Stephen Lawe, Resource Systems Group CEO. Photo by Randolph T. Holhut.
by Joyce Marcel, Vermont Business Magazine Remember the old Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times”? We live in interesting times.
The whole world is shifting — or at the very least, being rapidly “disrupted.” Autonomous cars, buses and trains? Robotics? Sunny day flooding? Overcrowding at the national parks? Rationing visits to the national parks to solve the problem of overcrowding? Data analytics? Data privacy? E-commerce vs dying retail? A “shared” economy that means fewer cars and less money from the gas tax to fix the roads and bridges? Drones? Engineers inspecting old bridges using new drones. Rising sea tides changing the footprint of large cities like Miami and New York. And that's just a start.
How will states and the federal government manage these shifts and changes? How can managers prepare for an uncertain future? Do people keep doing what they're doing today? And if they do, how can they be better prepared for tomorrow? These national questions are central to the work of Resource Systems Group of White River Junction.
“We use analytical methods to develop tools to forecast and understand behaviors within a complex system,” said RSG's CEO, Stephen Lawe.
Data analytics, a term that most of us first heard in connection with baseball, is an old idea, really. It simply means the science of analyzing raw data in order to make conclusions. Coming up with the right framing questions, devising surveys, conducting surveys, analyzing the collected data, and making recommendations for the future are the driving forces at RSG, in such areas as travel, infrastructure, and climate change.
“We are seeking to shape a successful future through unmatched research and analytics,” Lawe said. “That's our vision. That's what we're trying to do. We have truly grown into having a national reputation which is among the very best in the world for the work that we do. We're very fortunate in that. And with that comes a level of responsibility that I think we didn't feel we had when we were younger and starting out. So we try to help inform decisions by providing good information.”
RSG's motto is “The science of insight.” It means, according to Lawe, that the company blends “scientific rigor in our approach to providing actionable results for our clients. The methods we deploy are uniquely suited to the problem under consideration. This is always done within a lens of providing meaningful and actionable results.”
In an odd way, the company has little or no control over how its data gets used.
“We do a lot of work for the National Academy of Sciences, for example,” Lawe said. “That research ultimately is published. It's available for others to use. Where that goes next is a little bit out of our hands. We have debated this. The more you work at the national level the more you work on the big problems. And the more global impact you're likely to have, the less control you have over the targeted implementation. Conversely, you can work for the town of Norwich and help them out with a study related to adding to pedestrian safety. That's a very narrow problem. You feel you have a very immediate and very meaningful impact on people. But it's at a very localized level. We span that whole spectrum.”
As an example, he offered something you wouldn't think would have a large effect on the economy: airport parking. You would be wrong.
“We're doing a lot of work for airports around the country,” Lawe said. “What's happening right now is that airports generate a substantive amount of their income from parking. So if you drive to the airport, park and fly out for a week, you leave your car there and you pay per day. But today, if you live in a major urban area like downtown Boston or downtown Chicago, you wouldn't drive to the airport and leave your car there. You would take an Uber or Lyft to the airport. It would cost you 20 bucks. You would go off on your vacation and come back and take an Uber home. That means airports just lost all of that revenue.”
Airports, meanwhile, have invested heavily in parking: land, paving, garages, infrastructure, salaries.
“How are airports going to recover?” Lawe asked. “They have to maintain this massive infrastructure. So they have the overhead costs without the revenue to cover them. And in addition, most airports have been planning for the next five or 10 years of parking investment. So they own this land or they're buying this land or they're building another facility. All of that is now in question.”
RSG has been tasked by several cities and states with solving the parking — or not parking — problem.
“What might they lose over the next three or five or 10 years?” Lawe asked. “How far does that go? How can they recover that revenue in other ways? What are the policies they need to put in place? Do they just stop investing in further parking? This is, again, part of the shared economy that is causing such changes. We're doing a lot of work for Logan Airport right now.”
Or, take as an example closer to home, the work RSG has done over the years for the State of Vermont. The state has taken full home court advantage of having RSG so handy, especially in the area of transportation.
