Friday, November 07, 2008

relational trade [part 4]: visiting Level Ground Trading

…continued from [part 3]

Sitting around a large custom-made table in the boardroom, Mark asked “How is Level Ground structured?” Hugo’s face lit-up as he told Mark he was sitting around the structure. Hugo had insisted that Level Ground have a round conference table (made environmentally friendly of course), since rectangle tables place someone at the head and give that voice more importance, yet all voices at Level Ground are valued. There is of course a hierarchy at Level Ground, but it doesn't seem to dominate the culture. Hugo admitted that certain hierarchical questions, like “How do you decide how much different people in different roles gets paid?” was really tough to answer. Level Ground have several bonuses available: a “quality bonus,” based on team performance, rather than on the individual; and a “fair share” bonus based on the business' growth paid monthly, which can add up to about a full months pay over the year.

The relational principle is extended to how Level Ground pays and intensifies their sales staff. When a new sales person starts at Level Ground, they get to choose what kind of remuneration structure would suit who they are: a low base salary and a high commission rate is good for some people, but others want the peace of mind of knowing a steady salary will come in, with the opportunity to make a small bonus based on their performance, the third option being a mid level base salary and a mid-level bonus. From my own experience, working from a low base salary is very difficult; it doesn’t work for me. At Level Ground the emphasis on knowing people makes possible a remuneration structure that will work for the employee and the business – win, win!

Walking around Level Ground, there are pictures and branding material on the walls. Hugo is an avid photographer (a Nikon D300 shooter) and takes all the snaps of the producers, their farms, and their communities himself. As we walked around the building, Hugo paused to tell us the names of each person in the photographs and part of their story. Most businesses will get their marketing agencies to choose “stock” photographs from libraries for their promotional material and pay a royalty fee for the use of the photo. Level Ground however only use their own photographs, taken from when Hugo and other Level Ground employees make their annual or bi-annual trips to see the producers and their farms. Hugo also insists on paying the producers a royalty fee for being in the photographs that Level Grounds uses on its packaging, website and promotional materials. I didn’t notice it, but Hugo pointed out in one picture that a girl’s (I can’t remember her name, but Hugo knows her) teeth were a bit dirty and she was missing one earring because her ear was infected. Level Ground had made the decision not to “air-brush” any photos, but rather present the coffee producers as they are.

Hugo and his partners have lived-out their Christian faith in the way they do business, taking the Fair Trade concept to every part of Level Ground by having "righteous relationships" as a central frame for each business relationship. For me, Level Ground is a great example of how Christian people should conduct business. Hugo has a dream, in fact a “life goal”, to be an example of how fair trade and righteous relationships can be practised across different industries and business models (the recumbent bike market may be next…).
What if Christians could change their attitudes towards business, and what if Christians could begin to change the attitude of the world toward business?
Wayne Grudem, How Business in Itself Can Glorify God
It was never my intention to write about Level Ground from a consumer point of view. However, I know my focus on Level Ground as a business centered upon righteous relationships has resulted in a few purchases of Level Ground’s products. If you would like to buy Fair Trade coffee and support a company like Level Ground, then please make the switch, here is where you can buy Level Ground products:

North Americans:

  • can get 2lb bags of beans from local Costco’s
  • through local Ten Thousand Villages stores @ 2909 West Broadway, 1204 Commercial Drive, 929 Denman Street
  • at The Well @ Regent College & Dunbar

South Africans:
[part 1] / [part 2] / [part 3] / [part 4]

1 comment:

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