Focus on Leadership: Laurel Hurd brings her expertise in sales and marketing to the lead position at Interface – June 2022
Interview by Kemp Harr
Laurel Hurd had no plans to leave her role as president of learning and development at Newell Brands, the parent company of household names such as Graco, Crock-Pot, Rubbermaid and Sharpie. Hurd had spent more than two decades helping build various brands at the Atlanta, Georgia-based company, growing alongside them in various sales, marketing, research and development (R&D), and leadership positions. Encompassing more than 13 brands, the learning and development segment is Newell Brands’ largest and saw double-digit growth under Hurd’s leadership, achieving more than $3 billion in revenues last year.
While she wasn’t looking for a new venture, Hurd was familiar with Interface-also headquartered in Atlanta-and impressed by its pioneering story of sustainability, so her interest was piqued when a recruiter called about a possible position with the firm. In March she was named president and CEO of the global flooring producer and stepped into the role in mid-April.
Former Interface CEO and president Dan Hendrix, who served two tenures with the firm in the lead role and has spent more than 35 years with Interface in total, will stay on as chairman of the board. Hurd, too, recently took on a board leadership role as an independent director of the board for RV manufacturer Thor Industries.
Q: I understand you were quite content with your 22-plus-year career path at Newell Brands. What were a few of the details about the Interface role that compelled you to make the transition?
A: A few things came together that led me to make this move. First, I knew of Interface as a great brand here in Atlanta and of its incredible founder, Ray Anderson, and his story. Knowing and respecting the company prompted me to return a call from a recruiter for the first time in 22 years. From there, I learned more about Interface and how it truly believes it can change the world and still be a profitable enterprise-and how it has proven it can do so. That story is so compelling, so ahead of its time, and it drew me in further. Then, the people I met along the way-Newell was my family, and I felt like Interface could become my work family, too. Finally, there’s so much potential. Interface is on solid footing coming out of the pandemic, and I’m excited to lead us into our next growth phase.
Q: Tell us a little about where you grew up and why you chose to attend Miami of Ohio for college.
A: I was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. My dad was a hardware salesman, and I grew up going to trade shows with him, helping him set up his booth. I’d watch him work and learned a lot about how to sell and how to be a great salesperson through those experiences. Looking back, I can see it was formative to have that time with my father, even at eight years old, and it’s not a surprise that I ended up starting my career in sales.
My parents were incredibly supportive about where I could go to college. I remember my dad sitting me down, though, and explaining that they would pay for any in-state tuition at a public university, and if I chose an out-of-state or private college, I’d have to pay the difference myself. He then walked me through a spreadsheet that showed the financial implications of one choice over another. He explained what loans were and how they would impact my future. He asked me if I wanted to buy a car after I got out of college (yes) and if I wanted to live at home (no). After that important life lesson, I looked for the best in-state public school, and that was Miami of Ohio. Miami was an incredible university with a fantastic business school and a beautiful campus. It was one of the first schools to be declared a “Public Ivy.” I was in the business school and studied marketing. It turned out to be the right place for me. I loved it.
Q: You had several key roles at Newell. What was your favorite and why?
A: I grew up in sales and account management, and I loved the customer interaction in those roles. But my first general management role overseeing the Graco brand in the U.S. is one of the standouts in my career there. We had a strong purpose: to support the biggest job in the world, which is parenting. Like at Interface, there was a similar feeling of how important our job was every day. It was so inspiring, and to lead that business through a stage of growth was a blast.
Q: Who are your mentors, and what did they teach you?
A: My first boss out of college had one of the biggest impacts on me. I worked for Dirt Devil vacuum cleaners, managing the West Coast territory. John Balch, the CEO, was a larger-than-life leader. This was my first job out of school, and I wanted to do good work, so I asked him for a job description. His response was, “JOB DESCRIPTION?!? You want a JOB DESCRIPTION?!?” He walked over to my colleague’s desk, picked up her papers and dumped them on my desk. “Whatever she was doing, now you do. There’s your job description!” But before he walked away, he turned to me and said, “Know that whatever decisions you make, you’re not going to put this company out of business.”
What he taught me in that quick interaction was profound and has stuck with me all these years. First, don’t worry about your job description; do what it takes to help the company win. And second, make decisions. There are very few decisions that would ever put the company at risk. It’s actually riskier not to make decisions. Just go make it happen.
Q: You are stepping into this CEO role with a background in sales and marketing, backfilling Dan Hendrix, who has an accounting background. Why is sales and marketing the right background for this role at present?