“The company has done a number of projects for the Agency of Transportation,” said Joe Segale, the AOT's director of policy, planning and research. “One recent one was helping us understand whether we could use smartphone data to track travel patterns in Vermont.”
He explained that as we all move around, our smartphones, if we have them, are tracking where we go.
“The information is anonymous, but is that reliable in Vermont, given our rural nature?” Segale said. “Especially in places where cell phone service isn't reliable. So can we use data from smartphones to identify travel patterns? ”
RSG pronounced the data reliable in Vermont, even with its sparse population.
“As we prepare for the future, this information can help us cut our costs, like counting cars,” Segale said. “Since RSG is tied into the national level, it was really efficient for us to get that information. They have a lot of the data already, in house, because they work with these larger companies, and that includes data from Vermont. We now feel comfortable about the direction we can move in in the future. RSG does high quality work. They have really smart people. And it's great having a company like them in Vermont, easily accessible to us, bringing that national experience to Vermont.”
RSG is 100 percent employee-owned. It was founded in 1986, but its story goes even deeper into New England's recent past.
Back in 1972, when the environmental movement was terribly young and much more hopeful about the possibility for positive change, a crucial book called The Limits to Growth was written by Donella H “Dana” Meadows, Dennis L Meadows, Jorgen Randers and William W Behrens III.
The book sold more than 9 million copies in 26 languages and woke people around the globe to the dangers of unsustainable and unconstrained resource consumption, population growth and economic growth on our finite, fragile planet.
Sadly today, amid floods and droughts, melting ice caps, uninhabitable islands, uncontrolled fires, and burgeoning resource wars, the book appears all too prescient.
Donella Meadows once famously said, “You may be able to fool the voters, but not the atmosphere.”
RSG has its beginnings in the world that produced The Limits to Growth and in the organic farming commune that Meadows, who died in 2001, and her former husband started in the Upper Valley while they were teaching at Dartmouth College. All three founders of RSG, Dennis Meadows, Colin High and Thomas Adler, were connected to that community.
In fact, RSG started as a spin-off of Dartmouth's Resource Policy Center. It was a new idea in consultancy: combining academic rigor with high-impact government and business projects. The idea was to root policy in vigorous data analysis.
RSG started with eight employees in 1986. Today it employs 130 people. Its headquarters are in White River Junction, where it has played a significant part in the town's revitalization. It also has offices in Burlington, VT, as well as Arlington, VA, Salt Lake City, Chicago, San Diego and Portland, OR.
“Arlington is important to us because of its location close to the federal government,” Lawe said. “But each one of our offices has an important geographic characteristic. We're also there because there is expertise in those areas that we wanted to tap into. Take Portland, for example. It is a function of colleagues of ours for many years with whom we had been working. Eventually they said, 'You know, we would like to join.' And we said, 'Great! You're welcome! Come!' So we hired them and started an office there and that's been amazing for us.”
With workforce depletion a critical issue for many Vermont businesses, RSG's interest in multiple offices pays big dividends.
“People don't all want to come to Vermont,” Lawe said. “We hire some really thoughtful, top-notch people out of some of the best universities in the country. They may come to Vermont for a year or two to gain experience and tutelage and to work under certain people. But at some point, you know, they will want to live their lives and meet people their age and maybe live in cities. So we have to have offices in other parts of the country, so we can attract people and give them opportunities to advance their personal lives as well as their careers.”
RSG Vice-President Kevin Hathaway has been with the company for 19 years. He works out of its Maine office. “I believe our growth opportunity was to compete for project work where it's not essential that you have a local office present,” he said.
Market research, for example, brings in over half the company's revenue.
“We compete very well without being local,” Hathaway said. “Seattle, Minnesota. Name any city in the country and RSG would be competitive. Then we do a bunch of stuff in the private sector for big companies. Fortune 100 companies hire us to research and forecast consumer behavior. Studying consumer behavior is really similar to studying travel behavior. Uber, train, walk. That's what RSG specializes in — predicting tradeoffs and choices. We specialize in modeling choices.”
