Contributing to a Greater Mission

John Ottaviani, Stewardship Manager at Bell Lumber & Pole, sits in a discreet office overlooking one of the company’s lumber yards in New Brighton, Minnesota on a chilly November morning. The office building itself is understated: just a two-level building with cedar siding and a picnic table outside the front door.

For more than a century, Bell Lumber & Pole Company has deliberately maintained simplicity, headquarters tucked away on a quiet Minnesota street. But for the employees and customers who know the company well, it holds a reputation more reminiscent of a philanthropic organization than a wood company.

Its mission statement: “To radically love and influence lives.”

For the Bell family, serving the woodlands, utility, telecommunications and mass timber industries isn’t the ultimate goal, but a means to that end.

A unique way to approach stewardship

Bell Lumber & Pole prides itself on stewardship and communicates this value often, in sales presentations and on its website.

Having a stewardship department isn’t unique to the industry, Ottaviani said. But while other stewardship departments are usually focused primarily on the environment and natural resources, Bell’s stewardship department focuses on the stewardship of the company’s greatest assets: its employees and the communities in which it serves.

“My dad wanted a specific department to carry out this desire to be mission-focused,” said Maddie Bell, Stewardship Coordinator and daughter of President and CEO Tom Bell.

So that’s what she and Ottaviani do – whether it’s managing charitable giving, walking alongside employees facing difficult life circumstances, or teaching staff members leadership and communication principles that help teammates work well together.

As it relates to charitable giving, the stewardship department has helped clarify key focus areas the company will give to, based on advancing human flourishing in the world. It gives to organizations that help feed hungry people, provide sustainable jobs and opportunities for the poor and marginalized, and offer justice and relief from oppression.

“We’re very intentional about the organizations we partner with, and how we show up,” Ottaviani said.

The department also focuses heavily on taking care of its employees.

When we have employees who believe in that mission and are motivated by it, they’re the ones who can advance the mission and strengthen our culture

Bridging the gap between office and production

The Stewardship Department supports management’s efforts to visit the company’s different sites across the country to put boots on the ground and connect with staff members from other locations. Sometimes it means cooking a meal for their employees, listening to their feedback, or just letting them know how appreciated they are. Other times, it means helping employees paint their offices, getting on ladders with them and talking about life and family and work as they roll the wall with paint.

Ottaviani cautioned that the company still deals with the same issues other businesses of the same caliber face.

“We’re not perfect; we are a gathering of imperfect people, like any organization,” Ottaviani said. “But we are trying hard to pursue a higher purpose that cares for our employees and the broader community.”

Employees who are facing hardship can count on Bell to support them. They can apply for help through company programs that have been put in place if they ever need extra assistance.

“We feel passionate that even though the Stewardship Department is specifically focused on advancing our company’s mission and culture, our contribution is no more or less significant than someone else’s,” Ottaviani said. “So we make an extra effort to try to bridge the gap between the office and the production.”

It’s a culture that permeates from leadership to the lumber yard.

Ottaviani sifted through a spiral notebook with laminated pages. It’s the company’s Leadership Academy handbook – a program for those in leadership positions at Bell. He stopped at one of the pages and pointed to the words.

“This one is a favorite of mine,” Ottaviani said.

The words on the page stated: “Power x Humility = True Influence.”

“Our hope is that every person here knows that their supervisors and teammates are ‘for’ each other, no matter where they fall on the org chart, and that the key is to serve each other with humility,” Ottaviani added.

The idea is that by getting employees to buy into the mission, their work will carry more weight than just a paycheck. Instead, many employees understand that by helping the company be profitable, they are also helping people in need – whether that be within the company’s employee family, in the local community, or around the world.

“When we have employees who believe in that mission and are motivated by it, they’re the ones who can advance the mission and strengthen our culture,” Maddie Bell said.

Continuing the legacy

When Bell Lumber & Pole Co. was founded in 1909 by M.J. Bell, the idea of “taking care of the Bell employee family” wasn’t as clearly articulated as it is under current leadership, but the sentiment remained.

To the Bell family, the idea that their business is a family company is more about culture than ownership. Everyone who works with or for Bell knows they’re part of the “Bell family.”

“We have a lot of people at Bell who have been working here for more than 20 years, and that has to speak to something,” Maddie Bell said. “I think it’s because of the culture of hard work, and also, knowing we care about them.”

Maddie Bell said several employees have told her they stay at Bell because they know their work is contributing to a greater impact and purpose.

“If we don’t have people doing excellent work in the field, we wouldn’t have a dime to give away. That’s what builds the engine from which all this stuff moves,” Ottaviani said. “We want our teammates to understand that, whatever their role, the work they do is producing blessings that ripple out in many directions.”

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