Green Conferencing Is Smart Business for Va. Firm

The glass-walled offices of Harlan Lee & Associates look out over thick, leafy green trees that partially obscure a colorful playground below. The site is like a cool drink of water that drowns out the gleaming metal and constant hum of traffic in the Northern Virginia edge city of Tysons Corner -- just don't ask for bottled.

Harlan Lee
Harlan Lee looks over eco-friendly binders used in his firm's green conferencing initiative. (Sharon McLoone for washingtonpost.com)

The firm follows strict environmental best practices and applies those to its "green conferencing" services. After the mayor of San Francisco recently prohibited his city's funds to be used for purchasing bottled water because the plastic was cluttering landfills, Lee's offices followed suit, offering guests and workers filtered tap water.

"We are always looking for inspirations to be more environmentally friendly," said Lee, the firm's president and founder.

The company has been in business since 1996, and for much of that time it was a one-man consulting shop. Like many start-ups, Lee had professional experience in his field but started a business with no formal business training.

"Once I started learning about government contracting ... that's when we started to expand," said Lee, who retired from the State Department in 1995 as the assistant chief of protocol. He was in charge of planning high-level conferences and ceremonies such as the first Asian-Pacific summit in Seattle in 1993.

His firm qualifies as a "minority, disadvantaged business" through a Small Business Administration program, which he says "has helped us significantly" in winning government clients.

He learned more about environment-friendly event management in 2000 working as a contract project manager for Mega-Tech in Falls Church, Va. The project was for an Environmental Protection Agency initiative designed to demonstrate how green conferencing might be implemented.

The aim is commonsense: Select meeting sites that are accessible by mass transit, and recycle as much as possible at the event by collecting papers and badges. Lee's group also uses as much recycled material as possible in assembling conference materials. Lately, Lee has chosen to work with products from Seattle-based Sustainable Group, which offers binders made from recycled cardboard.

Gilbert Donahue, a senior associate with Harlan Lee & Associates, conceded that the "brown, cardboard-look" common to many recycled paper products isn't for everyone. But he noted that prices for environmentally respectable higher-end paper continue to come down and are available if that's what the client needs.

"A lot of people understand that the contents of a conference binder is likely to become seriously outdated in a few years," Donahue said. "It doesn't need to be in a vinyl binder sitting on a shelf that will take thousands of years to deteriorate."

Peggy Jordan, who works on graphic designs and conference management for the firm, reaches out to printers who use less-toxic ink and recycled papers.

The group also prefers to work with hotels that employ environmentally conscious programs, such as linen reuse, and use caterers that recycle.

"It's not all mandatory," Lee said, "but we just do as much as we can."

The group advocates using electronic means as much as possible to cut down on paper use. "We're into electronic or Web registration," Lee said. "We try to use EnergyStar electronic equipment because it's energy efficient, and we try to put as much conference documentation on Web sites so that not everything needs to be printed out."

At a recent conferences hosted by client Ocean.us, conference materials were loaded onto computer memory sticks that sported a branded logo. Each attendee was able to keep the reusable $18 device, which got "rave reviews," according to Donahue.

The company strives to incorporate recycling techniques in its offices. Although the firm now employs about 30 people, Lee said that by keeping only four people stationed in the headquarters, he cuts down on office space, utilities and other potential waste.

Most of the staffers work on-site as a contractor at a variety of agency clients, such as the Commerce Department and the Office of Naval Research.

"There certainly are intangibles to what we do -- it just gives us a good feeling," Lee said.

The firm also specializes in event management outside the continental United States. It has produced events for the State Department in Australia and in Malta, and for the United Nations in Hawaii, where Lee grew up.

Since Lee's shop operates almost exclusively on government contracts that have multiyear cycles, he said the recent wave of "going green" hasn't impacted his business much. "But just the fact that it's being talked about and more highly publicized is good for the community," he said, adding that "it helps our business and separates us from others who may not be so socially conscious."

The firm, which is also actively involved in Virginia's Environmental Excellence Program, has about 10 contracts, and Lee described his company as "on solid footing."

The firm recently received an Asian Business Leadership award from the U.S. Pan Asian American Chamber of Commerce and Wells-Fargo for his efforts to protect the environment. He gave the $5,000 that accompanies the award to Shriners Hospitals for Children in Hawaii.

Perhaps Lee's view on life is best explained by the message scribbled in black marker on the conference room's white board: "Ha'aha'a ka mea lehia maoli." That means, in Hawaiian, "a true expert is humble."

Summary: Harlan Lee & Associates is a small consulting firm that has found an innovative way to distinguish itself from competitors. It offers "green conferencing" to clients by putting together conferences in an environmentally conscious manner. The Falls Church, Va., company recommends that clients hold their meetings near easily accessible mass transit, for example, and it prefers to work with hotels that offer linen reuse programs. It also specializes in holding conferences outside of the continental United States, a skill its founder was able to tap into from his expertise in the foreign service.

By Sharon McLoone |  July 16, 2007; 6:30 AM ET Profiles in Entrepreneurship
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