Living green: WEI executive director walks the walk

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.



During that time, Imes started the Wisconsin Environmental Initiative, modeling it after a similar organization in Minnesota. His intent was to bring businesses and government together to solve environmental issues. In 1998, he became its executive director.

The nonprofit promotes responsible business practices, sound environmental policy, green building, and water stewardship in Wisconsin — all of which, he says, helps attract and retain talent and investments in a state he believes is dragging its feet when planning for its environmental future.

“If you’re a company or a builder, developer, or farmer and you’re making investments in technology planning and mindsets to reduce your footprint and environmental impacts, you should get a real advantage for that.” The state, he noted, should do its part to reward those efforts.

Among WEI’s successful programs are Travel Green Wisconsin, Main Street Green, Clean Clear Waters, and Green Built Home. “We’ve now certified over 10,000 home, remodeling, and multifamily projects statewide,” he noted.

On the issue of sustainability, he is very clear. “Everyone should do their 2%,” Imes said. “Two percent in energy efficiency every year, in weatherization and landscaping. Then, let’s accommodate all of our growth with clean electrons — solar, biofuels, and wind.”

Imes admits he’s been lucky in life. He married well, he says, and is fortunate to have a wife who is smart, supportive, and who pushed him, and he learned a lot from Harry Quadracci, who always encouraged employees to become more than they thought they could be.

“I call it the luck of the Im-ish,” he says, smiling.