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Kindred Spirits

Topcon and Habitat for Humanity team up for a fun, beneficial, playhouse build.

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Some things just work well together. Consider cheese and a nice chardonnay; a tenor saxophone and jazz; peanut butter and . . . well, anything. That same sense of the complementary can also exist between two organizations. Think of companies who share manufacturing expertise in different areas, or universities and corporations building off each other’s strengths toward mutually beneficial goals. With that mindset at the forefront, it is easy to see why a recent pairing between Habitat for Humanity, the epitome of selfless work, and Topcon Positioning Systems, which has a well-documented history of philanthropy and commitment to sustainability, made sense — and proved so successful. The pairing, which took place upon completion of a week of technical training on Topcon’s geopositioning and construction solutions, saw more than 160 experts in construction equipment sales, service and distribution, wielding hammers, drills, and paint brushes to create 16 kid-centric playhouses. The end result was a spirit of camaraderie, 16 very happy recipients of the playfully decorated structures, and proof that a symbiotic relationship between organizations can be a real thing.

A Good Habitat to Have

Few organizations today enjoy as solid — and well-deserved — a reputation as Habitat for Humanity. The Americus, Georgia-based nonprofit provider of affordable housing for economically disadvantaged individuals and families, which began as a passion for Millard and Linda Fuller in the late 1960s, steadily grew to include housing initiatives in all 50 states and more than 70 countries worldwide. Depending upon an area’s housing needs and demands, each state can have any number of individual affiliate offices. California, with some of the highest housing prices in the country, has 41 of them, all working to ensure those needs are addressed.

The affiliate mentioned above, Habitat for Humanity East Bay/Silicon Valley, not only has the distinction of being one of the busiest, it is also one of the most creative, as the playhouse build concept has shown.

“The Playhouse program was started here by one of our former employees who is now a regular volunteer,” said Samantha “Sam” Hawley, the East Bay corporate development associate. “It is now active in most U.S. Habitat affiliates and has proven a highly successful fundraising program. Here at East Bay, the program has grown from building 20 playhouses in 2009, to a major operation that, in a single year, donated over 500 playhouses to families. In that same year, it helped our organization raise over a million dollars – critical funding that expands access to affordable homeownership.”

“The Playhouse program was started here by one of our former employees who is now a regular volunteer.”

Samantha Hawley

The Match Game

When Topcon was considering a way to add a non-work-related element to its three-day Topcon Technical Xperience event, a number of ideas were entertained. For Ron Oberlander, who had worked in the past with Habitat on a personal basis, however, the organization seemed a perfect fit for what he was hoping to achieve — and yield a nice after-effect as well.

“After a couple days of learning about the latest advances in geopositioning solutions, we wanted the Xperience attendees to be able to unwind,” said Oberlander, Topcon vice president of Global Professional Services. “But we also thought that, if they could leave here knowing they’d made a positive contribution to something, it’d be icing on the cake. The playhouse build for Habitat seemed the answer to both.” 

Oberlander’s instincts proved correct; the sights and sounds of the playhouses taking shape were impressive, indeed. Imagine 16 teams of ten workers — each team trying to outdo the other in productivity and creativity — pounding, nailing, stapling, drawing, painting and, finally, assembling playhouses. The sense of competitive camaraderie, all working toward a common good, proved to be exactly what Oberlander had hoped for. 

A Nice Fit

One doesn’t have to dig too deeply to see the reason Topcon and Habitat “play well” together. Where Habitat promotes personal betterment through home ownership, Topcon sees a similar goal achieved through professional improvement. Where Habitat augments its efforts with a push toward sustainable construction techniques and materials, Topcon brings its customer base solutions focused on improvements in efficiency and productivity — essentially making each customer’s effort more sustainable in nature.

“The parallels don’t end there either,” said Oberlander. “We share Habitat’s commitment to positive environmental efforts (the organization encourages using recycled materials or materials repurposed from previous projects), and the steps we’ve recently taken at our Livermore campus to negate our carbon footprint — including a major rooftop/carport solar installation — are just one example of that.”

It’s worth mentioning that the 160+ participants involved in the playhouse build were totally unaware of what was to come that October afternoon. The element of surprise, while it can often result in uncertainty, was met, in this case, with smiles.

“These guys are not your typical sales/service people,” said Jim Copley, Topcon senior manager, Professional Services. “They absolutely love their work and helping each other get better at what they do is really a part of that. So, even though they could have moved right into relaxing with some brews and a nice dinner after the last sessions, the idea of teaming up to create a playhouse that would bring joy to some kids was a pleasant surprise that they jumped on.”

“After a couple days of learning about the latest advances in geopositioning solutions, we wanted the Xperience attendees to be able to unwind.”

Ron Oberlander

Team Players

If anything presented even the slightest bit of a challenge for the Habitat team, it was the sheer size of the volunteer crew that would be taking part in the build.

“Generally when we’re working with a company, it's anywhere from ten to about 50 volunteer participants; it’s rare that we have a group of this size,” said Habitat’s Hawley. “Even if we work with a larger company, it'll usually be a specific segment of that company wanting to do a team building day with 30 to 50 people. So, having Topcon get this many volunteers involved was impressive, as was the attitudes of those volunteers.”

As mentioned, the teams participating in the build ran the gamut from sales professionals to service technicians to dealer reps. The one common thread binding them all was their enthusiasm for the playhouse build itself. Collin McCoy, sales manager for Topcon Solutions Stores’ Seattle branch, saw it as a great opportunity for people across the organization to both utilize their construction background and experience and giving back to the community. 

“It was impressive to see the teams work collectively towards completion, and the variety of artwork gave each team a real opportunity to express their individuality,” he said. “We shared a lot of smiles, laughs, and had a good time working for a good cause.” 

That sentiment was shared by Chad Gerhart, positioning support specialist at Admar Positioning Solutions. “I thought the project was fun and a nice way to be a part of something that benefits the community and shines a positive light on Topcon and their dealer network,” he said. “It was also great to meet people — dealers, Topcon employees, Habitat staff, etc. — we wouldn’t have otherwise met. When we all finished our projects, it was interesting to see how almost everyone incorporated Topcon into their builds.”

The Real Payoff

Fun though it all was, the best part of any build is always turning the finished playhouses over to the families and organizations slated to receive them. According to Hawley, all but one of the 16 houses built at Topcon were spoken for that day and the remaining playhouse was picked up shortly after the event. She said they find recipient families or organizations in a variety of different ways, including through partnerships they enjoy with other nonprofits — preschools, daycare centers, libraries, women’s shelters — who might need a children's play structure.

“We also have an interest form on our website that families can fill out and we work with different family-based organizations or community groups,” she said. “One such group, Blue Star Moms, is a support group for families with a parent that's deployed in the military. So we’ll get inquiries from a parent or relative looking to give the kids something fun and special during that challenging time.”

She added that, when a group like Topcon donates to cover the cost of the playhouse build, a part of their “per playhouse” donation goes to cover the cost of materials, while a good a portion is filtered back into supporting Habitat’s core programs — all with an end goal of making affordable housing available to those in need in the Bay Area.

“This was our first project with Topcon and it was really exciting for us to have it be such a big, successful event,” she said. “We had a great time working with the group and it seemed like everyone had an awesome time at the event. We truly value groups who put such confidence in us and hope to continue working with Topcon in future years.” 

“I thought the project was fun and a nice way to be a part of something that benefits the community and shines a positive light on Topcon and their dealer network.”

Chad Gerhart

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