Keeping It Green

For many entrepreneurs, the No. 1 concern is adding clients at any cost. But for Charnelle Hicks, it’s more important to build an evironmentally responsible business, even if that has meant turning down work.

“When I started the firm one of the things I decided I would not do is work on a new greenfield development,” says Hicks, president and CEO of CHPlanning Ltd., a Philadelphia-based urban planning firm. Greenfield developments are areas of undeveloped land such as farmland that are razed to build upon. Instead, “we wanted to promote the redevelopment of cities and towns,” she adds.

Now, some clients that CHPlanning initially turned down have sought it out again, this time to embark on neighborhood revitalization projects. Delivering solid results for these and other clients richly affects CHPlanning’s bottom line. Revenues were $920,000 in 2006 and just under $1 million toward the end of 2007.

Hicks, 41, first decided she wanted to launch an urban planning company while studying at Swarthmore College. After a few years working at an engineering firm and then as a management consultant for a professional services firm, Hicks branched out on her own, starting CHPlanning in 1999. As Hicks grew the company, she witnessed the conflict between some potential contracts and her desire values. Her solution: If clients didn’t want to work to revitalize existing communities, the firm would walk away from projects.

“We’re a green company,” asserts Hicks. “And we want to promote the preservation of open and green areas.”

Not knowing how much business the decision would ultimately cost her, Hicks soon realized that environmentally conscious clients appreciated the company’s stance. That led to

increased business. “Eighty percent of the business we have today is repeat business,” Hicks adds.

Among its clients is the Philadelphia Water Department, which CHPlanning helped study the feasibility of offering preferential rates for water users who install pervious pavements, which allow water to pass through the pavement and be absorbed into the Earth and other best management practices.

Today, CHPlanning continues to uphold its environmentally conscious principles. Hicks and her 12-person firm look forward to the future, eagerly working to expand their reach beyond the Northeast. According to Hicks, the company plans to triple its revenue and staff within the next five years and anticipates capitalizing not only on repeat business but on an increase in developers’ efforts to think green.

“The most important thing is making a decision in the first place to be green,” says Hicks. “There’s such a variety of measures involved that the question is, ‘How green do you want to be?’ ”

CHPlanning, Ltd; 1429 Walnut St., Suite 1601 Philadelphia, PA 19102; 215-751-1400;