The work that RSG does with the Vermont AOT is mirrored in many states, Hathaway said.
“Every single major city is required by law to do simulation studies,” Hathaway said. “They need to study travel on the road network — all travel. What if population grew by 50 percent? What would happen? You need computer models for good urban planning, and there are laws at the federal level that dictate that stuff. There are 400 metropolitan planning organizations around the county, and every one of them has to run a travel model. RSG is one of the better companies – we develop brand new versions of these models and let the agencies forecast future travel. You have to survey the traveling public for data, and that data is needed to feed the model. So the market research feeds the travel model.”
RSG is known by companies and governments, but it's far from a household name for consumers, Hathaway said.
“The average person doesn't know about RSG, but governments and big companies know about us,” he said. “There's no brand awareness among the public, which includes your prospects — the people you're trying to hire. But it's still a very compelling place to work. Many of us started here very early in our careers and haven't left. The company's been intellectually engaging, flexible and supportive.”
RSG has declined to locate in several places.
“We're strategic about how we approach different offices,” Lawe said. “We've not opened many offices in locations although asked to do so because they didn't fit a number of other characteristics. For example, a major university nearby is essential.”
The company is fast-growing; in 2018 it had $26 million in revenue; it expects to hit its revenue target of $27.3 million this year, Lawe said.
Understanding human behavior seems to be at the heart of what RSG does, giving its work an interesting philosophical edge.
“To understand behaviors, you need to be able to understand what people are currently doing,” Lawe said. “Then, you want to understand what people might do under different conditions — and some of those conditions don't exist today.”
For example, what would people do if there were high-speed rail? How many more riders might there be if there was high-speed rail between White River Junction and Washington, DC? Is there a market for that? What would high-speed rail do to other markets, like the air market? Would it reduce congestion? And if it does, would that have the desired effect on everything from quality of life to the environment? In other words, what would the unexpected consequences be like?
“So you can see how you go from the very specific, which is what are people going to do and how are they going to behave, to what things will change, all the way through to what are the resultant effects of that,” Lawe said. “Another way to look at it would be, say, what are the desired result of effects? We're trying to reduce emissions because of global climate change. Where are those emissions coming from? How to reduce them? Would high-speed rail be the thing that would get us there?”
His example, at that point, ceased to be theoretical.
“We've done high-speed rail studies all over the country,” Lawe said. “We've done studies around how to pay for the infrastructure.”
Currently, the national government pays for most of its infrastructure repairs through the gas tax.
“But the gas tax is diminishing as a function of more efficient vehicles, and of course electric vehicles,” Lawe said. “So we know that's not a viable revenue generating source for maintenance and development of new infrastructure in the future. So what's it going to be? Those are kind of things that the federal government is interested in studying. Most of the states are interested in studying it, too. And we'll do those kinds of studies for them, and help them think that through.”
For a company where change is everything, growth has brought its own changes.
“There's been a transition from a small local Vermont firm to a firm doing national-level work,” Lawe said. “That's a shift from doing localized kind of work, where you're seeing your clients have a major impact, to high-level research, big things like what we do for airports.”
Given its high salaries, full benefits, employee ownership and a choice of geographical locations, it's no surprise that RSG regularly appears on “Best Places to Work” lists nationally as well as in Vermont.
In 2016, for example, it was #79 on Fortune Magazine's “100 Best Workplaces for Millennials” ahead of Whole Foods, GoDaddy.com and the Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts.
According to Lawe, RSG competes successfully for talent with companies as large and well-known as Google.
“We're using some of the more advanced data analytics that you see in the profession,” Lawe said. “They're similar to those done by Google and in some of the other big Silicon Valley companies. We cannot compete with them, except for employees.”
Lawe is actually a Vermont native; he was born in nearby Norwich. He joined the company two years after it was founded. Back in 1988, RSG was being run by one of its founders, Thomas Adler. Adler remains president of the company, although he now works out of its Maine office. When he looked back, he remarked on how young Lawe was when he joined.
