Spreading good is a cornerstone of the way New Leader Manufacturing does business. Based in Cedar Rapids, the company started in 1939 (as Highway Equipment Company) and continues to manufacture equipment for highway maintenance and spreading fertilizers. Today they are an incredible leader in the community as a corporate supporter of many organizations through their 380 Spreading Good program, established to spread generosity and kindness and to share the company’s resources with those working to improve life in the Interstate 380 region.
We sat down with CEO Rocki Shepard and Executive Director of Shared Services Andi Riem to learn more about New Leader Manufacturing’s connection to the Nature Center and their commitment to being corporate philanthropists. Here are a few of their thoughts.
“I grew up in Illinois, and in a family that spent a lot of time outdoors. I grew up in the woods. My brother (Matt Rissi) and I spent a lot of time climbing trees, building forts, mushroom hunting and doing all that kid stuff outdoors. I felt like there was a lot of nature around when I was growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Fast forward to moving to Iowa when I was 14 and we lived about 100 yards from Indian Creek. So again, my brother and I had the chance to spend a lot of time, sometimes whole days, in the creek,” said Rocki.
“Then in high school and college I got really interested in mountain biking and started biking the Sac and Fox Trail probably four days a week. It would take me by the Nature Center and at the time I didn’t know what was back there. I would see guided tours with little kids, so I’d get off my bike and look around a bit,” added Rocki.
“In 1991 when Matt and I took over the business here at New Leader Manufacturing, we wanted to continue supporting a lot of the causes the company had been supporting and give back a lot more to the community. And more recently, Andi has put together a team and the 380 Spreading Good program to help us do that. We have always given to Indian Creek Nature Center,” Rocki said.
“We seem to have a tendency to favor nonprofits and community organizations that cater to women, children and families. It’s what we really enjoy funding. But we also look at the people running the organizations and doing the work. Are they passionate? Are they excited about their mission? ICNC Executive Director John Myers visited us in about 2013 when he started at the Nature Center and we fell in love with how passionate he is about the work ICNC does. He’s an incredible ambassador for the Nature Center. So that got us excited about it, too, and we decided to double our giving to the Nature Center at that time.”
“The other big reason we support ICNC is I think it’s super important that a community has a space where kids can get out in nature. And that it is a safe space. Some people, even though they might be capable of jumping in their car and taking their kids to a wooded area to explore, they might be uncomfortable because they didn’t grow up being outdoors. The Nature Center offers a great opportunity for any and all families to get outdoors together. We can use the Nature Center and get kids reconnected with nature, which we all know is decreasing due to social media, kids on computers, and then parents just becoming overly protective and not wanting their kids out of their sight,” Rocki added.
“When I moved back to town from the Twin Cities it was kind of a joke with my husband, who is from there, that there wasn’t anything to do in Cedar Rapids. I quickly told him that there certainly was, that we just had to look for it. He quickly fell in love with the Sac and Fox Trail. I think people have this perception that Iowa is all cornfields, but we have these beautiful wooded areas and creeks and bluffs and so many wonderful natural things. We started bringing our kids out to Indian Creek Nature Center once we learned that the Sac and Fox Trail hooked up with the Nature Center Trails,” said Andi.
“Then we had that lovely family experience of getting lost on the trails. It was great, because like Rocki said, it’s a safe place for kids to ‘get lost’ because we knew they were safe. They were around the corner on the trail and loved that they couldn’t see Mom and Dad. And our kids love to go into Amazing Space to see the turtles and frogs and creatures,” added Andi.
“I love that because it has been passed down generationally, my kids love being outside. They love being in nature and were drawn to buying a home with woods in the backyard. It’s just when you grow up around nature, you just really find the peace with it.” Andi said.
“From a professional standpoint, what I really like about this company is that we do support the community in so many different facets, whether it’s veterans or domestic abuse victims or kids or STEM education. We really look at it holistically and want to build up that sustainable part of our community,” Andi added.
“We are really motivated and inspired by the program at Indian Creek Nature Center. I love the Creekside Forest School that you all opened. I also love the sensory bird room and that you can go sit in there and hear all the outside noises – a way to be in nature but not be in nature. My kids love all the prairie flowers and the pond, and the trails are just beautiful,” said Andi.
“We also like to remind our employees that Cedar Rapids has a lot to offer. We want to help support and sustain that. We started a volunteer program which was a really neat improvement by an employee who suggested they shouldn’t have to wait a year to volunteer. So on day one when you start working at NLM, you get eight hours of VTO–volunteer time off–to go support an organization,” added Andi.
“Volunteering is something that everybody is capable of doing. And so the VTO program allows team members to get out into the community and pick what they want to do. It’s another way that our leadership team and company can support our belief in giving back to the community in whatever way we are capable of. I think that’s what makes the community vibrant, strong, safe, secure,” said Rocki.
“Maple Syrup Fest was a hit, as we had a lot of employees go to that this year, and we heard it was record-breaking for you guys. What we always try to explain to new hires is that what you say matters, we believe in doing the right thing, and that we believe in simplifying things. With the programs the Nature Center offers and the sustainability work you do, it’s a reminder that there’s something beautiful about being in nature. So we are just really inspired by the work that the ICNC does. I think it just helps people to be surrounded by beautiful nature. It brings people back to the basics and is a reminder that this community is really wonderful if you stop and actually look around for a second,” said Andi.
“The powerful impact that Indian Creek Nature Center is having in the community for families … it can’t be underestimated what that does for people. We’ve been in business for a long time, too, and we know how difficult it is to be around for decades. The Nature Center has not only been around for 50 years, but you continue to do amazing things. It’s impressive and we are proud to be a supporter of that,” added Rocki.
New Leader Manufacturing generously sponsored this series of “50 Stories for 50 Years” to help us celebrate Indian Creek Nature Center’s 50th anniversary year. We are incredibly grateful for their continued support of and dedication to not just the Nature Center, but toward so many organizations in this community to make the Cedar Rapids area a better place to live, work and play.