The Washington Post Features Forum One, A Company Founded by HKS Alumni in D.C.
Some criticize business people for being in it for just the money. But many are in it for the money and a chance to do some good.
Like Chris Wolz.
Wolz, 56, and his two business partners, classmates at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, built their company, Forum One, into a thriving enterprise that tries to make money while also pushing social goals such as better housing, medical care and a cleaner environment.
The 20-year-old firm is a nicely profitable digital marketing agency that has been growing 15 to 20 percent a year. Forum One’s mission is to make user-friendly websites for clients that include the Gates Foundation, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Peace Corps and the United States Agency for International Development.
“We use online and digital strategies to reach and influence people for our organization and business clients,” Wolz said.
Forum One expects to gross $16.8 million this year and earn profit — before taxes — of 8 to 10 percent. The employees are spread along the West Coast, the District and the firm’s headquarters in Alexandria. It even has an office in Germany.
The firm makes money for the three partners as well as their 90-plus workers, who earn between $50,000 and $150,000 a year.
That payroll is quite an accomplishment itself. But there is more to it.
Wolz and his two partners, one of whom is retired, own about 70 percent of the company stock. The rest — about 30 percent — is owned by the employees, and that share is growing every year.
The employees’ shares are held through a vehicle called an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP). Each year, the ESOP buys about 5 percent of the private company’s stock from the three partners. That’s a pretty good deal for the partners, who are able to gradually cash out while giving the firm a strong chance of surviving them.
The ESOP is also a tax-deferred retirement account for employees, who will be able to accumulate shares and then sell them back to the company when they retire. Nice deal.
“We created the ESOP so that the company will live beyond us,” Wolz said.
About half of Forum One’s work is for federal, state and local governments, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Education and health agencies in California and Washington state.
The other half of its revenue comes from foundations, think tanks and organizations including the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the World Bank.
Most of the business comes through word-of-mouth, but Wolz does his share of rainmaking. “We do a lot of networking,” he said. “We go to technology and communications events.”
The firm is nonpartisan. Their focus is on health, education, housing, international development and the environment. That makes the founders comfortable that they can make money and serve a mission, as well.
One place where Forum One has made a mark is in mobile websites. Forum One has developed sites for clients including the Fairfax County, Va., schools (for which 28 percent of traffic is mobile) and the National Museum of African American History and Culture (57 percent).
The Peace Corps, which gets sizeable traffic is from mobile devices, needed a new website to help it better engage millennials to apply, and especially to reach them with a website that worked well on phones. Forum One knew the Peace Corps intimately because Wolz and several other staffers had served as volunteers.
The firm created a vivid flexible website using the Peace Corps’ updated logo and making extensive use of pictures and videos to show personal stories of how to get a job using their experience working for the Peace Corps in the developing world.
So what’s the secret sauce?
First they deep-dive into clients’ Web traffic to learn how many people they are reaching. Then they build a site with visuals and messages designed to grab the audience, usually millennials, and hold attention. Like I said before, they concentrate heavily on the mobile sphere.
Forum One was hired by “She Should Run,” an organization devoted to getting more women to run for elective office. Wolz and his team used photos and designs allowing a wide range of women to picture themselves pursuing a race.
When the U.S. Agriculture Department wanted to encourage school districts to buy more food from local farmers, Forum One took boring and wonky research on 18,000 school districts and brought it to life with an animated video including kids, schools, tractors and food.
I asked Wolz if he is a capitalist.
“Absolutely,” he said. The Eagle Scout feels as gratified making money for himself and his employees as he does building websites for foundations and businesses.
His sense of mission began with the conversations with his parents around the family kitchen table in their home outside Milwaukee, where he grew up.
His mother was a progressive who earned a midcareer law degree and preached about the importance of improving the lives of the less fortunate.
That stayed with him.
He attended the University of Wisconsin, where he studied engineering (and played trumpet in the marching band), with an emphasis on the environment. Boy Scouts and camping in the Northern Wisconsin woods instilled a love of nature. The ambitious teenager bet that earning a technical degree was a path to satisfying his passion while earning a good living.
At the same time, a strenuous summer factory job left him determined to get a college degree.
He joined the Peace Corps out of college in 1983. He helped a Nepali village of 1,000 install a gravity-based water system. The project would automate water delivery and save village women from spending hours each day lugging five-gallon jugs of water from a nearby stream.
“It was pretty amazing,” Wolz said. “These villagers were poor, barefoot subsistence farmers.”
The pipeline delivered clean water to outside taps located throughout the village, which was a cluster of homes along a mountainside. Workers dug trenches, broke rocks and laid pipe. They carried 100-pound bags of cement for miles up the side of a mountain to a dam.
Wolz spent two years with the Peace Corps and two years with UNICEF and CARE.
He returned to the States in 1987 and, now married to a Dutch woman he met in Nepal, earned a master’s degree in environmental policy at Harvard.
“I was really interested in air pollution,” he said, “how it affects people’s health and how it affects climate.”
He worked at the Office of Management and Budget for six years after Harvard, earning $80,000 a year. He took a 25 percent pay cut in 1996 to become a partner in Forum One with his two policy wonk Harvard classmates.
Wolz and his wife and kids returned to Nepal a few years ago. Wolz said the water system he helped build 23 years earlier had been expanded about threefold to serve 3,000 people.
“I was able to help build their local capacity to benefit the lives of the women and children of the village,” he said. “It’s similar to the thrill I get at Forum One.” This article originally appeared in the Washington Post on November 13, 2016