“Stephen joined RSG when we were still quite small, but were already involved in a wide range of local, regional, national and international projects,” Adler said. “He had broad interests, a zest for learning new things and the energy and enthusiasm of a 20-something that he has somehow maintained to this day.”
Lawe was “a skilled and dedicated contributor to a wide range of projects,” Adler said.
“But he displayed vision and leadership that served us well in many respects, even in the earlier years of his career,” Adler continued. “Our early vision of the company was that we would remain small, focus on developing ourselves professionally and do high-quality work that had positive impacts on the world. In some ways, we were modeling ourselves after a university department. But we found that the latter part of that vision was inconsistent with the first part: it was hard to remain small when current and new clients continued to turn to us to do more work for them. But we were unsure about how to grow the firm without compromising the other parts of our vision.”
It was Lawe who recognized that the company would benefit from having someone dedicated to developing its organizational structure, Adler said.
He suggested hiring a COO to help it grow. After a national search a new COO was found to lead the group while Lawe “built and managed RSG’s highly-successful software engineering group,” Adler said.
When, after a decade of successful growth, the COO left, the company did another extensive national search and then appointed Lawe to take his place as CEO.
“We concluded that there was no one as qualified as Stephen to lead us into the future,” Adler said. “Stephen’s intimate technical knowledge of the work that we do and his strong commitment to positive leadership has helped bring us to the next level – serving our employee-owners with a supportive and dynamic work environment, serving the many and diverse clients who rely on us to work on their toughest challenges and continuing to advance the profession by applying innovative approaches to this work. All more than I could have hoped for in 1986 when we started RSG and a few years later when we hired that 20-something!”
At 54, Lawe still projects an aura of youthful energy. He's small and fit and very bright, and speaks with his hands and his whole body. He has a great sense of humor which is reflected in the deep laugh lines around his eyes. He seems impervious to insult. (For example, a reporter telling him she doesn't understand a word he's saying only makes him laugh.)
Lawe, who is an only child, comes from a highly educated family. His father is a physician and his mother was trained as a lawyer. Both are British. They met in England and came to this country when his father was hired to do medical research in Boston. His father later moved to the VA Medical Center in White River Junction; that brought the family to Norwich, where Lawe was born. His father then moved over to Dartmouth Medical Center and the medical school there.
“So it was research first, and then practicing,” Lawe said.
His mother took various jobs before settling down to editing.
“She found the work easy,” Lawe said. “So she was first an editor at the Harvard Review and then did some book editing. Eventually, she found a position here and was the editor of The Journal of Neurosurgery for 20-plus years.”
Lawe's parents were deeply affected by growing up during World War II.
“I think the war was very formative,” Lawe said. “There were bombing raids every night. They were very careful about resources and money. They're fantastic parents and wonderful, amazing people. I think they imparted of all the right messages: thoughtfulness and being conservative and being careful. My dad just turned 90 this year. We're celebrating it plus their 60th anniversary. It's a big year for us.”
Growing up, Lawe had a number of adolescent jobs in construction and hospitality, where he learned that waiting on tables is more difficult than he thought it would be. But early on, he started earning money by helping neighboring Dartmouth professors with their research.
“I worked with professors doing research, which of course is work available to you if you're in the Upper Valley,” Lawe said. “We had a lot of friends doing research and they wanted help. And of course, this was before the internet.”
Threaded through Lawe's early life was a strong interest in East Africa and African affairs; his second language is Swahili.
“I traveled to East Africa with my mother and father,” Lawe said. “We visited my aunt and uncle in Kenya, who worked at the World Bank. And then we traveled around with them. That really shaped where I was going, I think, in many respects.”
Swahili isn't very useful in White River Junction.
“But I've used it every so often,” Lawe said. “I ran across someone in Florida a couple of weeks ago who happened to know Swahili, and we spent some time talking. So that was fun.”
Africa gave him a different take on what is important in life, Lawe said.
