Meet Your Merchant: South Mountain Company

Designing for a sustainable future.

The South Mountain team, clockwise from top left: Deirdre Bohan, John Abrams, Billy Dillon, Rob Meyers, Siobhan Mullin, Rocco Bellebuono, Ryan Bushey, and Newell Isbell Shinn. — Sam Moore

Our Meet Your Merchant series goes behind the scenes of Island businesses, but we focus on more than just our local shopkeepers: We celebrate all of the organizations, and the people, that the Island depends on.

South Mountain Co. in West Tisbury is a design/build and renewable energy firm that has been providing architectural services on the Island for more than 40 years. Founder, president, CEO and owner of South Mountain, John Abrams, oversees design, sales, finance, client relationships, and new endeavors for the firm. Amid all that, he managed to find some time to share his story with The Times.

How long has South Mountain been in business?
South Mountain began as a cabinet shop in Rockland County, New York, in 1973. In 1975 my business partner and I (with my wife Chris and 5-year old son Pinto) moved to the Vineyard to build a house for my parents. We still haven’t managed to leave.

What were you doing before?
Before that (which is a very long time ago!) we were wandering hippies — Vermont, California, Oregon, British Columbia, and beyond.

What inspired you to create South Mountain?
It wasn’t something I ever considered; it was something that just happened. In the early days, in various rural areas, we spent our time learning to put roofs over our heads and keep the rain out. Design and building became a passion, and as our skills grew, it evolved into our work. People actually started to pay us to do this stuff. When we came to the Vineyard, we expected to spend six months and head back to Vermont with a pocket full of money. A year later the house was built, the money was all gone (imagine that), but someone else had asked us to build another house, so we stayed. And that continued.

What was the housing market like when you first started South Mountain? 
I don’t know. We designed, we built, people came around, we built more. Like so many others in those days, we just did what we did with no clue about market conditions.

What services does South Mountain provide? 
South Mountain provides architecture, engineering, renewable energy, and building services. The integration of these disciplines, all working together seamlessly, is at the heart of our practice. With five licensed architects, a licensed engineer, energy specialists, and a large group of skilled builders and woodworkers, we are able to offer a unique combination of services, a wide range of architectural styles and project types, and we always aspire to deliver a level of customer service that goes beyond the norm.

South Mountain is art, science, and craft, all assembled into an engaging, transparent, and satisfying process. It’s no coincidence that some beautiful Vineyard homes also produce more energy than they consume, and are comfortable, durable, healthy, and less costly to operate and maintain.

Are energy services a big part of your business today? When were those services introduced, and how do you keep up with the ongoing developments in energy efficiency and renewable energy?
Solar design and installation currently provide roughly 25 percent of our total revenues, and this is growing all the time. We have been involved in solar and energy efficiency since the ’70s, but only in the past 10 years have we begun to offer these services to more than just our design/build clients. We devote significant effort to constant research (led by director of engineering Marc Rosenbaum) and policy work (led by energy services manager Rob Meyers), and we are closely connected to a network of leading practitioners and policymakers regionally and nationally.

In 1987 South Mountain restructured from a sole proprietorship to an employee-owned cooperative corporation. How does that work, and what does that mean for your employees?
Everyone who is employed at South Mountain has an opportunity to buy in as a full owner after five years of employment. Currently there are 17 owners, and many more who are close to ownership. The owners determine the policies and future of the company, by consensus. Our management committee of eight help me and COO Deirdre Bohan run the company.

The owners not only have a governing voice, but share equity each year. This accumulates over time, and is distributed to each individual over a period of years once she or he leaves the company. Right now we are paying out half a dozen former owners. But most important, shared ownership means that each employee has a real stake in the company and its future, and therefore our workforce is dedicated and stable. After more than 40 years in business, we are gradually transitioning to the next generation. In the past few years, a number of people have retired after spending their careers here; they are being replaced with young, passionate, dynamic new people who are prepared to carry this business forward for the long term.

South Mountain designates 10 percent of its profits for contributions to charitable organizations. What local charities have you worked with before, and why those specifically?
Yes, we commit 10 percent of our net profits to charitable donations, and an additional 10 percent to pro bono and discounted work for Island organizations. Most of our donations (and our pro bono work) go to local nonprofits, particularly in the areas of affordable housing, conservation and environment, health and human services, schools and children, and local food.

We were instrumental in the establishment and operation of the Island Affordable Housing Fund and the Island Housing Trust, organizations that jump-started Island-wide affordable housing efforts (the fund) and that led the way (the trust) in ongoing housing efforts. We have made a long-term commitment to high-quality, high-performance affordable housing, and have designed and built these projects for more than 25 years.

Your company’s philosophy includes a commitment to providing a “model for a 21st century economy that balances profits with environmental restoration, social justice, and community engagement.” How does South Mountain live up to that?
In addition to the 20 percent of our profits that go to the community, a few other aspects of our business are part of our “triple bottom line” mission, including:

  • Our democratic workplace and collaborative spirit;
  • Our commitment to the local economy and the Vineyard community — it’s the place we know, the place we love, and the place we are raising our children;
  • The creation of lifelong jobs with true living wages and the best possible benefit packages;
  • Ongoing efforts to quantify and reduce our carbon footprint;
  • Our environmental restoration and renewable-energy efforts.

What have been some of your biggest accomplishments, or most rewarding projects, over the years?
We have completed hundreds of projects over the years, but I think the two biggest hinge points in our history are: 1) our 1987 restructuring as an employee-owned cooperative, and 2) the way we worked through the 2008 crash, through introspection and improvement of our practices — that difficult time turns out to have been the second best thing that ever happened to us!

Do you have any specific business goals for 2016?
More than we can possibly do, of course, but isn’t that always the case? Some of our 2016 goals are: a disciplined introduction of open-book management practices, a complete redesign of our website, research and development of battery storage technology, and, most important, delivering an exciting variety of successful projects for wonderful people and organizations! These clients, this community, and the people in this company — together they define South Mountain. That’s us, in a nutshell.