When enjoying a bowl of ice cream, sustainability isn’t usually the first thought on your mind. Perry’s Ice Cream doesn’t see it that way; this organization has green on the brain, and not just when they are making “Mint-Ting-A-Ling.” I got the chance to sit down with Gayle Perry Denning, Director of Sustainability, and Marissa Wilson, Communications Manager for Perry’s, to talk about the Perry’s culture and how sustainability plays a key role in how they operate.
GrowWNY: Thank you both for taking the time to speak with me today. First, I’d like to talk about your role as Director of Sustainability, Gayle.
Gayle: Perry’s has always been very conscious with their resources and very resourceful. We’ve been in the mode of continuous improvement for 95 years. Perry's has a long history and tradition in sustainability. Once sustainability started getting more of an environmentally inclusive role and getting more formal as a business practice, we decided that we needed a dedicated sustainabilty person. So that’s when I came in back in 2010.
A lot of what we’ve been working on is education within our internal community. That includes creating awareness and building a base knowledge at all levels, because our sustainability team can’t be everywhere and do everything. We’re a relatively large company now and we’re trying to educate across the organization and help everyone realize that they have a role in sustainability.
Marissa: Gayle leads our sustainability team and there are nine of us from across the company and we all represent different areas. At first, we met every other week to develop our team, and now we’ve moved to quarterly meetings. It's important to get together and talk about things that are going on, work on the goals, and develop recommendations for our executive leadership team. In previous years, we did a lot of brainstorming. We came up with recommendations and met with our executive leadership team to present those ideas, and the goals and projects came down back through the organization.
Gayle: It works out so much better. Like Marissa said, we’re down from meeting quite regularly to once a month because it’s becoming part of our culture. It’s happening everywhere, and everybody is thinking about it and doing it in their jobs. It’s a nice thing. It allows us to do more planning for the longer term.
GrowWNY: I’ve done quite a few of these interviews, and a lot of it just comes down to people saying, “It’s a behavior change.” I think it’s great that you focus on creating that culture, because after that behavior is in place, it’s smooth sailing. It becomes inherent.
Marissa: Another great project our team is working on, and I was on maternity leave when they did most of the work, is a shared-learning process. It’ll take two to three years to complete it but the goal is a meeting with every department in the organization. We give them sustainability planning pre-work, discuss ways they can weave sustainability into what they are doing and share best practices across the organization. We talk about successes, challenges and learning experiences. Then we follow-up throughout the year to keep the conversation going.
GrowWNY: Excellent. Would you mind going into some examples of sustainability efforts at Perry’s?
Gayle: Wow, we’ve got lots. (Laughing).
Marissa: We could talk about the lighting project.
Gayle: We did, as probably most companies when they start on that more contemporary-sustainability journey and the environment is a big part of it, is we looked at our lighting. We remodeled this conference room last year, and we did all the LED lights in here. We’ve done it in other offices, as we’ve been remodeling and going along, but our biggest contribution in that area has been our warehouse. We redid all of our lighting in the warehouse, and it has motion sensors, so they’re not running all the time. It has the LED lighting in there, which is great, because they survive and last a lot longer the colder the temperature is, so we should get a good, long life from them.
Right now, we’re in the process of doing the same project up at our dry warehouse. We have a dry warehouse on Main Street, where all of our dry materials are kept before they are sent here for manufacturing or before they’re loaded on a truck to go out. That upgrade is in the process right now, as we speak. There are a few office areas that will be left to be converted, and that’s it. I would say 95 percent of our campus and buildings are converted with the rest to follow in the next few years.
Marissa: Another big project that’s been underway, is converting to handhelds that our team members in the field can use when they’re placing orders. It’s going to eliminate a lot of the paper waste that we’ve had for not only those external team members and their orders, but then even reaching into internal support teams.
We’ve also had many smaller successes with team members simply questioning the status quo when they see an opportunity for sustainable improvements. For example, our Customer Service Team is always looking for ways to reduce waste. For years, they’ve had a printer that prints out the call sheets and the orders for the day. They were noticing that the paper, when it prints, it moves up and that it just creates an extra page of wasted paper, so they worked with IT and they said, “We don’t need to have this extra paper, let’s fix this.” So I think it’s just like it’s becoming more and more top of mind with everybody across the organization, which is really great to see.
GrowWNY: What advice do you have for other organizations looking to start a sustainability program?
Gayle: First thing is to be patient. It does take time. I was just speaking with someone who consults on sustainability, and he was saying that the size of our organization we could expect it to take 15 years to fully integrate sustainable business practices. We have a wonderful tradition in using our natural resources wisely and being efficient and always caring for our community and our team members. We still figure it will take us 10 to 15 years to get to where everybody is firing on all those three sustainable cylinders. So be patient; it will come. Communication and education are so important, and it does take time.
Marissa: That’s really how we’ve looked at it. We’ve developed our long-term vision, and next we will be focusing on the steps to achieve our vision for a sustainable “state” for Perry’s Ice Cream. We were fully aware that we were not going to be 100 percent perfect in year one, but every year we are seeing growth and the differences in our team members and the decisions that are made across the company.
GrowWNY: I was wondering if we could maybe talk more about your connection with the community and the local farms that you work with and how that’s been a big part of Perry’s.
Gayle: Well, our relationship is more with O-AT-KA, which is a coop of local dairy farmers. We have a great partnership and business relationship with them.
Marissa: 98% of our dairy ingredients come from within 50 miles of Akron.
Gayle: So we’re definitely one of the biggest customers of local farmers, maybe us and probably Upstate themselves are really the biggest local dairy supporters.
Marissa: Additionally, we work with local suppliers and vendors whenever possible.
Gayle: There have been local sauce companies from the Derby area and things like that, so if we can find something that meets our criteria locally, then we do. That’s our first choice, if there’s a local company to support.
GrowWNY: Is there anything else you would like to share?
Marissa: Over our 95 years, we’ve kept our entrepreneurial spirit. Perry’s has been in 13 different businesses, and as opportunities have changed with the times, we’ve adapted and grown into different business segments. For example, before people had refrigerators and freezers at home, Perry’s had a meat-locker business. People would come and store their food here, and as they needed it, they would take it out and use it for dinner, for parties, etc. Obviously, as refrigeration became popular in people’s home, that business wasn’t relevant anymore. But it’s just really interesting to see how over the years, we’ve been nimble enough to take new things. But we also knew when it was time to say, “Okay, we need to let go of this,” and we moved on. It’s key to our business sustaining for four generations.
Gayle: Adapting is a good word. We are very good at adapting, and we have adapted well over the 95 years, and we will continue to. That’s the other thing, too, as Marissa mentioned about the fourth generation. Only two percent of privately-held companies make it to the fourth generation. Only two percent. So even the fact that we’re still here and we aren’t part of a bigger food company is surprising, and how nice for western New York.