– By Thom Mariner
Messer Construction, founded in 1932, has a long, storied history in Cincinnati, and now reaches into eight additional metropolitan areas. However, it was only in the 1990s, after becoming an employee-owned company, that it adopted a more focused, disciplined approach to philanthropic giving.
The company website talks about “Messer’s transformational investment in its people, communities and innovative building solutions.”
“Investment” is a key word here, as Mark Luegering points out. He’s senior vice president for Messer operations across its nine markets. “Investing, rather than giving back.” He believes the company’s approach is slightly different from the way other companies look at philanthropy.
“If we’re going to be a builder of high-end buildings in the community – there won’t be a need if the community is not thriving,” Luegering said. “So we have to support the arts, we have to support the charities that benefit everybody in the region. If it’s a good place for people to live, then people will want better amenities, and since we’re a builder, then there would be opportunities for us.
“We have, because we give. A lot of people talk about giving back, but I just don’t think that’s the right order of things.”
“I’m always amazed,” he said, “when I call other companies to raise money for ReSource or the symphony, and they say, ‘We don’t give to charities.’ Or ‘I give to one charity.’ I guess that’s OK, but there are so many good causes and needs out there.”
In Luegering’s view, “We have a duty, an obligation, and I think it feels good as an employee-owned business to say, ‘We’re here to support our communities.’ ”
Luegering is board chair for ReSource, a local nonprofit that helps area businesses dispose of things they don’t need – surplus furniture, equipment and merchandise – and then helps qualified nonprofits purchase those items at 10-30 percent of what they would otherwise pay. Christie Brown, executive director of ReSource, said she has been “…impressed with (Messer’s) level of corporate commitment to our community. They have encouraged volunteers to serve on our board, donated furniture, sponsored our gala and other special events. They have made connections for us to get things like digital billboards and other pro bono services, provided staff to assist us in the purchase of our box truck to ensure we got a good deal, and sent someone to inspect the truck for us. When we have a need, Mark always considers whether Messer could help or if their company has any connections outside the company that could help us.”
“Messer has been supporting the orchestra for almost 25 years,” said Cincinnati Symphony vice president of philanthropy Mary McFadden Lawson, “and we don’t take that kind of long-term relationship with a company for granted. This is a true partnership and an example of how Messer is an advocate for the arts in our community. We’re thrilled to have Mark Luegering on our board of directors – his deep commitment reflects that of the entire Messer organization.”
A decade ago, Messer established a foundation so it could be more disciplined and provide gifts that are more meaningful. Luegering said he believes “people really appreciate a disciplined approach to giving. ‘Here’s how we’re set up. … Here’s how we operate.’ ”
Applications are accepted from January to March, and four $25,000 awards are made each summer. A committee of 15 executives from across all nine markets decides on the four winners, narrowing down from 53 applicants this year. Plans are to increase the number of grants to make sure all markets benefit regularly.
In addition to foundation grants, Messer supports nonprofits in other ways. It matches employee contributions to United Way and ArtsWave, for example, at 50 cents to the dollar. And all senior managers serve on multiple boards, where their individual contributions are matched 100 percent. It is through this pathway that Messer supports the fundraising efforts and events of nonprofits.
And, on occasion, there are ad hoc gifts. One key to success, apparently, is to have a Messer connection as an advocate. All grant applications require an internal Messer sponsor.
Grants are made in three areas of concentration: education, economic inclusion, workforce development.
How do these investments benefit Messer?
First, it has to do with supporting and empowering employees. Luegering said, “Our people feel good about their ability to help in the community, so they recognize that that’s a gift the company provides that helps them have more influence, to have connections in the community, which they can then bring back.”
He said Messer does a lot of work for nonprofits, citing projects including the United Way headquarters, Aronoff Center, Music Hall revitalization, FreeStore Foodbank and Crayons 2 Computers. It also has built hospitals (Christ, Cincinnati Children’s and St. Elizabeth are local examples) and schools (including work for Miami University and the University of Cincinnati). “That’s not the work where we generate a lot of our profits,” he said, “but it’s good work, good experience, and gets our name recognition out in the market place.”
Luegering also mentioned Messer’s work on the recently launched Cincinnati streetcar. “We were $10 million lower than the next bidder,” he said. “We thought, if someone’s going to build it, it might as well be someone local. … We’re invested.”