RAY ANDERSON-AN APPRECIATION
by Lance A. Williams, Editor
The above photo captures the essence of Ray Anderson (1934-2011), Founder and Chairman of Interface, Inc. It is the public Ray, stalwart as the face of the corporate giant that he built and pushed to its lofty pedestal within the sustainable flooring industry.
Anderson’s professional life was certainly governed by a set of well-drawn principles that embody the tenet of doing well by doing good. A southerner by birth and graciousness, Ray’s professional ethic was demonstrably not far from the fundamental Golden Rule of his upbringing.
To the world’s great detriment, Ray Anderson died in 2011 at 77 years young, ravaged by cancer in his last years. His passing marked an eerie symbolism coming at that particular moment of emergence by the environmental movement.
Ray’s primary staging ground, the green building industry, has undergone a remarkable evolution in American contemporary life, in no small measure because of him. The public awareness thermometer has moved green building from brainchild status, the curiosity of pioneering early adopters at the turn of the 21st century, to wide mainstream acceptance of green building concepts and applications by an intriguing mix of public and private sector interests who recognize the benefits of greener buildings.
Today’s business landscape has witnessed committed sustainability implementation from building industry professionals and by the people who invest, design, develop, and operate all types of buildings. The business case has been made, often resoundingly so, despite the flurry of opposition that periodically surfaces.
Remember that famous chestnut uttered by another legendary Atlantan, Ted Turner, “I was into cable before cable was cool?” A variant of that statement can be said about Ray Anderson and his environmental advocacy.
Anderson took an extremely risky position twenty-five years ago to become an active, practicing convert to sustainability. Nowhere is it chronicled better than through Ray’s own words in Mid-Course Correction (1998):
My assignment (self-proclaimed) is to disturb, not amuse; to inform, not entertain; and to sensitize (or further sensitize) my audience to the crisis of our times and of all times to come. I invite my audience, if they find me radical and provocative, to be provoked to radical new thinking, and I suggest that we all need to do more of that.
Anderson’s early public utterances and his subsequent book must have sounded downright apocalyptic to his fellow American business leaders in the mid-nineties. But there was no confusion amongst his peers about the bottom-line results that his shift in thinking produced.
In the two Wall Street films, Gordon Gekko championed the notion that greed is good. Thanks to people like Ray Anderson, today’s mantra is green is good. Author Patrick Carson amplified that point in Green is Gold, a treatise about how businesses should work together for market transformation. By now, there are so many other variations on that theme.
Senior business leaders all over the world advocate for environmental stewardship as the norm. Often, they compete with each other to see who is more progressive. Ray Anderson’s influence is at the core of many of those discussions, just as his inspiration was earlier drawn from visionaries like Janine Benyus and Paul Hawken.
The pervasive influence of the green building mindset has impacted the whole of America. The quantity of government-led mandates with publically-financed buildings; the now-routine involvement of major corporations in the initiative; so many school district – financed sustainable projects; LEED-rated homes; even LEED-rated buildings funded by community-based organizations, churches, synagogues, and mosques.
This activity is way beyond a trend and transcends the notion of being a tipping point. Ray chronicled his continuing passion for environmental sustainability in 2009 with another signature work, Confessions of a Radical Industrialist.
The award-winning documentary film that focused on Interface, So Right, So Smart, was a primer on sustainability and a tribute to Anderson’s vision and operational philosophy. He placed a premium on moving on a variety of fronts and employing as many strategies as needed to effect change.
But it was Mid-Course Correction that chronicled Anderson’s personal transformation. He described how a buttoned-up mainstream wealthy captain of industry preoccupied with his company’s corporate brand could evolve to implement a totally different business model. In the process, he transformed his company, and Interface became even more profitable, innovative, and dynamic as the result of this reinvention.
Anderson’s journey was most notable for his taking such a huge risk and having the opportunity to unspool its genesis to a variety of interested audiences. With incredible moxie, he got out in front of a strategy that had the potential of either re-engineering his whole industry or killing off his prized company.
In both his speeches and his conversations in more intimate settings, Anderson’s personal narrative highlighted how his individual commitment influenced the operating performance of his Interface braintrust and his rank and file employees. In the reciting of the story, he shrewdly interwove enough drama to enthrall listeners.
In my former capacity as Executive Director of the Los Angeles chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, I was fortunate to attend nearly a dozen of Anderson’s presentations between 2005 and the time of his death. I heard Ray speak all over the country to large audiences at conferences and in small private settings. As an articulate spokesman tinged with notable humanity and humor, Ray delivered the goods as the face of a movement as well as being a genuine person with undeniable credibility.
At every telling that I witnessed, Anderson spoke glowingly of how his people influenced his leadership style and how those interactions shaped this new person that he had become. His humility in the telling was a refreshing element that spoke volumes.
Associated with all of his latter-day successes, Ray’s greatest asset may have been his willingness to don the mantle of environmental advocate. Often as a lone voice in a highly charged corporate milieu, his stance took a lot of courage at a time when Interface and Anderson had already made their mark – and their millions.
Ray’s long-term legacy, however, is much larger than his flagship companies. His commitment and openness were enduring benefits in the cause of environmental sustainability because when people of all interests and stripes heard him, they knew that this was a major power player who was the perfect face of green building. This because he literally had put his money and his corporate brand—with all of its attendant value—where his mouth was.
Anderson did so much more than walk the talk in the interests of his corporate mission, vision, and passion. He took the risks. He was bleeding edge. He could personally attest to the results.
He drew upon his experience as an entrepreneurial captain of industry to prepare himself for the possibility of failure. But, as Anderson often said, Interface made more money after adopting this strategy. That he reaped a high degree of success in adopting the sustainability business model and promoting a greener good is an indispensable message that will no doubt become a standard approach one day throughout corporate America.
It is inaccurate to characterize Ray Anderson simply as a man who caught the express train of the green building movement before it left the station. That depiction is as disingenuous as characterizing the ’27 Yankees, Magic Johnson and the Showtime Lakers, or the US Women’s World Cup soccer team as winners chiefly because they suited up. Ray Anderson lived and thrived in a highly competitive world because practice makes perfect and great team chemistry isn’t accidental.
Even in death Ray Anderson is legendary, a corporate American icon. He was a canny businessman, an evangelist, an enlightened futurist, and a good soul. Everyone who crossed his path was fully cognizant of that reality. This is a man who is sorely missed even now.