A: Dan has done a remarkable job setting the foundation to drive the company’s success and getting it to where it is today. Interface is on such solid ground, especially coming out of this pandemic. It is a great opportunity for us to pivot toward growth, where my commercial skills and brand expertise will play a vital role. Of course, I come to this role with a lot of business, operational and financial knowledge, as well. I managed a $3 billion profit and loss (P&L), overseeing the largest segment at Newell Brands. These experiences will help me build upon the great success here at Interface.
Q: What do you think the biggest hurdle will be as you make this transition?
A: The flooring industry is filled with nuance. I know I have a lot to learn, and I have a great team helping me ramp up quickly. I’m also getting up to speed on the intricacies of how our business operates in different geographies around the world and how the customer needs and preferences differ across our local markets.
Q: What intrigues you most about the flooring industry?
A: Before coming to Interface, I thought carpet was carpet. But I’ve quickly come to learn that, as a category, flooring’s impact is often underappreciated. It has the potential to set the tone for how you feel when you’re in a space. And, as the future of work changes, it’s an exciting time to be in the flooring space. We have an opportunity to influence how that all plays out.
Q: I’ve toured Interface’s “Base Camp” in Atlanta and found it to be an interesting workplace lab. Will that be your base as well, and what will Interface’s workplace strategy be, now that the Covid risks seem to be more balanced?
A: Yes, I’m thrilled to be able to work out of our Base Camp HQ in Atlanta as my main location when not traveling. I joined Interface at the same time our people started to return to the office. I saw immediately the power of connection and how much people were missing that during the pandemic. The Base Camp experience brings that to life even more. It’s an unbelievable place to drive that connection.
Coming out of the last two years, flexibility is an important part of the employee proposition. We can’t and shouldn’t expect to go back to the rigidity we had before. Driving that connectivity in a beautiful space is a key part of developing our culture and engaging our people.
Q: As you build your team at Interface, what qualities and experience are the most important to you? Can you describe how you interview people in order to make the best choice?
A: What I found when I arrived was that the folks at Interface and the leaders on my team are incredibly kind, supportive, encouraging, genuine and collaborative, which I love. Transparency-which drives trust-is also vital. I’m incredibly transparent and expect that from others. Ultimately, I look for a combination of optimism and pragmatism when building teams. I believe there is a place for both: optimism fuels energy, and pragmatism keeps us real. Both are needed, and in balance, to support our growth and success.
Q: What excites you most about Interface’s pioneering role in sustainability, and how do you hope to advance it?
A: I didn’t have the opportunity to meet Ray Anderson, but I’ve studied his work and spent time with people who worked with him. Interface is so fortunate to have him as our founder, and the fact that he was so far ahead in his thinking-it’s true to our core. I see it in our manufacturing; I see it in our people; I see it in all that we do. We have products that perhaps Ray could have only imagined with our new carbon-negative carpet tiles and CQuest backings. We’re achieving his vision in a commercial way that helps our customers deliver on their carbon objectives. This is an unbelievable opportunity. We need to continue to push the envelope, which means we’re focusing on what’s next. We have amazing talent in our sustainability, design, R&D and manufacturing teams, literally in every corner of the business, who think about these challenges all the time.
We also continue to look at ways to transform product categories beyond carpet tile to make them more sustainable. We still have a lot of work to do in those areas, and we’re not focusing on one product here or there. We’re looking at our entire portfolio and our business as a whole as we aspire to become a carbon-negative enterprise by 2040. And I’m confident, even in my early days, that this team can design a better way so that we can get there.
Q: Over the course of your career, I am sure you have seen many changing opportunities for women in senior leadership roles. What were the greatest lessons you learned, and how have these lessons changed your approach to business?
A: I’ve been fortunate to have a very strong peer network with women throughout my career. You hear that women can be cutthroat at the highest levels, because there are sometimes fewer opportunities, but I haven’t found that. Some of my dearest friends are women I’ve grown up with in the professional world. The support we provide one another has been integral to our shared successes in our careers and in life in general.
Q: You are now the leader of a global company. Is travel something you enjoy?
A: I love to travel and have been fortunate to visit many amazing locations all over the world in my roles at Newell Brands. I have spent considerable time in China, India, Japan and all throughout Europe. In my first days with Interface, I have already visited our operations in the U.S. and the Netherlands, and I have plans to visit Germany and Australia. As the world continues to open up, getting out into the business will continue to be an important priority so that I can connect with our people and suppliers throughout the world.
Q: What do you do in your free time to relax and recharge your batteries?
A: Spending time with my family outdoors, especially out on the water in the mountains, is my favorite way to relax. I also love cheering on my girls; both are in high school and participate in competitive rowing (crew) events across the Southeastern U.S. My son just completed his first year of college, so I used to spend a lot of time at the ice hockey rink cheering him on, as well.
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