Innovation Michigan Lifetime Achievement Award Winner: Cascade Engineering

“How a Business Can Change the World” reads the headline in the May issue of Inc. magazine that highlighted “social entrepreneurs” who mix business with their pursuit of a social mission.

Among those recognized by the business publication: Fred Keller, the founder and CEO of Cascade Engineering, a diverse manufacturer and winner of the 2011 Lifetime Achievement Award in Business Review West Michigan’s Innovation Michigan awards.

As Inc. magazine points out, Fred Keller has led Cascade Engineering — with $250 million in sales and more than 1,000 employees — through an era of vast change in American manufacturing, innovating new products and entering new markets and fields.

“We’ve lost industry after industry—we don’t make shoes here; we don’t make fabric here; we don’t make machine tools,” Keller told Inc. magazine. “You can look at it and say, ‘Well, it’s a global economy, and we just have to buy where the lowest cost is.’ You hear the argument that we’re just not competitive. But American industry is not dumb. We can compete.”

And compete Cascade does, through 15 business units serving an array of industries, from automotive and furniture components, to solar panels and consumer goods.

2011 Innovation Michigan Finalists

Business Review this week recognizes the finalists for our 2011 Innovation Michigan awards in a special publication. We selected them based on uniqueness of the innovation — which could include a new product, process, business line or service — as well as the outcome of the innovation to-date, including its effect on revenue, employee morale, customers and company image. Winners will be named at the July 28 luncheon and awards ceremony, held from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids. Register at

Along the way, Cascade Engineering embraced sustainable business practices and pursued business initiatives with a social mission.

The company even has a consulting business, Quest Sustainable Solutions, that shares best practices and ideas for sustainable business.

“Our basic (focus) is around the idea of innovation and sustainability. If you think about the things that are going to be around long term and important, not only of a financial interest but also the social and environmental interests of the world, we find those very intriguing,” Keller told Business Review in a 2010 interview.

Cascade, for instance, produces pink waste containers as part of an initiative to raise funds for breast cancer research.

Another example came in February 2010, when Cascade announced a joint venture with Windquest Group where the company acquired the license and intellectual property for a water filter developed by International Aid in Spring Lake — a product Cascade manufactured for two years for distribution in developing countries.

Cascade’s goal through the venture was to engage a local network of entrepreneurs in developing countries to offer maintenance and distribution of the HydrAid BioSand filter.

“In the sustainable business thinking, you’re integrating the social and environmental capital into your financial-capital thinking,” Keller said in a 2009 interview. “Social responsibility is kind of misinterpreted as a nagging guilt trip. My understanding is, we — businesses in general — form the largest institution on earth.

“If you compare it to government, most people would agree business is more powerful than governments these days. We’ve got an opportunity as business leaders to make a difference.”

Keller graduated from Cornell University in 1966 with a degree in material science and engineering and went to work for Pratt & Whitney Aircraft. He added a master’s degree in business management from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1971, while working as a metallurgist

He founded Cascade Engineering in his hometown in 1973, and grew it from a six-employee plastics injection-molding shop to a company known for “shaping ideas in plastics.”

Keller is widely sought for advice on how to achieve a solid triple bottom line. Since 2002, he has taught a graduate-level course in sustainability at the Johnson School of Management at Cornell. He has served on the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Manufacturers Council.

Read the MLive article online here.