Charles Brewer’s Second Act
When Charles Brewer created Internet service provider MindSpring in 1994, he made nine core values the company’s calling card and differentiator. After MindSpring merged with EarthLink and Brewer left the company, he sold all of his stock but kept the core values, which include honesty, frugality and having fun.
Thanks to that sale, which put his net worth in the mid-eight figures, Brewer could afford to fund just about any of his passions. At one point in his life, that might have meant days filled with kayaking. Instead, he teamed with former Post Properties executive Katharine Kelley and environmental pioneer Walter Brown to create Green Street Properties, whose first project is a 28-acre mixed-use model of “new urbanism” near downtown Atlanta. The plan is for environmentally conscious construction (residential/office/ retail) in an economically diverse community that encourages walking, biking and getting to know your neighbors.
Those old core values haven’t changed. At Green Street meetings, “We pass them around the table, and everybody takes one at a time and reads it aloud and passes it to the next person,” says Kelley, who is president of the company.
But at Green Street, Chairman Brewer is creating a company around more than respect and the Golden Rule. He talks with Worthwhile’s Anita Sharpe about the exhilaration of building a business with passion, purpose (and values).
With MindSpring, it didn’t matter what business it was. It was all about the values and how we treated the customer and each other. It became profound at MindSpring because there were thousands of people and the values were the only thing that held it together.
For me anyway, I could not be happy making cigarettes no matter how good we were at treating each other with respect and all the rest of the core values. But there are levels at which the product can be anything.
There were some raging core value and belief debates at MindSpring because it was very explicitly part of the daily conversation.
Going public was a core value and belief debate; once you go public [some people argued], it will be all different. You’ll never be able to operate this way anymore. Which I never bought and still don’t buy.
At MindSpring, what we ended up saying our purpose was – it ended up taking a little while to evolve – our purpose was to change the way the world did business by showing what a company based on respect for the individual, honesty and integrity could accomplish. Our purpose was independent of anything having to do with the Internet or e-mail.
Here the passion for what we’re doing with the business is huge and that’s more of what I’m conscious of every day. Here it really does matter. Having them both [passion and values], it’s great. It feels like two halves that have come together.
I mean, I REALLY care about this stuff. I think it’s important almost no matter what issue you’re concerned about: how we build things and the pattern of our cities and neighborhoods. I came at it from the environmental point of view and sure enough, this choice between urbanism and walkable neighborhoods versus the segregated pods of conventional development where you’re guaranteed to have to drive for every single trip – it’s a huge environmental impact.
On top of that, it’s how you build the buildings – if you do it in a good, energy efficient EarthCraft standard way or do you just kind of slap ’em up there. And the social aspects are at least as important but perhaps not as quantifiable. One pattern tends to isolate people economically to a rather extreme degree and the other is much more amenable to mixing people together. One pattern encourages you to be a consumer and the other encourages you to be a citizen.
I’m concerned about peace in the Middle East, but I don’t know what I can do. Even if I had all the power in the world, it’s hard to know the answer. This question about how we build our places, there are some answers. And they’re doable.
The key to a happy life is to accomplish things that are good for somebody beyond just you. Nothing else will do it. A lot of people think happiness is about lots of time to play. I was a manic kayaker for a long time. And there were some people who just managed to arrange their whole life around kayaking and, of course, we were all insanely jealous. But then, with the benefit of hindsight, that choice doesn’t work out so great, and I think it is because it’s all about you. OK, maybe you like kayaking, but what are you going to be proud of at the end of the day? You may pass the time more or less pleasantly, but you’re not going to feel too good about it. The same thing is true with getting rich.