When Richard Foos and Harold Bronson launched Rhino Records in 1978, Bee Gees vinyl was a hot commodity, “Shadow Dancing” was a prom anthem, and Internet technology was less than a decade old. By all accounts, the old economy was in full effect.
As outrageous as it sounds today, Rhino Records was born out of love. First a storefront record shop in downtown Santa Monica, Rhino began without a business plan, without a bank loan, without financing, without fear. In fact, the only business trappings apparent in those early days were a strong sense of identity and a strong mission statement — to “make a difference wherever we can.”
Both philanthropic entrepreneurs with deep roots in the Los Angeles community, Foos and Bronson impressed a belief system on their employees from the beginning that valued social responsibility above fiscal superiority. In those early lean years — Rhino generated only $60,000 its first year — the company contributed in small ways. Today, when revenue tops $75 million annually, Rhino Records boasts one of the industry’s most passionate, devoted, and successful programs for employee volunteerism and social improvement.
“Giving back was never a strategy that was brought in to make money, provide a competitive edge, or fulfill a marketplace need,” says Mario Prietto, manager of the social mission and organizational wellness at Rhino. “Social philanthropy was always just part of the soul of the company.”
The Social and Environmental Responsibility Team (SERT) was formed in 1989 by a handful of employees — “Rhinos” — including Senior VP of A&R Gary Stewart, who still stands behind the credo “Change, not Charity.” Under Stewart’s guidance, SERT linked arms with various community service orgnanizations, some of which found themselves in the heat of battle on April 29, 1992 — the day Los Angeles erupted in violence and mayhem following the Rodney King verdict. On the five-year anniverary of the riots, Rhino closed its offices for a day and took the Rhinos on a bus tour of community organizations working to change the social landscape in Koreatown, Skid Row, Pico-Union, and South Central Los Angeles. On that day especially, the men and women of Rhino were able to see and hear how they were helping to make the words and ethics of Foos and Bronson a very important reality.
It is written in Rhino Records’ human resources policy that all employees must perform 16 hours of community service a week. Those who do, get a week of paid vacation between Christmas and New Year’s. And almost all of the 167 Rhinos do. Company policy also dictates “time off for good behavior,” or that philanthropic employees may receive up to six days of additional vacation — one hour off for every hour donated to a good cause. In 1999, Rhino contributed more than 10,000 hours of community service; that comes to roughly 60 volunteer hours per employee, and well over the required 16.
“Once you tap into an employee’s volunteer life, you tap into the whole person,” says Prietto, who received his master’s in social work before joining Rhino. “We believe in respecting the whole person, and one way to do that is to respect what they do when they are not making money, when they are not the boss. Volunteering makes people here feel really good. And that’s basically all people want — to feel good.”
Part of the credit for those good vibes and impressive volunteer hours must go to Prietto, who stimulates and supports Rhino employees in their volunteer efforts. This year, he and his team in HR will rent a van and escort Rhinos on three separate lunch-hour trips to meet a children’s organization, an ecological group, and a job bank for the homeless. Prietto is also organizing a volunteer fair that will bring 10 to 12 nonprofit, nonpolitical, nonpartisan organizations into Rhino offices for a day of education and recruiting. Finally, the HR team has just put the final touches on an updated, 131-page volunteer handbook that explains the company policy and provides the mission statements, volunteer needs, and contact information for dozens of nonprofits that serve AIDS patients, elderly organizations, animals, and more.
“You’ve got to dole out this information in sugar spoonfuls because there is the danger of oversaturation,” he says. “It’s written into our value statement: ‘Healthy skepticism, yes. Cynicism, never.’ If you’re cynical about this program, you’re just being an ass — it’s not productive. But skepticism spurs thoughtful discourse. There will always be skeptics.”
For the most part, Rhino employees stand behind the company’s efforts, and work with the company to expand its efforts further into the community. Several years ago, Rhino teamed up with the Liberty Hill Foundation, a local organization that helps companies determine their social priorities and identify the issues that they most care about in order to match those companies with the best nonprofits and charities. It was through Liberty Hill that Rhino discovered the Wooten Center, an education/recreation center in South Central that provides a positive after-school refuge for neighborhood youth. Nearly 25 Rhino employees work at the Wooten Center now, taking the children whale watching, camping overnight with them, and teaching them about the record industry.
“Rhinos have a say in where the company’s corporate donations go if they put their effort and their muscle behind what they believe in,” Prietto says. “If you’re working here and you’re volunteering some place, it’s quite likely that you’ll be able to leverage the company to kick down some money to solve a problem.”
Recently, Rhino has contributed percentages of its profits to such non-traditional groups as a Korean family association launching a ground-breaking sex education program for children, and a group of Salvadoran-American writers, artists and activists who wanted to meet with likeminded people from their native land. Sometimes just small donations of less than $1,000, each of Rhino’s community outreach efforts may seem like too little to make a difference. But the recent acquisition of Rhino by the Time-Warner empire proved that small steps can bring about great strides.
“Time-Warner came out with a mission statement of values and vision this year, right after it bought Rhino,” Prietto says. “Richard Foos was instrumental in helping their board figure out how to put that document together. I think Rhino is adding a real value to Time-Warner in this respect. It’s like we’ve made a difference.”