Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Ray Anderson: Great leader of our time passes

Rick Fedrizzi
President, CEO & Founding Chairman
U.S. Green Building Council

If there was a Dictionary of Green Building, Ray Anderson is whose picture you’d probably see alongside the word “leader.” And I’m saddened to hear that he passed away yesterday, losing a heroic 20 month battle with cancer.

Ray was a legend of corporate sustainability, a man whose personal story – a story of an epiphany that changed a life and an entire industry – could be a metaphor for the entire green building movement. When he started Interface Inc. in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1973, his entrepreneurial genius was immediately clear. Before long, Interface was a billion-dollar-a-year business and one of the largest interior furnishings companies in the world.

But Interface is in the business of carpeting, and carpet traditionally uses a lot of petroleum, a lot of water, and creates a lot of waste.

Ray’s epiphany moment, the moment of truth that he has called a “spear to the chest,” was the same one that several of us experienced — reading Paul Hawken’s Ecology of Commerce and getting permission to be both a capitalist and an environmentalist. It launched the transformation of Interface, and of the entire carpet industry, and set the foundation for USGBC.

Under his leadership, Interface was set on a goal of zero environmental impact companywide, a target of eliminating petroleum entirely from its manufacturing process, and a commitment to sustainability as Ray defined it: taking nothing from the earth that is not naturally and rapidly renewable.

But perhaps what made Ray’s leadership so important and so effective was the way he has completely negated the argument that environmental sustainability can only be had at the expense of economic prosperity. Interface’s remarkable success – and the positive business impact that has come as a result of its reputation as a sustainability pioneer – stands as a strong example that without a strong triple bottom line, you’re never truly successful.

Ray was a personal hero of mine, a man who truly changed the world.

I’m grateful that last year, USGBC was able to present him with a USGBC leadership award at Greenbuild. It was a small tribute to a great man, but it meant more to me than anything I’ve done in a long time.

I invite you to share with us your personal and favorite Ray story. He touched us all in one way or another.


  1. Thanks Rick for your kind words. Few people know as deeply as you how important the USGBC was to Ray.

    Yes, in the early days it had the potential to become an important emerging market to sell more carpet tile. In fact, many people initially thought Ray’s “epiphany” was really just a clever marketing scheme. But the USGBC was and is much more. It was and continues to be a flourishing community of passionate, smart professionals that stand up for what’s right and support each other.

    In our early days of sustainability we found in the Council a number of other heroes like Bob Berkebile, Bill Browning, Gail Lindsey and many others that taught us, counseled us and affirmed us when others began to say that Ray had “gone ‘round the bend.”

    Two memories come to mind that demonstrate what the Council meant to Ray. First, at very short notice, Ray stood in for a cancelled keynote speaker at the very first USGBC Members Meeting in Big Sky, Montana. Was that ’95 or ’96? If you’ve seen Ray speak in the last decade, it would be hard to believe that Ray was scared to death. This was the first time that he would share his vision of sustainability with a room full of potential customers. What would they think? Would they declare it greenwash? He didn’t eat a bit of breakfast he was so nervous. His speech was so well received that it was quickly published in a little kenaf paper booklet with the title, “The Eco-Odyssey of a CEO.” Does anyone still have a copy?

    The second intense memory was in late 2002 when I told Ray that you and Bill Browning had asked if I would run for Board Chairman. The Council was beginning to explode in scale with the launch of LEED. Big money opponents were preparing their assaults. The first Greenbuild was a month away and we didn't know if anyone would come. The post-911 building recession had yet to subside. Big transitions were inevitable. We were blowing past the original strategies and structure of the Council. The challenge was going to take a huge amount of time.

    In an immediate response that can best be described by the book, “Blink,” Ray replied without a second’s thought, “Whatever it takes! We can’t let it fail. The USGBC is the most important environmental movement of our times. Let me know if there’s anything you need.”

    In my two terms as Chair and beyond, the Council lived through great challenges (some self-inflicted) and many great successes. Throughout it all Ray was always there ready to lend a hand, get on a podium, make a tough call and debate principles and the grittiest of details. He attended all the early Greenbuilds whether to speak or just “hang out with the good guys” in the years when he had no public role. There was no other community he would rather spend time with short of his biological and Interface families.

