Newsmaker Q&A: Dorsey: On the avant but not too far out

When she started Brendle Group in 1996, Judy Dorsey, the firm’s president and principal engineer, had a vision of an environmentally focused engineering consulting firm. Over the last 16-plus years, Dorsey’s vision became one of Northern Colorado’s better-recognized companies. Dorsey – who also co-founded the Colorado Clean Energy Cluster – was recognized in September with one of the Department of Energy’s C3E awards (part of the Clean Energy and Empowerment Initiative) honoring women leading the way in her field.

Question: We heard you’ve partnered with Mountain Riders Alliance to develop a test model of the first sustainable ski resort. What can skiers expect coming from this project?

Answer: The idea is to help small- and medium-sized ski areas that are especially vulnerable in the industry to look at a comprehensive approach to sustainability as a new business model, and to help them become more financially resilient while having a lighter environmental impact and stronger ties to the community in which they work, so ski towns.

Mountain Riders Alliance is a pretty passionate, nonprofit, grassroots organization that has been able to put the vision out there. They’ve been given a positive response and they’ve had some crowdfunding and other resources to bring to bear to this effort. They have this idea of “mountain playgrounds” that meet the ideal of a sustainable ski resort. And they’re going through the process of their first mountain playground conversion, which is a small ski area in Maine. Our job is to help them.

We’re going out there in February to study the operations and create a blueprint around sustainability. Think about it as We Buy Ugly Houses but for ski areas. Not ugly, but areas that might be underperforming or otherwise might be going through ownership transitions for whatever reasons. The idea is to give the resort a sustainability facelift and then get it back on its way. So our job is to help create a more engineering-based and business-based tool for Mountain Riders to be able to screen prospective ski areas for conversion to the mountain playground status.

Q: What does creating a sustainable ski area look like, practically?

A: The ski industry has economic indicators around ski area health that we’ve been monitoring since the 1970s. What we’re doing is looking at those industries and seeing how sustainability can help. For example, on average, 3-6 percent of (the cost of) operations is electric power that is used for lifts or for snow-making or in buildings. If you can dramatically reduce that, your operating profits are much stronger, the value of the building is much stronger. It all then propagates through to the fiscal wherewithal of the company and its performance. That’s just one example.

Q: We’re looking at all of those indicators and saying, “In your marketing, is there a target demographic that would be more susceptible to support a highly sustainable operation? Are you reaching out to that demographic and informing them about your efforts?”

A: Water is another area, (as are) waste management and operations, green building, food and beverage. Brendle Group just convened a webinar about sustainability in the supply chain for the ski and tourism industries. How do you help a ski area source local food so it’s fresh, it’s healthy, it’s locally produced and it’s not the $15 hamburger approach? It’s every aspect of operations, as well as community relations, because you can’t surgically draw a line around the ski area.

In the short term, the mountain playground projects are more in the West and Alaska, but Mountain Riders have had a lot of interest. They are getting inquiries all the time from small- and medium-sized ski areas, so it’s not at all inconceivable that it would likewise be of interest to Colorado ski areas.

Q: Brendle Group operates in a field that is constantly innovating. How do you stay relevant, and furthermore, ahead?

A: It is a very dynamic space we’re in. We actively manage our services to be leading-edge and relevant. We are constantly creating new services in new markets that we think are needed in terms of those next frontiers of sustainability. Once something becomes more commoditized in terms of services, we are less involved in them because that becomes a pretty competitive space.

We have an advisory board and strategic planning processes internally that help us indentify those next frontiers, which we think is an intersection of meaningful change toward sustainability, what our talents are to help realistically contribute to those challenges, and the third part is what our customer’s fiscal realities are and what the market situation is. We’re trying to not be so far out that people can’t access or procure those services because it doesn’t otherwise fit. So it’s an alignment around those three things.

Q: When you won the C3E award, you spoke briefly about the tensions you’ve faced between being an engineer and a mom. How did you find a balance, and what did that balance look like for you?

A: When I spoke about it at this conference, it was really well received because the conference was a group of women practicing in clean energy, and it is a challenge that everybody faces.

I had posed it in my remarks as a riddle. A riddle, meaning you know that there is an elegant solution, you just don’t know what it is and you have to sort of noodle on it a bit. You can’t use brute force to force your way to a solution. I tell some of my colleagues that you have to hold that tension, the uncomfortable tension where something seems unsolvable for a little while, and be comfortable in that space, but while having a firm belief that there is as solution to the riddle of being a great mom and a great engineer, even when the rest of the world is telling you that one of these things must give. For me, it was being confident that you can be both and yet being respectful of the tensions between those two.

Q: There is a philosophy in architecture that the places you inhabit reflect the vales you hold. What do Northern Colorado’s buildings tell us about what we value?

A: I’ll start by answering that a little more close to home.

We’re in our 16th year of business and twice we’ve gotten to be our own customer. The first time was six years ago when we built our own home. My husband and I spent a lot of time really talking about our values and what that means and how we live as a family and how we open our home to guests in terms of the design and the light and the colors. Ultimately we ended up becoming Colorado’s first LEED home. It was great timing that LEED Residential came out the year we were doing our home. It was great to be in practice for a decade like that and be able to finally be our own customer and really show our values in a physical way.

The second time was this building (the Brendle Group office) which was built in 1985 for an electrical engineering firm. They did a fantastic job, and it was award-wining in its time. We got to come in 25 years later to do that updated sustainability remodel and had a lot of dialogue – there is thought to everything in this space.

We have a lot going on (in Northern Colorado) that is very much aligned with my personal philosophies, and Brendle Group’s core values and beliefs are very much aligned with what we’re seeing in Northern Colorado. You can see it everywhere, from our local living economy to our work to our green building trades to the breweries being thoughtful about how their operations impact the community and being progressive about sustainability all the way down the line.

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