“If you have a strong purpose in life, you don't have to be pushed. Your passion will drive you there” . Tom Denbow is nothing if not passionate. From the moment we began talking on October 29th, 2019, one thing was apparent in every sentence he spoke: Tom loves his job. He’s spent his entire life working on Great Lakes issues, going as far as doing national policy work at times and often serving on state committees and councils. A native to Ashland, Ohio, and a biology graduate of Bowling Green State University (BGSU), the importance of these waters to his life is no mystery. While at BGSU, Tom was a co-chair of the first ever Earth Day teach-in. Immediately after graduation, he went to work for the Ohio Department of Transportation as the first biologist hired to work with the entire workforce and community. He describes this as his worst and best ever job; it taught him exactly what he wanted and didn’t want to be doing. From there he was picked up by an architectural engineering firm to plan environmental systems, and after a few other stops and plenty of other change-implementing roles, Tom ended up at Biohabitats in 2013.
The University of Toledo
Golf courses are known for their well-groomed look. There is little biodiversity, and they are far from landmarks of natural beauty. When the Cleveland Metroparks had acquired a 155-acre former golf course in Northeast Ohio, they recognized that it was a wonderful opportunity to bring back local plant and animal species, but also knew it would be a huge undertaking. This is why they involved Biohabitats, to create an ecological restoration master plan and a capital improvement plan. The streams running through the golf course were used as the basis for the uplift, and Tom, being the leader of this bioregion, had a huge hand in the design and intent of the project . With clear joy and pride, he told us that returning to the site just five weeks after the project was completed, he discovered five species of dragonflies that had previously been absent in the area. This change, he expressed, was incredible in such a short amount of time. It is why they do the work they do.
The mission statement at Biohabitats is to “restore the earth and inspire ecological stewardship .” Tom believes that Biohabitats' greatest innovation is their business model of restoring the planet with full transparency. Biohabitats is able to use their profits to create shared value in the communities they work in, while also breeding an infectious passion that can be seen company-wide. Keith Bowers is credited with developing Biohabitats' business model, which has been successful for the last 37 years due to their transparency and dedication to their mission since the very beginning. They continue to prosper by assessing their successes and pitfalls for each project, and adapting their process for future endeavors. Their willingness to learn and improve is just a small part of what makes their company special. In regards to their projects, they feel it is crucial to not only improve upon their methods, but to involve the community whenever possible. On this topic, Tom said “Doing restoration for restoration makes no sense if you can’t engage community,” because “what you build out of that is an ownership of the project. That ownership piece is really powerful, because people connect to the place, it’s a form of placemaking.”
At Biohabitats, Tom holds a long list of positions: Senior Scientist, Great Lakes Bioregion Team Leader, and the Ohio River Basin Team Leader. The company was founded by Keith Bowers, who serves as a Landscape Architect/Restoration Ecologist, Southeast Atlantic Bioregion Team Leader, and President. Founded in 1982, the company now employs 73 people across America from a unique range of multidisciplinary backgrounds and generates about $13 million in revenue each year from national and international ecological restoration work . Their mission statement is to “Restore the Earth & Inspire Ecological Stewardship”, which is combined to function with five values: revere wild nature, heal compassionately, practice wholeness, act with uncompromising integrity, and evolve to be the best. Their drivers to accomplish this unique set of principles? Passion, collaboration, and fun . These aren’t just words to the people who work for Biohabitats, rather true guiding tenets. When asked what the mission meant to him, Tom responded remarkably, “[it feels] like rediscovering soul, heart”. He went into long detail on how everyone works together in true collaboration, about the “culture of learning and communication”, and about the deep passion that they all share.
Places like Biohabitats are few and far between. Changing the narrative that profit must involve some level of unsustainability, their entire business model is based upon increasing ecosystem diversity and management. This experience has helped to reshape our perception on businesses in America, and has proven that it is possible to be both profitable and sustainable. Not only this, but they are transparent. Researching their company was simple thanks to their remarkably comprehensive and open website. Incredible details on each of their projects may be found just by searching from their homepage. Profitable, sustainable, and transparent sound incompatible, but they have been seamlessly tied into one package. One other huge takeaway? These people love their jobs. So often we hear complaints about work, especially in a culture so heavily driven by careers and working overtime. The employees at Biohabitats not only care about what they do; they enjoy it. They have successfully created a company culture centered upon meaningful work that is fun and collaborative. Business can, and should, be profitable. It should also be sustainable, transparent, and enjoyable. As quoted on the Biohabitats culture page, “Today was good. Today was fun. Tomorrow is another one” .
