John Wells launched a cultural revolution to sustain the bottom line and the environment at Interface Americas Featured

11:28am EDT October 29, 2013
John Wells, president and CEO John Wells, president and CEO
Interface Americas

Carpet made from discarded fishing nets? It may sound far-fetched, but not to John Wells, president and CEO of Interface Americas, a wholly owned subsidiary of Interface Inc., the world’s largest manufacturer of modular carpet tile.

The company recently launched an eco-friendly collection made exclusively from recycled Philippine fishing nets, thanks to a newfound penchant for risk-taking, innovation and social responsibility.

“We see innovation as a way to lower our manufacturing costs, give customers the products they want and reduce our environmental impact,” Wells says. “It’s a way of doing business — not a stand-alone initiative.”

If you think carpet manufacturers and environmentalists make strange bedfellows, you’d be right. The carpet industry has garnered criticism for its environmental footprint based on widespread use of petroleum and fossil fuels in manufacturing and the fact that some 5 billion pounds of carpet and padding end up in U.S. landfills every year.

Interface’s epiphany and massive mid-course correction started in the mid-1990s when its late founder, Ray C. Anderson, acknowledged the industry’s errant ways and vowed to eliminate any negative impact on the environment from its operations by 2020.

In Interface’s case, viewing the carpet manufacturing process through a green lens has led to an expansion of ideas, profits, cost savings and new markets.

“In many respects, innovation has become a survival strategy for us because we’re not a low-price, commodity player,” Wells says. “It’s led to reductions in operating costs and greater value for our customers, which is critical when you make a high quality product.”

For instance, using renewable materials instead of petroleum-based ingredients reduces energy usage by 30 percent and greenhouse gas emissions by 60 percent when compared to the production of nylon carpet. And since eco-friendliness is now a priority for about 65 percent of carpet shoppers, Interface Americas has been able to expand its reach by introducing sustainable product lines.

Wells, whose U.S., Canada and Latin America operations account for $575 million of Interface’s $932 million in annual revenues, has been instrumental in directing the company’s mid-course correction and fulfilling Anderson’s promise.

Here’s how the industry veteran reinvented Interface Americas by focusing on footprint reduction, innovation and cultural change. 

Build an innovation framework

A company’s culture has a profound impact on business innovation. The key to success? Deliberately shaping the environment to inspire creativity and invite risk-taking across the enterprise.

“Culture is critical to innovation, and it exists whether you do anything to influence it or not,” Wells says. “Executives have to lead the way by being intentional in their actions as part of a comprehensive and orchestrated effort to foster creativity.”

Wells and the Interface executive team studied the philosophies of author and researcher Marcus Buckingham and extensive research from the Gallup organization before deciding that a strengths-based culture would provide the ideal framework to encourage innovation.

In a nutshell, the strengths-based concept promotes the idea that people get the best results by recognizing and maximizing their strengths while downplaying their weaknesses or perceived deficiencies.

“We all have inborn talents,” Wells says. “Our managers are charged with drawing those out as part of our strengths-based development program. It helps our people maximize their talents and from what we’ve seen, it’s driving results.”

Furthermore, strengths-based hiring debunks the idea that creativity is limited to engineers. Workers are hired for their strengths, placed into roles that leverage their talents and assigned to teams based on an inventory of their personal assets. As a result, all employees — from managers to shipping clerks — across the Interface enterprise are involved in the quest for new and better ways to manufacture and distribute carpet.

“The journey toward change starts with a vision and a mission statement; ours is ‘Mission Zero,’” Wells says. “It creates engagement by giving our workers a sense of purpose. They honestly believe that they can change the world.”

For instance, one engineer became so enthralled with the idea of recycling Philippine fishing nets that he developed the Net Effect concept, engaged conservationist groups in the pilot and helped develop the new product line.

Finally, the Interface executive team invited cultural change by developing “Play to Win” training, which teaches employees to view sustainability as a challenge, not a threat, and encourages them to change their thinking and behavior to foster individual and collective success.

“We changed our culture by changing what people do every day,” Wells says. “Our employees don’t see themselves as manufacturing carpet; they see themselves as making a difference, and that’s weaving innovation into our DNA.” 

Encourage risk-taking

Champions of organizational innovation must demonstrate enthusiasm for risk-taking and foster a penalty-free environment. But too many mistakes may give executives cold feet, especially when they have to please fashion-conscious customers such as architects and designers who live on the cutting edge of trends.

