"We've had some real critical, defining moments," says Trish Karter, looking back on the history of Dancing Deer Baking Company, a maker of all-natural cookies and cakes with about $10 million in sales in the last year. "Happily, my instincts have always been to do and be who we are and not lose sight of that.
"When we formed this company it was kind of a hobby investment but it was also a place where my ex-husband and I wanted to invest our ideals about what a business could be. We had ambitions for creating an organization that was better, happier, smarter, faster; where there was ownership at all levels, and where we played a positive role in the community, as well as lived up to our promise to make a very pure, quality product. In the early days mostly what we were trying to do was stay alive. But, in a way, we were making choices every day about how we'd stay alive."
One defining moment came in 1998. Dancing Deer was only four years old, with about 20 employees shuttling back and forth between two cramped bakeries. "We sold some business to Williams Sonoma that we couldn't produce from our facility. We had totally maxed it out."
Karter looked at two options for Dancing Deer's new home, one in inner-city Boston and one in the suburbs. "The suburban one was clean, inexpensive, it had growth potential. It would have been easy to move into," says Karter. On the other hand: "Our workforce came from the inner city." Karter wanted to hold onto the people who baked brownies and tied ribbons on the packaging as well as her managers and accountants. She calculated the cost of busing employees to the suburbs. But beyond the decision's impact on employees and profits, Karter saw implications for the identity of the company. "We were hip, forward-thinking, always doing something innovative in food, always pushing the boundaries in marketing. What kind of a company would we be if we moved out to the suburbs?"
The inner-city location was a former fish processing plant in need of repair, with an unpaved parking lot, set in a neighborhood with high dereliction and crime rates. What could have been viewed as liabilities appealed to Karter. "I'm an artist, too, so the idea of bringing a wonderful old brick building back to life appealed to me a lot." She explains that she comes from a "scavenger family," and her father ran a pioneering recycling business. "We were always collecting bricks from fallen-down buildings and saving mansions and restoring old houses."
Dancing Deer moved into the old brick factory, having replaced the floor, the windows, the plumbing, the electricity, and even the paint. The company also settled into its community, in part by developing a clearer philanthropic mission focused on the problem of family homelessness, which Karter saw every day around her business's new home. "It wasn't all altruism," Karter says. "We became part of this community. And we eventually realized how powerful that was in itself—powerful for us, powerful for the community."
Karter goes on, "Investing your personal values in an organization, I think, is terrific. There was a time when the professional management attitude was that you have your personal life and what you do at home for philanthropy and community, and then you run your business and you're businesslike in it. The definition of 'businesslike' didn't have much to do with those kinds of personal values. There was a very narrowly defined sense of what the bottom line was. We just define it much more broadly."
Karter says that in hindsight, the decision to stay in inner-city Boston was obvious (if not easy), because it was consistent with who she was and what she wanted Dancing Deer to be. "If we walked away from that identity we'd just be lost, we'd just be another brand bouncing around the marketplace."
By Jonathan T.F. Weisberg