Biohabitats' commitment to transparency is a staple of their business, and it helps their success by making everything they do deliberate and genuine. This has helped their growth in the short and long term since they are open and honest about what they do, and what they stand for as a company. Biohabitats is looking to start quantifying the benefits of their work using a standard template that is easy for the public to understand. I think Tom put it best when he said, “this is about engineering our systems to support life,” “as a planet, I just don’t think we can do this disconnected design work anymore, the community has to be able to own it to be able to have long term sustainability.”
Considering that most of Biohabitats’ money comes from the public sector, they feel that the “public has a right to know how its taxpayer dollars are benefiting what we do,” and as Tom put it, “I can say that we completed ‘x’ acres of wetland and ‘x’ acres of meadows...but it’s the functions that really make the difference.” He pointed out that is is crucial to quantify the changes they create in order to truly understand the benefit their work has on the natural environment. In their mission towards total transparency, Biohabitats is benefiting communities and their environment, by clearly showcasing their mission, and making it easy to follow their work beginning to end.
Bacon Ridge is a project that highlights the impact that Biohabitats has as a business. This specific undertaking took place at a youth camp located in MD, whose stream suffered major sedimentation and erosion. Tasked with restoring more than three miles of affected watershed, Biohabitats gathered all raw restoration materials that they could onsite Tom told us. This included stone, wood, cobble and vegetation, making the process of restoring the environment as carbon neutral as possible and cost-efficient for the company .
“As you can tell, I love what I do and I talk a lot about it.” Biohabitats uses their mission statement to drive everything they do. They are passionate, ethical, and always striving for improvement. For example, Tom explained that since they have numerous offices located nationwide, the company has adopted GoToMeeting to stay connected to one another, rather than using the carbon-intensive option of flying to conduct meetings. This culture of self-awareness has seeped into every aspect of their company; whether it be the competition between all of their offices to see which can obtain the lowest carbon footprint, or their commitment to improving all project facets, it is clear this attitude is contagious in the best possible way.
Biohabitats was founded with the goal to apply the science of ecology to restoring ecosystems, conserving habitat, and regenerating the natural systems that sustain all life on Earth through engagement, assessment, planning, engineering & design, construction, and monitoring . They are headquartered in Baltimore, MD, but their footprint is all over the country. They split themselves into bioregions - areas that share physical, ecological, and cultural attributes. This allows them to focus on local values and concerns, specific ecological and biophysical processes, and place-based solutions . They are a privately-owned, for-profit company that makes the community and the environment their consumer.
The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (UNSDG) that best matches the work that Biohabitats is doing for the world is SDG 15: Life on Land. The specific targets that Biohabitats is successfully completing in their business model are the following :
15.1 By 2020, ensure the conservation, restoration and sustainable use of terrestrial and inland freshwater ecosystems and their services, in particular forests, wetlands, mountains and drylands, in line with obligations under international agreements.
15.5 Take urgent and significant action to reduce the degradation of natural habitats, halt the loss of biodiversity and, by 2020, protect and prevent the extinction of threatened species.
15.9 By 2020, integrate ecosystem and biodiversity values into national and local planning, development processes, poverty reduction strategies and accounts.
Biohabitats’ entire business model is focused on the restoration and inclusion of the environment in every project they perform. With this focus, they are able to embed the value of biodiversity in their work. Biohabitats competes with other engineering and design companies in the areas they work and they are able to find solutions that maintains or improves the Earth on which their project is being performed. Biohabitats is currently attempting to be able to quantify the environmental profits each of their projects offer, but how do you put a number to the value of a native species returning to a restored environment? The values and actions that Biohabitats incorporates in their business is something engineering and design contractors are able to replicate.
:Roy T. Bennett, The Light in the Heart
Tom Denbow, Senior Scientist, Great Lakes Bioregion Team Leader, and the Ohio River Basin Team Leader
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Baltimore, Maryland, US
Business Website: https://www.biohabitats.com/
Year Founded: 1982
Number of Employees: 51 to 200
Biohabitats applys the science of ecology to restoring ecosystems, conserving habitat, and regenerating the natural systems that sustain all life on Earth. Their practice is a blend of sound science, place-based design, and ecological democracy.