“The people I ran across were people for whom family and the social side of things were very important,” Lawe said. “Their whole sort of structure is very different. In a nutshell, Africa was for me a vivid reminder of the vast wealth disparity and the lack of basic human needs that many still have globally. Once one's eyes are open to this, you can see it almost everywhere you go in the world. This informs how I lead our company and how we seek to assist our clients in the best use of their resources.”
He went on to study at St Lawrence University, in part because they had one of the premiere African Studies department in the country.
“They don't have a formal degree in in African Studies, so I studied a combination of two different majors — one in political science and one in philosophy,” Lawe said. “And then I had concentrations in math and computer science. It was a real interest to advance my opportunities to work in and around Africa. I really really loved it, so I went back to Africa again.”
Africa wasn't his only adventure while he was at St Lawrence.
“I did a semester abroad through the university and then stayed on to travel and work,” Lawe said. “But I learned that the NCAA Division I ski races were planned for Alaska, so I came home, made the team, qualified and went to Alaska to compete in the NCAAs.”
He earned his BA from St Lawrence in the spring of 1988. He was just getting ready for a cross-county trip when he landed his job at RSG.
“The interview was at a picnic table outside,” Lawe said. “We made popcorn and came out and had a discussion. Apparently it went well. But in fact, I had the car packed with my friend from university. He and I were about to leave for a month and a half's drive around the country. And so I interviewed while my friend was still in the car waiting to leave.
I said, 'This has been fantastic. I'd love the opportunity to work with you all. And I'll be back in a month's time.' Or something like that. So we're off, we went for a month and a half's trip around the country. I came back in the fall and I've been here ever since.”
He might not be speaking Swahili every day, but Lawe feels some of the things he learned in Africa inform the way he approaches business and life.
“You realize that you want to work around people who are amazing and interesting and exciting to work with,” Lawe said. “So we work for clients who have interesting problems and will make a difference if you help them. So you've got to love what you do. You've got to work for the right reasons. I learned that in Africa.”
He took two more degrees later on, an MA in Systems Thinking and Resource Policy Management at Dartmouth (where Donella Meadows was his thesis advisor) and a MSEL in Environmental Law at the Vermont Law School, all the while continuing to work for RSG.
“Both degrees were done out of intellectual interest and an interest to advance, or pick up, certain things that I felt I hadn't yet fully had an opportunity to learn about,” Lawe said.
RSG does about 60 percent of its work for state governments and the federal government. A few years ago, it did a study for the State of Vermont, for example, on pavement. (Who said consulting work is sexy?)
“We were working with the state's Agency of Transportation, assisting them in understanding the connection between their investment in infrastructure and people's perception of its benefit,” Lawe said. “Every state, and the State of Vermont is no different, insures some level of pavement quality. They invest to make sure it stays at a certain quality level. There are all these engineering methods for determine the quality of pavement. The question is, do people perceive the difference between those different levels of quality?”
Additionally, if people don't notice pavement quality, would it be possible for the state to invest significantly less in this and still achieve the same ultimate goal? Could the state then invest the saved dollars in health care, or some other important initiative?
“Are we investing to achieve a certain engineering standard that doesn't necessarily align with travelers’ appreciation or understanding or benefit?” Lawe asked. “And what is the result of that spending?”
The results of the study showed that there were ways to change the state's investments, Lawe said.
“I mean, if you don't maintain infrastructure to a certain level of quality, it does begin to deteriorate,” Lawe said. “So you don't change that. But within that context, there do appear to be opportunities to change the way we invest in this. There is an opportunity to reallocate resources in order for the betterment of everyone in the state who is paying into those funds.”
This was a planning study, Lawe said, so the state is still studying the results of the surveys.
“It's still early,” Lawe said. “But yeah, one hopes that the state will make some changes. What we've learned from other states is that they're very interested in this study and they want to do the same thing. And you know, that's exciting for us.”
Lawe is currently working with the State of Florida on similar questions.
