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Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2009

Entrepreneurial Spirit

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Like all successful entrepreneurs, Wisconsin-born Barry Bursak knows opportunity when he sees it. Unlike many in the business world, however, he chooses projects that benefit the environment as well as his bank account. With his newest and perhaps most significant venture soon coming to fruition, Bursak and I sat down to discuss his formidable entrepreneurial record.

You’ve been a known quantity on the business scene since the ’70s. What was your first undertaking?

Plum Creek General Store, a whole bean coffee, tea and spice business on Brady Street.

At the time, was Brady Street the hipster hangout it is today?

Well, it was the beginning of what it is today. Lots of head shops, leather stores. My store was the first the Italian community in the neighborhood could relate to; I kind of bridged the gap between the hippie influx, which was quite disruptive, and that community. Over time, [Plum Creek] became a wholesale business selling products on a national level and in 1976 my company was bought and I moved to Chicago to look for new challenges.

What did those turn out to be?

In 1977, I opened City, selling avant-garde experimental furniture. It became nationally known, but, after the 1987 stock-market crash, a recession followed which put me out of business. It was the same kind of climate we’re experiencing now; enough to change people’s buying habits and priorities. It was quite a lesson to learn and I hope I’m using that experience to help young entrepreneurs in Chicago to weather [the current economic situation].

Exactly how are you assisting young entrepreneurs?

I was one of the founding members of the Chicago Sustainable Business Alliance, which works to foster the growth and development of new entrepreneur businesses that are trying to resolve environmental problems or create alternatives for the future. I’m also on the board of directors and I work as an adviser and consultant, teaching workshops on what businesses can do to promote sound environmental practices.

You’ve been fighting for the environment since before many realized the gravity of the situation. What opened your eyes to the need for sustainable business practices?

By 1990 it was obvious the way we were living and using energy wasn’t sustainable. I started working to develop sustainable alternatives within my fields. By 1996 I had gotten nowhere. There wasn’t yet an understanding of how to make sustainable furniture. There certainly weren’t any financial resources to experiment with. It just wasn’t on anybody’s radar at that point, but organic food was. I saw an opportunity to bring organic food to the public through a restaurant, Earth, which I opened in ’96. Looking back, that was far too early, but it gave me connections with local farmers. The restaurant closed in 2000, and I continued working with a cooperative of organic farmers called Home Grown Wisconsin, to develop markets in Chicago and new systems of distribution. The experience of the restaurant, which I will not say was the most pleasant, turned into a way of connecting with a lot of people working on sustainability.

What’s your newest project?

I’d been thinking about the idea of a center for green business, a place to locate that would allow them to share resources, for a long time when I heard about the availability of the former Frederick Cooper Lamp Co., an immense landmark factory building in Chicago. I went to the owners with a business plan and, inexplicably, they listened to me. They’re very smart people; they saw the potential at a time when businesses are creating environmental alternatives. While the building has been renovated, I’ve continued to advise them. It’s opening in early 2009. It’s primarily retail and office, but some spaces are available for people who are in green business to live where they work.