Wells developed a three-pronged strategy that encourages risk-taking by creating safeguards that take the sting out of failure.

“You tend to have more failures when you develop products or ideas in silos,” he says. “We give people a common goal and utilize blended or cross-functional teams to keep people from competing against each other or having to grapple with divergent interests when developing new products or green manufacturing processes.”

Next, he installed a mass customization production system in Interface Americas’ U.S. plants. That way, the company can offer customers a wide array of products and fill orders on demand, eliminating the pitfalls of inaccurate sales forecasting, overstocking or purchasing delays.

“We only expect a 20 percent take-up rate on new products,” Wells says. “But that’s OK, because we have the ability to manufacture product on demand so we don’t maintain large inventories. Ultimately, our production system lets us introduce more products because it gives us a fairly low investment on the front end.”

Finally, by narrowing the supply chain and creating more products from the same raw materials, he reduced the cost of beta testing. Having fewer feeder inputs hastens the product development process, lowers raw materials costs and makes it easy to fulfill specific customer requests.

“We’ve taken steps to facilitate risk-taking, but you really need to take a long view and test, test and retest before you launch a new product,” Wells says. “Otherwise, it’s easy to slip back into old habits when you fail.” 

Farm innovation

A cultural shift is a work in progress, and to keep up the momentum, it’s a smart idea to utilize collaborative tools. Interface’s latest effort involves the sharing and development of ideas with diverse, global teams through the use of a social collaboration tool called Jive.

“We’re using an open architecture system to connect people in various capacities all around the globe,” Wells says. “It’s fascinating to see the energy it creates and the speed and execution of ideas as we discuss specific customer problems.”

Wells initiated the collaboration process by posing questions to a small group of participants through the tool. He slowly broadened the talent circle, organizing staffers into project teams and assigning them specific problems as discussions took on a life of their own.

“Online collaboration accelerates the innovation process because you can socialize ideas quickly, gauge feasibility and decide where to invest,” Wells says. “We’re able to solicit feedback from engineers, R&D, product development and sales people all over the world, which eliminates silos, hastens decision-making and reduces the risk of developing new products.”

Since the launch of “Mission Zero,” Interface Americas’ employees have developed the world’s first carbon neutral carpet, selling more than 204 million square yards, and retiring more than 2.9 million metric tons of verified emission reduction credits through 2012.

The company has reduced both the face weight and backing weight of its carpet tile products, decreased the amount of raw materials to produce a square yard of carpet by 10 percent and invented a glueless carpet tile installation system. In addition, seven of nine Interface factories now operate on renewable electricity while the plant in LaGrange is powered by methane gas harvested from a local landfill.

“Our mantra is to innovate and achieve our business goals but to do that through a lens of sustainability,” Wells says. “We’ve done it by changing our culture, using our talent to drive innovation and literally doing more while taking a whole lot less from the environment.” ●

 How to reach: Interface Americas (800) 336-0225 or www.interfaceglobal.com 

Takeaways:

Build an innovation framework to re-invent your culture.
Encourage risk-taking.
Farm innovation through online collaboration.

 

The Wells File

Name: John Wells
Title: President and CEO
Company: Interface Americas 

Birthplace: Wells was born in Dalton, Ga., which is often called the carpet manufacturing capital of the U.S. Mills within a 65-mile radius of Dalton control more than 80 percent of the U.S. carpet market — which supplies 45 percent of the world’s carpet. 

Education: He received a bachelor’s degree in industrial management from the Georgia Institute of Technology; he also completed the executive education program at UNC, Chapel Hill. 

What was your first job and what did you learn from it?

I did accounting and engineering work for a carpet manufacturer as part of a co-op program during college. They offered me a full-time position in R&D and product development after graduation, but I soon realized that I wasn’t wired to be an engineer. I moved into sales and was hired by Interface in 1994 as vice president of sales. 

What was the best business advice you ever received?

I was fortunate to work for a number of great managers early in my career. Those who developed their people to their greatest potential tended to be the most successful, so I make a habit of following their lead and their advice. 

Who do you admire most in business and why?

That would be Ray C. Anderson, the founder of Interface Inc. He was a beacon in the industry who had the courage to stand up and say we’re doing this all wrong. He launched the greening of the carpet manufacturing industry. 

What is your definition of business success?

For me, it’s the ability to combine financial success with a noble purpose. When a company meets its fiduciary and social responsibilities, then I believe it has achieved success.