CSE Friday Speaker Series, October 10, 2014
Spencer Williams ’95, President and Owner of West Paw Design
by Otto Nagengast ‘17
After graduating from Middlebury College in 1995 with a degree in German, Spencer Williams returned to his home state, Montana. He bought a small company, Pet Pals, based in Bozeman that made plush dog toys. “I didn’t know any better. I didn’t know what I was getting into,” says Spencer with a chuckle. But thanks to his liberal arts degree, Spencer says, “I knew that I could solve the problems that came to me, and I didn’t need a traditional education.” When Spencer bought Pet Pals in 1996, it consisted of just a handful of employees hand-stitching dog toys. Now, eighteen years later, the company has over seventy employees. They rebranded themselves as West Paw Design, a name coined by Spencer’s wife, Kerry, whom he met at Middlebury. West Paw Design is renowned for its sustainability and management practices. Its products are sold in 2,800 stores in 25 countries, and they are almost all made in Bozeman.
Spencer says, though, “it’s not the products we make, but the people [in our company] that are important.” He sums up his approach to management with the acronym MAP (Mastery, Autonomy, and Purpose). Spencer tries to give all of his employees these three things. He tries to hire as many employees as possible for career-track positions, because, he believes, “people need dependability in their lives.” West Paw uses open-book management, so that any employee can see exactly how the company is being run. Employees are encouraged to take initiative. The results of this approach are happier, more effective workers.
A great example of Spencer’s MAP approach is the story of Jane, a member of the production floor team. After working for twelve years on a dairy farm, Jane left and joined West Paw. A large source of waste at the factory was the heavy injection plastic molding machine. It wasted ten percent of the plastic used to make each item. Jane, who has a college degree like sixty percent of the members of the West Paw production floor, set out to figure how to use the discarded plastic to make other products. West Paw now recycles half of the discarded plastic thanks to Jane’s work, and in March they will begin recycling 100 percent of the plastic waste. “No one asked her to do it,” says Spencer, “she was driven.”
“When we started you couldn’t buy a head of organic lettuce in Bozeman” Spencer says. Now, West Paw ships top-quality, environmentally-friendly pet products around the world. West Paw’s success and vision has established them as one of the leaders in the B Corps movement. B Corps are a group of 1,100 companies that meet a set of “rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency,” according to the B Corp webpage. West Paw scored 95 on the B Impact Report. The average score is 80. At the Annual B Corps Champions Retreat hosted last month in Burlington, the US Secretary of Labor, Thomas Perez, gave a speech in which he praised B Corps for embodying what he sees as the future of labor. At the same conference, the B Corp community recognized West Paw Design as a Builder of the Movement.
Spencer sees his work and the work of his company as part of a much greater purpose: creating social and environmental change through business. As his wife Kerry pointed out during the talk, what is remarkable about West Paw Design is that this is not just Spencer’s belief. This is the belief of the entire company.