A vacuum, a bucket, and Becky Kliss

When the board meeting is over, Becky Kliss is the person you’ll see walking between the conference room tables, bag in hand, collecting anything recyclable meeting members left behind. The janitorial help? There was a time when that was true.

Now, Kliss is board president of
Michigan’s Great Southwest Sustainable Business Forum (MGSSBF), a nonprofit providing education and networking opportunities to businesses.

Kliss calls it the "triple bottom line." MGSSBF helps businesses with:

• Environmental stewardship

• Social responsibility

• Economic strength

"We help businesses achieve balance in taking care of the environment--air and water quality, energy efficiency--and employee welfare, community relations, and finally, return on investment," Kliss says. She is president of the MGSSBF chapter covering Berrien, Cass and Van Buren counties.

Along with her work as president of the MGSSBF, and also sitting on the board of Chemical Bank, Southwest Michigan Sustainable Business Forum (Kalamazoo) and West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum (Grand Rapids), Kliss is owner of a consulting business, called Green Connection, Inc., based in St. Joseph. All of which began, she says, in 1996 with "a vacuum, a bucket, and me."

"I worked full time while I was a college student taking night classes," Kliss says. "It took me 10 years to earn my associate’s degree in business administration at Lake Michigan College." As it turned out, that work experience tied up neatly with her slowly accumulating knowledge about business administration.

"I started cleaning for Ryder truck rental," she says. "I didn’t know anything about cleaning. Nothing more, that is, than cleaning up my bedroom when my mom told me to." She chuckles.

That would soon change. With a vacuum and bucket as her business partners, Kliss opened up her own cleaning business, called Great Lakes Cleaning, Inc., that quickly branched out to cover St. Joseph, Kalamazoo, South Bend (Ind.) and Grand Rapids. One woman with a bucket had expanded to encompass a business of about 180 employees by the time Kliss sold it to New Image Building Services in 2008. She stayed on with Great Lakes Cleaning, Inc., for another two years as their business development and sustainability expert.

"We had about 150 business accounts by then," Kliss says. "It meant a lot of conference calls and emails to keep track of all the branches. It was a hard business to be in--our starting time was 5 p.m., when everyone else was closing up for the day. At 8 a.m., we had to be ready to take phone calls again. We cleaned offices, banks, factories. But it was lucrative. I learned a lot about business management."

Kliss also learned a lot about trash. During all those long, late hours of cleaning, Kliss became alarmed by the sheer volume of trash she saw.

"It caught my interest," she says, and kept her interest long enough to become certified as an accredited professional in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED. Kliss was determined to not only clean but clean green, in a manner that is sustainable and environmentally responsible.

"Becoming LEED accredited taught me about green initiatives, and I saw many ways to improve the sustainability of businesses in Southwest Michigan and surrounding areas. In 2010, I started Green Connection, Inc., to help provide sustainable solutions to businesses."

Kliss’s accreditation gives her expertise in existing buildings. She consults with already established businesses, such as Stryker Medical in Kalamazoo, to bring them up to, and maintain, LEED standards.

"Unfortunately, Southwest Michigan is behind on green, sustainable business practices." Kliss sighs. "There’s a lot of work yet to be done. I help business owners understand the return on investment. There is an initial investment in going green, but in the long run, it pays off. It does improve your bottom line."

Kliss doesn’t take her green message to only businesses. She recently did a case study with St. Joseph public schools. "It was so successful that the recycling program we started in the high school has now gone district-wide. Students set aside the trash produced at the school the night before, and the next day we sorted through it to show how much could be recycled. People were surprised. Students at the high school, for instance, had been eating from Styrofoam trays in the cafeteria--the superintendent hadn’t even been aware of this. The school went back to using plastic trays after that, washed and reused."

Kliss is proud of her success at the St. Joseph schools. She shows people how to recycle, but also how to clean reusable materials with non-allergenic, chemical-free cleaning solutions. She gets students excited and aware of how they affect the environment on a daily basis.

"Once you start," she says with a smile, "you can’t stop."

She means that. Kliss next got involved with Green Drinks to get people to brainstorm about sustainable solutions. An organization with international roots, originating in Germany, Green Drinks is an informal monthly gathering of anyone and everyone interested in going green, meeting at a local establishment for drinks of choice, networking and sharing green ideas and solutions.

"Green Drinks meets the third Wednesday of every month after work," Kliss says. "It’s a lot of fun, but we also talk over some serious ideas. One of our sessions went until midnight, talking about dough that a company was using to test the ovens they build. They were throwing out a lot of good dough. Our idea was to freeze the dough rather than throw it out, and now that company’s employees take home dough to bake into bread."

Kliss regularly hosts get-togethers for MGSSBF, with "lunch and learn" sessions including such discussions as lawn care without the use of chemicals, or another on efficient and energy-saving lighting. Programs and events are listed on the MGSSBF site.

Kliss lives her work and even takes it home to her family. She gave her husband and children colorful recycling bins last Christmas. "It’s a journey. You don’t have to revamp everything at once. One little bit at a time, and it just keeps going," she says.

"I hope with my work that I can change just one person a day in how they think about the environment," Kliss says. "And then I hope that person will go on to change another person."

Zinta Aistars is creative director for Z Word, LLC, and editor of the literary magazine, The Smoking Poet. She lives on a farm in Hopkins. 

Photos by Erik Holladay.
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