Tuesday, December 28, 2010

mel boutilier and the Zero Dollar Challenge

sometimes stories take a long and winding road from my desktop to publication. this was the case with my profile of mel boutilier, the man behind parker street, the food and furniture bank in halifax. i wrote it last year and a shortened version of the profile ran in progress magazine in the summer, but seeing as it's christmas time, i thought i'd post the original version of the article.

it was a lot of fun to take a well-known story - good man dedicates his life to running a charity - and recast it in business terms. enjoy!



The Zero Dollar Challenge
Your challenge: start a business with no money and no stock, pay yourself $0 a year, and then give all of your product away for free. Run the enterprise for 26 years and make it grow so it’s turning over millions of dollars annually.
            Your reward if you pull it off: an Order of Canada.
            At least, that’s the way it worked out for Mel Boutilier, founder and executive director of Parker Street. He’s been running the charitable venture for two and a half decades with no government support. He’s 82, still working full time and still drawing a salary of $0 a year. What started as some leftover food in the Seventh-day Adventist Church basement on Parker Street in Halifax has turned into a huge, poverty-fighting engine in the north end of the city, with a team of 20 paid staff  and 30 volunteer staff who gather and give away millions of dollars worth of food and furniture, along with offering skills development, computer recycling, emergency funding and mentorship/sponsorship. About 250 families rely on Parker Street every week. It’s run on a shoestring, when they can afford the shoestring.
            Michaëlle Jean, Governor General of Canada, recognized Boutilier’s accomplishments this year by awarding him the Order of Canada, the highest civilian honour in this country. He’s built a solid brand that his clients seek out. His core principles are clarity, tenacity and creativity.
             “One has to have faith in themselves. Set goals that are achievable with hard work, and don’t be concerned about the hours needed to work to be successful,” he says in an interview in his busy Maynard Street office. “If one door closes, you try another one until you find a way to do it.”
            He quotes Winston Churchill’s legendary speech about leadership to a group of young people. After a big introduction, the war-time hero rose and uttered: “Never give up.” He repeated it twice and sat down.
            That’s Boutilier’s mantra.
            He moved the nascent basement food bank into the church’s dilapidated one-car garage in 1983 because he needed more space at a low cost. He drafted in volunteers to spruce it up and operated the growing charity out of that location for more than a decade. While his wife Thelma, who manages a company that hires specialist doctors in laboratories, took care of the home front, he learned to navigate the city – who had spare food, what organizations and people could be counted on for emergency donations and how people could work their way out of destitution. He pulled in a pile of favours to land the centre an affordable new home on Maynard Street in 1999. Big fundraising efforts fuelled a year of renovations and the center opened to great acclaim.
            Then it burned down.
            Boutilier well remembers standing in the cold that January day in 2001, watching the flames consume his pride and joy.
            “I think sometimes people give up to soon, in business or in any pursuit. They get discouraged, say it can’t be done and give up. You have to tell yourself it can be done, and do it,” he says.
            Eight months of hard work later, a rebuilt Parker Street re-opened its doors.
            Boutilier speaks passionately about the hard-luck stories that bring people to his door, desperate for a loan to avoid eviction, to buy a bus ticket to their father’s funeral, or just to eat after a forced fast. But his enterprise can’t help everyone, and occasionally people get angry about that.
            “We have some people with mental problems that come here. With most people, if you show them kindness, they will settle down and see that you care for them. If you can demonstrate to them that you really care for their problem and you want to help them, they will change the way they feel and act,” he says.
            That’s why people travel to Parker Street. “People ask them why they come this distance when there’s help closer to home. They say because of the kindness people show us here,” Boutilier says.
            Parker Street knows kindness is the core of its success and from the patient, helpful staff at the front door to the battalion of people who see that the supply of donations is unending, everyone strives for that ideal.
            Boutilier, who grew up poor in Seabright, smiles as he remembers a pivotal story in his personal legend. As a boy, he would see his friends playing while he worked so that his family could eat. One day he had an epiphany: he overturned an orange crate and used it as a platform to announce his discovery. “I imagined I had a big audience out there and I made a speech. I said when I get big, I’m going to help people in the community have food.”
            Who was listening? Hens, he jokes.
            When he collects his Order of Canada later this year, everyone will be listening. 
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