Steve and Katie Breckheimer don’t consider themselves typical investors. The Saluda couple have been socially responsible investors for more than 15 years. “We had just inherited a small amount of money at that time — it was the first opportunity that we had anything to rub together,” says Katie, laughing, “and we wanted to do the right thing.”
Fifteen years ago, it was hard to find financial advisors specializing in responsible investing, so the Breckheimers became members of Co-Op America (now Green America) and began looking in the National Green Pages. They found a local advisor, and, Katie notes, “going to his office for the first time — he challenged us to define our values and nobody had ever asked us that before. To go through a list of likes and don’t likes, believe-ins and don’t-believe-ins.”
Steve says that they really enjoy the whole process and strategy of socially responsible investing using stocks and mutual funds. “It’s putting your money where your mouth is, and I particularly like the opportunity to have investments in alternative energy.”
He says that they were feeling pretty good about what they were doing when they heard about Mountain BizWorks, a community development financial institution that provides loans and training to WNC entrepreneurs. “They were offering a competitive return, so I did a small loan to them. It felt good to put that money someplace where I could actually hear about what happened to it and see the good it was doing in the community,” says Steve, adding that the organization does an exceptional job of explaining its mission and can show tangible examples of how the money is used to help small businesses and startups.
“We also looked at cooperatives,” Katie says. “We feel very strongly that a softer and gentler way of doing business makes sense by cooperating with others.”
The two have been credit union members for a long time and are proud of the fact that the profits go back into the business for the greater good. “We love the concept of the new Self-Help Credit Union ‘Buy Local’ CD,” Steve says. “I’m excited to see what develops next.”
About three years ago, the couple discovered the Transition movement and became involved with Transition Hendersonville. The movement is based on the premise that we are running out of cheap oil and that our dependence on a fossil-fuel-based transportation system is unsustainable. Hence, Transition participants emphasize all things local, from food to business. “The Transition group helped organize a locavesting class based on Amy Cortese’s book, Locavesting. There were several different speakers who talked about investing in local businesses and the challenges. We wanted to support the development of other investment options for people,” Steve says.
Currently, Steve does just that, working with the Hendersonville Community Co-Op as a board member. The Co-Op started in the back of a furniture refinishing shop with 14 participating families. Now it has more than 2,000 families who, cooperatively, own the business, and its sales have topped $3.4 million per year. “We’ve outgrown the space, don’t own the building and can’t expand where we are now,” Steve explains.
Board members undertook a five-year study to look at the possibility of expansion. During this phase, they worked to strengthen systems, improve operations and board activity. “Finally, about a year ago, we decided it was time to go ahead and launch a campaign. We decided that since we’re a co-op, we should work with the owners to help finance the expansion. It seemed like a great benefit to the owners,” he says. “Rather than paying the banks interest, we’d prefer to pay our owners for the use of their money.”
So far, the campaign has been very successful and board members continue to raise money from the owners.
The Co-Op is truly where their heart is — it’s an investment that the Breckheimers can literally watch grow. They can see the building going up, shop in the store and participate in its governance. Katie says, “They support local farmers and it’s all organic. To me, it’s about values and lining up your investments with what you believe in. A kinder, gentler way of doing business.”
“It really is something we care about,” Steve adds, “having a small footprint, environmental responsibility and community involvement. I’m excited that it’s not just a food store. It’s a hub. It’s a center for healthy, local living; for education; for community.”
Katie sums up the couple’s philosophy, saying, “I was young and naïve when we first got a little money. I had to do a little soul searching. It’s much easier now to say where my values are. I feel more aligned ethically knowing that the money I invest goes to the betterment of the planet, not the detriment. If you want to be resilient in times of change, look close to home, inventory your resources and share with your community.”
— Peter Krull is president and founder of Krull & Company, an Asheville-based investment management firm specializing in socially and environmentally responsible investing. He can be reached at email@example.com.