July 25, 2010

Asbestos and Ice Cream

4 minute read, in Business / Culture / Food / Generative Economy / Impact / Social Enterprise / Social Issues

Before the age of the internet–well, before  age of the television, how companies treated their employees was largely a matter between the employee and the company.

I recently heard a BBC radio program about a young woman named Nellie Kershaw who, in the 1920’s suffered the first documented case of asbestos poisoning while working at Turner Brothers Asbestos in Manchester, UK.

Unable to work, Nellie corresponded with Turner Brothers requesting sickness benefits, she asked:

“What are you going to do about my case? I have been home 9 weeks now and have not received a penny – I think it’s time that there was something from you as the National Health refuses to pay me anything. I am needing nourishment and the money, I should have had 9 weeks wages now through no fault of my own.”

Nellie was flat-out refused any form of compensation because asbestos poisoning was not a recognized occupational disease at that time. Nellie died in her early 30’s and was buried in an unmarked grave because when Nellie’s husband asked Turner Brothers for help in paying for funeral arrangements, they again refused to provide any form of compensation.

History only remembers Nellie Kershaw because her case led to the implementation of the first asbestos industry regulations in 1931.

Fast forward just shy of 100 years. Chapman’s Ice Cream factory in Markdale Ontario is destroyed by fire. The factory had been in the town for 35 years. At the time of the fire Markdale had a population of 1400, and 350 of it’s residents worked at the factory.

Shortly after the fire, Chapman’s owners David and Penny Chapman announced that the company would pay salaried employees in full for one year, hourly employees for four months – and he would “take care of” them beyond that.

This decision was consistent with everything Chapman’s stood for as a company. It had long supported the community at a grassroots level–from supporting local baseball teams to donating large sums to the local hospital.

So I find myself staying at a cottage near Markdale nearly a year after the fire. On a ride up with a friend who has just moved from Toronto to a town near Markdale, my husband was bemoaning the poor (corporate type) ice cream available in the region.

Our friend staunchly defended Chapman’s  by telling the story of the fire and how Chapman’s stood up for its employees and for the town it is part of. Our friend said “you’ll never hear anyone in town say anything bad about Chapmans.”

I happened to take the kids for a scoop of the cold stuff  at Chilli Willi’s Ice Cream Parlour near Markdale.This particular parlour had to close its doors early when Chapman’s closure meant ice cream shortages. The owner would not carry another supplier. She decided to wait until Chapman’s was back up and running. Here, I heair a young man say how he likes the chocolate ice cream in the parlour better than the Chapman’s ice cream he gets at home. I think “this guy knows his Chapman’s.”

Not only does this story get lots of play in the local ice cream parlour and in and around Markdale, but the Washington Post wrote about the case as an example of exemplary corporate social responsibility.

Against this background of cynicism about business — sometimes deserved — David and Penny Chapman stand out. After the fire, they could have called it a career, taking their insurance money and retiring to a warmer climate. Instead they did something all too rare in today’s corporate culture — they thought of others.

Ice cream is a feel-good product; it puts smiles on children’s faces. And Chapman’s carried that feel-good-factor forward by supporting the folks who worked hard to make Chapman’s a success.

People in Markdale are loyal to Chapman’s ice cream. It’s practically the only brand you’ll see in general stores in the area. And, while I’m generally resistant to ‘big corporate’ entities like Chapman’s and the farming practices they employ, I have to say, the impact of Chapman’s gesture to employees put the sprinkles on top of their brand.

Chapman’s leveraged their role as a beloved Canadian organization in the following ad where they thank Canada for supporting them while they were rebuilding their plant.

Chapman’s has leveraged its “when-bad-things-happen-to-good-people tale. But they do it without being exploitive. They have turned a tragedy into a triumph for their brand, for their employees, for the town, and finally, for Canada, who cheers on the success of the ice cream brand because it’s nice, just like we are.

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