    To anyone in the USGBC community that reads this post. The Council is no less important today! As many mourn the loss of a hero, we must realize that heroes exist in every one of us, especially if you are part of the USGBC community. You wouldn't be reading this, otherwise. It is our choice whether to wither before the challenges presented in today’s era of crisis or call upon our internal heroes to take their stand and make their mark. We can make that choice for ourselves, but we should also be aware to help our colleagues call upon their own heroes. That’s the potential of this community. So, what’s your choice going to be tomorrow, the next day and the next?

    Ray has gone ‘round another bend. He always said that’s his job. Who knows when his inspiration may return? Who knows what new wisdom he may have found to share? Who knows how we might sense his spirit? Whether hearing a quiet whisper or having a sudden urge to stand up and shout, be aware, be ready, but don’t wait. The world needs every USGBC hero to make a mark every day. That means you.

    Sincerely yours,
    Jim Hartzfeld
    Managing Director – InterfaceRAISE
    Former Chairman of the Board - USGBC

  2. Thank you for this, Jim, and yes -- I have a copy of the Eco Odyssey!! It's on my desk, where it has been for nearly 15 years.

  3. Thanks Jim. Very nicely said. And thank you Ray! Any chance USGBC could republish that pamphlet (EcoOdessey) as a small tribute to Ray? The tale has been told and retold many times (by Ray and others), but sometimes it's very powerful to hear the story as it was first told, under the circumstances Jim relates above.

  4. Thanks Rick, I first heard Ray speak in 2005 at Greenbuild in Atlanta. He was one of three back-to-back keynotes, with Paul Hawken and Janine Benyus. By some luck I was seated in the second or third row, directly behind the three speakers who clearly had great affection for one another and who each expanded on the ideas and themes of the others. It was an extraordinary afternoon and a combined message that has had an extraordinary impact on my work and professional life as an architect and as a human being. I'm sure many of us would love to be able to watch that set of keynotes again if USGBC were willing to post the videos to celebrate Ray and his message. Many thanks for all you do.

  5. Rick and Jim, your words provide a story I find to be extraordinary powerful, describing an amazing human being who has made an impact on us all. In today's world we need more thought leaders modeling Ray Anderson and the so many valuable qualities he embraced and generously shared. I have followed Ray for several years, admiring his kindness, passion and vision as a successful business person, but more importantly as a role model for humanity. Ray will always be an inspiration, as I continue to live life and face the challenges we are presented with today, tomorrow and the next day in our global world. Thank you for sharing Ray with me in your personal words.

  6. "Ray’s epiphany moment, the moment of truth that he has called a “spear to the chest,” was the same one that several of us experienced — reading Paul Hawken’s Ecology of Commerce and getting permission to be both a capitalist and an environmentalist."

    Extremely well put, Rick - I've always admired Ray Anderson, however, it took his passing for me to really understand why he was so important to me, and my development as a green leader. It was 1997 and I had just become aware of the potential opportunities of green building, however, I wanted more "proof" that it was for real, and not just a bunch of well-intentioned ideas.

    While I met many really great people in the green building world in the early days, Ray Anderson was the single best example I could point to and tell anyone, "there's a tremendously successful business founder and leader who is making money while doing the right thing...he is convinced that the greener his company and products are, the more successful they will be...and he is influencing others to go green, too."

    While I am *very* grateful for Peter Hawken's eye-opening concept of the capitalist & environmentalist mindset, Ray Anderson was the articulate and passionate businessman whose day-to-day implementation of it provided critical confidence to me at an impressionable time in my career.

    Rick and Jim: In recognition of his influence on me and the green building world, I'd like to donate to any effort that recognizes Ray Anderson's contributions and legacy - please let me know how if I can help.

    Note to Jim: I enjoyed your comments and insights - you always impress me with your thoughtfulness!

    With best regards,
    Drew George

  7. Oops....brain cramp: Paul Hawken, not Peter (my apologies to the esteemed business leader, author and environmentalist)