“Imagine yourself as the second in charge of the Florida Department of Transportation,” Lawe said. “Now imagine yourself trying to determine, 'How do I manage this whole endeavor? With the seas rising, how do I prepare Florida for the next five or 10 or 15 years? What things do I need to know? How do I restructure my workforce? How do I need to focus our research so that it's on the right topics?' Those are the questions that you ask if you're in charge of that. Who do you go to to get answers to this? You go to RSG. We'll help you think that through.”
For many years, RSG has consulted with the National Parks Service. As difficult as it might be to comprehend, America's wildest open places are now facing overcrowding.
“The National Park Service has two mandates,” Lawe said. “One is to preserve and the other is to make the lands available. Those two mandates are inherently a conflict one with another. And so the National Park Service has to determine how to balance those two objectives. It is becoming more and more problematic as visitation increases.”
The National Parks Service is considering rationing.
“They are having to manage visitation or scale it back,” Lawe said. “And that is inconsistent with one of their objectives but much more consistent with the other. And so that balancing act is a very difficult one. That's what we do for the National Park Service. We help them think through how to achieve both of those objectives and how to balance that out.”
How does that work?
“You determine what sort of a visitor experience you're seeking to achieve,” Lawe said. “Would you be more comfortable being told that you can only go to the national park, let's say Yosemite, once every 10 years? But if you do, there'll only be 50 other people around you. That's it. No more. Is that preferable, or would it be more powerful to have access to it every other year? But then you'll be with 200 or 500 people. That's what we're studying.”
Revitalizing a Town
By the middle of the Twentieth Century, White River Junction, like so many Vermont towns, had outgrown its Industrial Revolution origins. It had become just another collection of empty storefronts with weeds growing out of the cracks in the sidewalks.
Today, besides once again being an important rail junction, the town features a cartoon school, a theater company, restaurants, interesting shops, new homes and businesses. It has no box stores.
RSG played a major part in the town's revitalization, said William Bittinger, RSG's landlord and the managing member of Railroad Row LLC, a company formed in the early 2000 to renovate a series of buildings in WRJ.
Bittinger bristles at the term “gentrification.”
“This town isn't gentrifying,” he said. “It's coming back to life. People are using it. Gentrification means rich people moving in and poor people being forced out. We've just taken a space that was empty and put in middle-class folks who were looking to live and work here. And we've got a mix of people: young, old, of different backgrounds. The town is accepting. Rents are low here, so people can afford to pay for yoga.”
Bittinger thought WRJ was ripe for revitalization because it already had infrastructure.
“The real story is that this area was underutilized,” Bittinger said. “We didn't have to build new roads. We had water and sewer and all the infrastructure. So we created something that young people feel good about, and that's important. When I see young people going from lunch back to their office here, I feel good. Fifteen years ago they would have been in Boston.”
A string of empty warehouses ran down the length of the tracks, starting from the station, and Bittinger thought they could be turned into housing and offices.
“RSG enabled my group to move forward with the repurposing of these abandoned warehouses,” Bittinger said. “Having worked in urban revitalization in New York and New Jersey, I was interested in doing the same but on a much smaller scale. I knew one of the RSG founders, Tom Adler. We served on a board at the Sustainability Institute with Donella Meadows. In the course of serving, I was asked to help the Transportation Institute acquire these abandoned warehouses so we could build a railroad museum.”
After some investigation, Bittinger decided the price was too high and the buildings not suitable for a museum anyway. But he was certainly intrigued.
“I waited about six months,” Bittinger said. “Then I told the board I would like to investigate refocusing the street not for a museum but commercial revitalization. We needed a principal user to find financing.”
Back then RSG was located in a small mall in Norwich. Adler told Bittinger the place was not consistent with the company's sustainability mission — at the very least, because everyone had to drive to work — and the company would very much like to be in White River Junction.
“So their desire to locate in the village and my desire to revitalize it made a very good fit,” Bittinger said. “They made a commitment to take two-thirds of the building and signed a 10-year lease. We took that, along with the architecture and engineering, to Mascoma Bank and got it financed. It was the first new building to be built in the village in 50 years, other than the Vermont State Courthouse. It turned out the senior vice president of the bank grew up in White River and was a strong advocate. The town, to its credit, had just committed to building the lovely park that is now across from our buildings. We felt with that, and a strong tenant, we should go ahead. And we did it.”
