Living green: WEI executive director walks the walk
John Imes at the Arbor House Environmental Inn on Monroe Street.
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From the time he earned an associate degree in environmental technology from Milwaukee Area Technical College, John Imes, 53, has been practicing what he preaches when it comes to caring for the earth.
Perhaps the seed was planted in his early days as a Boy Scout, or at the age of 9, when Gaylord Nelson first introduced Earth Day. Whatever the spark, Imes landed perfectly in a career that promotes both an eco-friendly lifestyle and sustainable business practices.
“[Wisconsin is] a state with a tremendous heritage,” notes the executive director of the Wisconsin Environmental Initiative and co-owner of The Arbor House Environmental Inn on Monroe Street. “Gaylord Nelson, founder of Earth Day. John Muir, who walked down this street to sell his wares. Aldo Leopold. All these luminaries. We’ve got the goods: clean air, water. We’re uniquely positioned to capitalize on this exciting direction.”
It’s a big part of why he founded the Wisconsin Environmental Initiative in 1994. He not only believes in sustainability as a way of life and a portal to the future, he also practices what he preaches, 24/7.
The Milwaukee native’s first job was with the Milwaukee Hyatt, where he worked for several years in the hotel’s revolving restaurant, first in food preparation, then as a managing chef. Later, he became the hotel’s beverage manager.
One day, while he was driving home after deer hunting in the north woods, a drunk driver T-boned his car, splitting it in half. Imes’ neck was broken in four places. “I should not be here,” he admits. He used his recuperation period to dig deep within and reconsider his life and career. In search of a career that would provide more family time, he decided to leave Hyatt.
After marrying his wife, Cathie, Imes landed a job with QuadGraphics, one of the country’s largest commercial printers. “I went from working at one of the nicest hotels in the state to bagging True Story magazine,” he laughs, but his efforts paid off. As a trainee in Quad’s managerial program, he did “everything,” and most importantly, he got to know Harry Quadracci, the company’s founder. While most of the trainees followed a production or sales path, Imes was more interested in sustainability, which wasn’t a big emphasis in the business world at the time. As environmental manager, he helped the company save millions through recycling and reuse of materials, all while attending Carroll College, where he earned a degree in environmental science at the age of 30.
But something was out of whack. “I wanted to walk the walk,” he said. I started at Quad but was living in a Pewaukee condo, probably throwing too much fertilizer on my lawn.” It didn’t feel right.
He and Cathie had always wanted to start a business of their own — something home-based and suitable for raising a family — so they developed the concept of an urban environmental inn and chose Madison for its home base. In March of 1994, they became instant innkeepers, purchasing a Monroe Street farmhouse, the historic Plough Inn, which would later become one of two buildings constituting the Arbor House Environmental Inn.
The inn has been acclaimed for everything from its architecture and design to its organic mattresses, energy-efficient appliances, lighting, technology, and water-efficient appliances. For many years it was home, and John and Cathie raised their four children there.