of the U. S. Green Building Council of West Michigan; founder and member of Muskegon Area Sustainability Coalition; board member, The Employers' Association of West Michigan; board development committee of the Girl Scouts of Michigan Shore to Shore Council.
Biggest Career Break: Learning Web site design and development while working on her MBA at Baker College.

In the world of LEED-certified construction, everything counts, including the compounds used to clean the buildings long after construction is complete. "Credit can be gained on a LEED project by having a good, green cleaning program," she noted.

About two years ago, Nichols created a new position to focus the company on sustainability, both internally and with its customers. Hesselink was selected to fill the role of vice president of sustainability. With her leadership, Nichols submitted an application and is currently awaiting certification from the U.S. Green Building Council for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for Existing Buildings-Operations and Maintenance. The pursuit of that certification led Nichols to many positive results, with the two most prominent being a 34 percent reduction in energy usage and a 90 percent reduction in waste hauling fees.

In her new role, Hesselink has worked with several organizations in Michigan to document green cleaning programs to meet LEED requirements.

With her work at Nichols and her involvement in the USGBC of West Michigan and the Sustainability Coalition, Hesselink barely finds time for her hobby: nature photography. The best way for her to indulge in it is to spend her vacations on organized photography trips to national parks out West.

Hesselink's role in sustainability leadership extends beyond her workday. About four years ago, she was among the first to get together in an informal group that today is known as the Muskegon Area Sustainability Coalition. Other founders represented the Community Foundation for Muskegon County, the Muskegon Area Chamber of Commerce and the Community Coordinating Council, which represents 46 nonprofit organizations in the Muskegon area.

Members of the group assembled simply because they "decided that (sustainability) was important," she said. When the group began to grow and became noticed in the community, it solicited new members and started meeting every month, although it is still largely an informal group that does not collect membership dues.

"We've accomplished quite a bit, actually, for not having any budget," she said. Recently, for instance, the Coalition held a roundtable discussion that drew 120 people, offering discussions on 10 different sustainability topics.

A big issue lately in Muskegon was the loss of the city-funded curbside recycling program due to budget constraints. Allied Waste was the contracted hauler for the city trash pickup; the company said that without city funding of recycling, 500 residents would have to sign up for curbside recycling, at a cost of $42 per year, or it wouldn't be economically feasible for the company to offer it.

The Sustainability Coalition went to work in the community and was able to rally 700 residents who agreed to pay the $42 per year for recycling, said Hesselink.

Hesselink was one of the founding members of the western Michigan chapter of the USGBC, around 2004. Now, as chair, she crams her already busy schedule with many more hours of work with the organization. One major project this winter was a recruitment campaign for new members.

"Our membership has dropped a little bit because of the construction industry being down so much," she explained.

Over the last three years, chapter membership had doubled, to the point where there were 350 members last spring. Now there are just over 300, but a luncheon the group sponsored at Grand Valley State University in late January attracted 150 people, and some of those are expected to become members.

It was a practical luncheon meeting for LEED-accredited professionals, above and beyond the chapter's recruitment campaign. Hesselink said there are about 740 LEED-accredited professionals in West Michigan. (An individual does not have to be a USGBC chapter member to be LEED accredited.) Last year the national organization made some changes in continuing education required for maintaining accreditation, and that was the focus of the meeting.

"The United States sets the example for the rest of the world," said Hesselink. For that reason, she said, Americans need to change their habits regarding environmental impact and energy consumption, because developing countries look at the U.S. with the goal of imitating the American lifestyle. However, there aren't enough natural resources on a global scale to support consumption such as occurs in the U.S., especially with the world population — currently at 6 billion — predicted to hit 9 billion by about 2030.

"We need to start taking better care" of the environment. "And we can. It shouldn't be that difficult. It just takes effort."

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