Today Amtrak runs the Vermonter almost a fingertip's length away from the first floor meeting room at RSG. Employees have to hold phone calls while the train rumbles through, but the people they're talking to think it's “cool” to be so close to a moving train.
Although it took some time, Bittinger and his investors did a second building next door to RSG.
“A few years later, a third organization wanted to be in the village,” Bittinger said. “Their mission was being part of urban transitioning neighborhoods. With their involvement, and with RSG, we were able to build a LEED certified building.”
Next, a burnt-out building and a vacant lot in the center of town became mixed-use office and housing spaces. When one of RSG's neighbors left, Bittinger's group was able to turn the space into co-working.
“That's going very well,” Bittinger said. “We have a marvelous mix of folks who want to be in the village. They can walk around the corner and get a good coffee and a dessert.”
Other companies have come in, attracted by the investment.
“Personally, I decided 15 years ago to help launch a film festival in our region,” Bittinger said. “That launched in 2004. That's been a part of this community as well. And others have done things as well. They renovated an old telephone building and opened a yoga studio there.”
Meanwhile, RSG has grown into a national organization.
“This is their headquarters,” Bittinger said. “People come here for training. They may go open offices in other places, but sometimes they come back here to raise a family. To keep everything, we must change everything. Knowing how to change and yet hold on to what is genuinely important is hard to do, but I think we're doing our best to make that an example in White River Junction.”
Consultants have the reputation of being guns for hire. If you want to convince a planning board that adding 600 tractor-trailers to a suburban roadway won't interfere with commuter traffic, then hire a consultant to do surveys that prove the trucks won't have any effect. Even if they will.
RSG is different. It adds an ethical component to the studies it conducts.
“There are certain types of work we have turned down and we won't go after,” Lawe said. “Over the years, we've had opportunities to work with tobacco companies. And we had opportunities to work with certain pharmaceutical companies. And we've had offers from the Defense Department, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). We've turned them all down. But having said that, the cross-border issues, especially related to environment and transportation, are incredibly important. So we do study those, for mostly local governments and state governments. San Diego is particularly interested in understanding that.”
RSG remains apolitical, Lawe said, and lets data drive its conclusions.
“We're very thoughtful in that regard,” he said. “We don't come in with preconceived notions as to what the answer will be. We would be careful about not working for an agency or a firm that knows already what they want to do, and wants to do research or find data to confirm their preexisting conclusions. If you're going to change your results to meet their client’s expectations, you know that's a problem. You can make money doing that. But you shouldn't. That's not making a difference.”
RSG seeks work that makes a positive impact.
“And to do that, you have to come at a common problem with an open mind as to what you're going to find,” Lawe said. “And so that's what we do.”
Sometimes RSG's conclusions are ignored, Lawe said. He cited a large company which hired RSG and then blatantly ignored its recommendations — to its own detriment.
“The company was Motorola,” Lawe said. “At the time they were laser focused on the Blackberry and it was all the rage. Our research concluded that there was this new thing coming – smart phones – that would leapfrog Blackberry.
Motorola management did not believe this and they doubled down on the Moto Q which got crushed by Blackberry which in turn got crushed by smart phones. The Motorola unit we worked for is now no longer in existence. This business shift led to hundreds of layoffs and the ultimate sale of Motorola into different pieces.”
What did RSG learn?
“The mistake we made was assuming that really robust research can stand on its own,” Lawe said. “And the communication of that is sufficient. And people will appreciate the results. regardless of whether it challenges their belief system or not. And that's probably an error in judgment on our part.”
At least in this case, it seemed to be.
“They needed to shift gears quite significantly,” Lawe said. “We knew the message was not going to be well received by senior management. We gave it anyways. We were all but summarily walked out of the office, never to work for that firm again.”
