Stand Up or Sit OutMar 26, 2021 04:11PM ● By Chris Bowling
Photo by Bill Sitzmann
Unionist Printing has often helped Omahans make a statement—and while those multicolored banners, signs, and postcards appearing in yards or the mail may be business as usual to a larger operation, they mean something more at this print shop.
Larry Maupin has owned the business for 50 years, and his top priority is always to make Omaha better. His designers put in extra work for a message worth spreading. Unionist Printing even put a Biden/Harris sign in the window of their West Omaha facility. When the client’s cause resonates, Maupin may give good discounts, sometimes to the detriment of his bottom line.
“I’m sure after a discussion with certain customers they’ve made a decision of, ‘well, maybe we won’t use them anymore because maybe they don’t agree with some of our philosophy,’” Maupin said. “We don’t try to turn anybody away. We’ll print for anybody as long as we think it’s a just cause.”
The decision of when to speak up or sit out was one many business owners in Omaha faced last year. Protesters filled the streets, people of color died of COVID-19 at disproportionate rates, and topics such as affordable housing and income equality captured the spotlight.
Many of Omaha’s business leaders responded. Some went big—making sweeping commitments to build a more equitable Omaha. Others went small—posting a sign in the window or holding a hard conversation in the office. Many now wonder if those commitments will be forgotten once the normal churn of business returns.
“This is one of those items that we need to be consistent on,” said Tim Burke, board chair of the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce and CEO of OPPD, which has about 1,800 employees servicing nearly 850,000 people across 13 counties. “It can’t be hot in ’20 and cold in ’21. This needs to be a commitment we make as a chamber on this work.”
After police in Minneapolis killed George Floyd in May 2020, following which protests erupted across the United States, CEOs of Omaha’s biggest companies met to discuss how to address racism in their city. The “We Will” statements followed, with promises to listen, learn, and rout out racism. Nearly 300 companies have since signed on, including big names such as Mutual of Omaha, Werner Enterprises, Kiewit, and Union Pacific.
Some people considered the statements a chance to recommit to long-held beliefs. When Burke came to OPPD in 1997, he said the company thought of equity as a federal requirement rather than a core goal.
Ideals and ideas began to change. Newcomers wanted to build a company that looked like the people it served. The board of directors and senior leadership, long composed of white men, grew more diverse. The company started reexamining how it hired and promoted people.
Burke himself logs onto Zoom meetings with his pronouns displayed. He talks in-depth about “White Men as Full Diversity Partners,” training sessions required of white male company leaders to learn about privilege.
Changing OPPD is going to take hard work. That might be challenging for some employees who wonder why this is so important to a company that charges people for electricity. Burke said this is essential, and if that makes people uncomfortable, maybe they’re not the right fit.
“At the end of the day I would say, that’s OK if we lose people because they’re not committed to the things we’re committed to within the organization,” Burke said. “I’m OK with that actually because I think it’ll build a stronger organization long term anyway. Better for the community, better for the customer owners, and better for the employees.”
Maupin was reminded in 2020 of why it’s important to lead a value-driven business.
His father and two friends left the printing presses of the Omaha World-Herald in 1945 to take over The Unionist, a newspaper for blue-collar workers and union members. When it folded in 1967, Maupin transitioned it to a printing company, retaining that ideal of giving service to good causes.
Through the years, Maupin’s done business with organizations such as Black Votes Matter, which has increased voter turnout among Black Omahans, and Civic Nebraska, which promotes civic engagement. They’ve also worked with a lot of Democratic candidates. Maupin said they print for all parties, but Democrats usually have the messages they want spread. That hasn’t gotten Maupin into too much trouble, mostly because their customers come to them because of their principles as much as their business efficacy.
“Word of mouth has gotten out that we’re kind of people-friendly, and we try to help whomever we can,” Maupin said. “Some don’t have a lot of money and we try to help them through some tough times, and during this pandemic it’s been a real good example of what people are going through in their lives.”
As much as the pursuit for equity is a moral endeavor, it’s also rooted in dollars and cents.
In 2015, a survey by the Urban League of Nebraska and the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce found Black professionals were five to six times less likely to recommend Omaha as a place to live and work than workers of other races. Meanwhile the Latino population is projected to represent about a quarter of the city’s population by 2040.
Omaha is changing and companies have no choice but to adapt.
In response, the chamber started the Conference on Opportunity, Diversity, and Equity (CODE). Created in 2016, CODE aims to increase workplace diversity, bolster minority-owned businesses, and ensure customers are getting equitable service.
“Those aren’t light statements,” Burke said. “Those aren’t glassy or fuzzy. Those are real statements about what we will do as a community.”
James Hauschildt arrived in Omaha at the peak of protests and calls for racial justice this summer. The new president of Clarkson College, a private institution focused on teaching health services in midtown, had to decide what stance to take.
That’s when he saw the “We Will” statements, which inspired him not only to sign his own name, but also to ask the leaders on campus to do the same.
Since then, the college has held campuswide strategic planning on equity as well as reevaluating their admission requirements and hiring practices.
It’s a start, Hauschildt said.
“In all truth and in all sincerity, it’s our number one priority,” he said. “And here’s why: I equate [equity] with having a compassionate, caregiving, mutually respectful, collaborative culture. We can’t have that type of culture unless we focus on this.”
Last year was an awakening for many. While communities of color have advocated for equality across generations, and some white allies have met that call, 2020 felt like a tipping point. Many in Omaha’s business community took the step over that precipice with statements, commitments, and strategies. They come with the recognition that businesses haven’t served every Omahan equally in the past. But that can change.
Time will tell the results. Maupin thinks it all comes back to a simple rule: treat people fairly. That means his company works with clients that promote those ideals, sometimes at the expense of making money.
“We’re not martyrs by any [means], but we do see we do have a purpose and a relationship that we’ve built with certain organizations,” he said. “In tough times they need a little help and they’ve been loyal to us, so we’ll help them now.”
This article was printed in the April/May 2021 issue of B2B Magazine.