In retrospect, RSG was correct in its research.
“We're not always right about the research we do, but it turned out this was one case where we were right and they would have been far better off having heeded our warning,” Lawe said. “That firm looks very different today than it did back then. They sold off most of the pieces of their company. Unfortunately, they've had to let probably thousands of people go. And I'm not saying that that would have changed by virtue of the decision or the advice we gave them, necessarily, but it certainly would have helped them.”
The problem might have been the way the new information was conveyed, Lawe said.
“There presumably is a way to share difficult information in a way that you know leads people to make useful conclusions and take appropriate action,” Lawe said. “It's not easy to do. It only gets you part of the way. Then you have to think about what the client's needs are, and what their real problem is, and how do they go about doing it? And how can you convey the information to them in such a way that they'll be able to take action? That's a difficult stage in the process. It is not unreasonable to think that if we had done our job better, we might have saved people's jobs. We might have changed people's lives.”
When RSG was founded, it was a fairly unique and cutting-edge organization. Now data analytics is everywhere, and so is the competition. How does the company meet the challenge?
“There's a defensive play there, from our perspective,” Lawe said. “We are excited about the fact that we identify new technology, implement it and then share it. And it gets absorbed into the nature of the work we're doing. And other companies get better at doing it. And while they're doing that, we're on to the next thing, because that's our mindset. We don't actually ever feel defensive. We're thinking two or three years ahead. Data privacy issues, for example. Or the way in which data will be monetized and do states have a role to play in that?”
Vermont's Governor Phil Scott recently put together a task force to study artificial intelligence, specifically the idea of autonomous cars. How does the state manage safety? How does it manage equity? How does an emergency vehicle interact with a driverless car?
Lawe was called in to testify.
“We have to, eventually, get to a place where we can have safe driving on the roads,” Lawe said. “Maybe even in a mixed fleet, where some vehicles are autonomous and others are not. You're driving next to a 10-year-old who is sitting in the back with no one driving the car because it's fully autonomous. And how does that work? And you can imagine the opportunities that present themselves. Like my 90 year old father, who in another three or four or five years may not feel comfortable driving anymore. No problem. He can get an autonomous vehicle. We do that kind of research.”
Another area RSG studies is the use of drones.
“Right now we're working in New Mexico, helping them understand the role that drones might play in changing the way they conduct business and the way they do things right,” Lawe said. “Think about places where we put state employees in risky situations in order to assess the safety of something — bridges, for example. There's a lot that goes into bridge assessments and it's costly. It's critical that we do it properly, and it at times can be difficult to do. Now we have drones. I wonder what role they might play. The technology now allows us to safely, efficiently and reliably do a bridge assessment using drones in some cases. In a lot of places they work really well.”
With climate change, drones, acoustics, robots, artificial intelligence, computers, the internet, smart cars, smarter phones...the future seems ripe for a futuristic company like RSG.
“As you can imagine, people need data scientists,” Lawe said. “And truth be told, this is what we do. And it's why we have difficulty going home and explaining what we do to our families.”
A focus on change and evolution seems to be a winning formula for the future.
“The parts of our society that are under the most pressure at any point in time, by virtue of major change, is where we are likely to be able to have the greatest impact,” Lawe said. “So that's what we're looking for. I think climate change is for us a huge issue. We may use different words in different parts of the country, but for sure, the underlying characteristics are absolutely central to the kind of work we're doing. I think the economic changes that will occur over the next 10 or 15 years are going to be pretty astounding, and I don't think that we're necessarily as prepared for them as we could or should be.”
Joyce Marcel is a journalist in southern Vermont. In 2017 she was named the best business magazine profile writer in the country by the Alliance of Area Business Publications. She is married to Randy Holhut, the photographer who took the photos for this story. He is also the news editor/acting operations manager of The Commons, a weekly newspaper in Brattleboro. The couple have been living in a Windham and Windsor Housing Trust shared equity home for more than 22 years.
This story oriignally ran in the August 2019 issue of Vermont Business Magazine.