John Wells, president of Interface Americas: Focus on Leadership
Interview by Kemp Harr
John Wells, president of Interface Americas since 1999, grew up the youngest of four children to a small town family doctor and his wife in Dalton, Geogia. He diverged from his siblings’ path, choosing Georgia Tech over UGA for his undergraduate degree, having noticed that many of the carpet industry’s leaders studied there.
Wells’ almost 35-year career has been spent exclusively in the carpet industry. He started with Shaw Industries through a Georgia Tech cooperative education program, which parlayed into a full time position after graduation. Thirteen years later he joined Interface where he rose to president of Interface Americas. In addition to his duties as a leader at Interface, Wells devotes time to serving several education-related boards of directors, including the GT Foundation, the GT College of Business and the Lovett School, a private prep school in Atlanta.
Q: You grew up in Dalton, went to Georgia Tech and then went to work for Shaw. Did you ever consider another line of work?
A: My dad was a doctor in Dalton. I considered that track through high school, but quickly realized how many years of study that required. I have a tremendous respect for physicians, and of course for my father. I always appreciated the sacrifice doctors make. When you live with one, you see the hours invested and the unique challenges they have. My dad was an amazing small town family doctor. He was a remarkable guy during a remarkable time in Dalton.
I also considered a sales job with Proctor & Gamble in Houston during my senior year before graduating from Georgia Tech, but changed my mind and went to work with Shaw when I graduated. I took advantage of the co-op program during college with Shaw and World Carpet. After that experience, I was excited to go full time into the industry.
Q: Why Georgia Tech?
A: Everybody in my family went to [the University of] Georgia, and my dad was a Duke grad doctor. I can remember being very impressed, growing up in Dalton in that era, that all the people I knew at the carpet mills who were really successful were Georgia Tech guys. People like Julian Saul and Jim Jolly. The community influenced my decision because the leaders in all those companies were Tech guys.
Q: So after 13 years at Shaw you left to join Interface. What could Shaw have done to keep you from leaving them?
A: I had a good experience at Shaw. I was very fortunate to be involved with several new things, like Shaw’s start into the contract business in the early ’80s.
I was assigned to Bob Hutchinson when he was starting a product development strategy for Shaw’s contract business. I was his gofer. You know, go for this and go for that, and I ran his trials in the middle of the night. It was a great learning experience.
I will always appreciate Bob’s willingness to help me. There I was, this kid right out of college, and at 5:00 every day Bob would sit down with me and take 30 minutes to explain exactly what he was doing, why he was doing it and how it fit in the strategy. This guy had so much pressure on him, but he was taking the time to explain to me what he was doing, and I really appreciated that. All of us have people in our lives who helped us along. He was one of those for me.
I went from there to Atlanta, to be one of the first, if not the first, Shaw Contract salespeople in the U.S. It was a good job at a time when Shaw was starting out in the contract business. I didn’t know what I was doing, really. I guess you just lean on some natural abilities and hope for some good luck.
Then I was afforded the opportunity to help start the Networx venture, Shaw’s foray into carpet tile. That start-up experience taught me many things. The most critical was the belief that the only soft floorcovering format that makes sense is modular. Why would anyone want broadloom carpet?
I have fond memories of my time at Shaw—look at what I was able to participate in. My decision to leave was purely based on a great opportunity presenting itself at a unique time.
Q: Soon after Interface hired you, they invested in your education by sending you through UNC’s Executive Education Program. Was that a good experience?
A: I was over ten years removed from college, so I had practical work and business experience that really helped my time at UNC to be more meaningful. There were very good programs that were taught by their best business school professors. Probably the most beneficial part was the other attendees from similar roles in different industries—the benchmarking, sharing and learning from peers was extremely helpful.
Q: You’ve worked for carpet mills since you graduated from college. Where do your new ideas come from?
A: In a word, people. I love being with customers, our own Interface associates and others outside of Interface that inform and inspire me.
I have learned that it is about listening for what you don’t know versus what you do know. We have a process at Interface called Tribal Gatherings that intentionally brings together people with differing roles and points of view. For example, scientists, evangelists, end users, biologists, designers, etc. all come together and focus on a specific challenge that we present. The insights are amazing, and most often right below the surface. Big ideas come from these events.
One of the amazing opportunities about my time at Interface has been connecting with and learning from the unique big thinkers who have been attracted to our sustainability mission.
Q: From your perspective, what are a few of the critical elements that allow a company to rise above the others?
A: It sounds trite, but clarity and focus. Be clear about what you do best and focus all to be the best at it.
When you focus on what you do best, really focus on it—in other words, you don’t have a bailout point. That’s when the best innovation comes. And there’s some risk there, but when we line up everything we have on carpet tile, we’re trying to solve for that: its acoustics, its health, its safety, its beauty, its design. And it would be easy to bail out and give all our salespeople a book of LVT or a book of this or that, but what we see on the commercial side of the business is that no one’s got it figured out yet. They can’t quite get their arms around how to sell it because the carpet gets de-emphasized. They diminish the focus on carpet, and I kind of love the carpet industry.
Q: In the last 15 years, the two largest carpet companies have diversified into the hard surface business, and carpet has lost considerable marketshare to hard surface flooring. Do you think those two facts are related?
A: Likely. I have been concerned for quite some time that carpet, particularly on the residential side, is not aspirational to homeowners. There has been far too much focus on making lower end products cheaper versus positioning soft floorcovering as desirable.
Following the market trends exclusively over time can impede innovation that can move or change a market. We like to think of ourselves at Interface as the innovator that can change or move a market. Sometimes that may start with one or two customers. Eventually the numbers of those customers grow and become a market.
What we are creating with Flor is an aspirational brand and a new approach for the consumer. There’s a market-based philosophy, but we’ve always thought of ourselves as being customer based. Carpet tile would never have existed if somebody didn’t say, ‘There’s a better way to do that. Let’s go innovate and make it important to one customer at a time, and eventually the market will be created.’ That’s how we think.
The original intent of Flor was to create a direct to the consumer channel that completely bypassed all forms of distribution from the past. We saw carpet tile being commoditized, and we needed to make it aspirational for the consumer and also suited to the commercial side. We set out to make it fun, make it interesting, make it joyful, design-oriented in a way that carpet isn’t done. We tried a program with Lowe’s; we tried something with Target, but no one will tell your story like you. So we said, ‘Let’s test a store.’ All of a sudden we were able to start telling our story, and it made a difference.
The end result looks the same. You’re controlling the end point of distribution to the final consumer, but how we got there was via a very different path.
Q: Explain why Bob Shaw wasn’t successful in his venture into retail but Interface seems to be doing well.
A: It is interesting that you ask to compare the two initiatives. I see them as very different. Shaw was attempting to gain vertical control of distribution and points of retail. Interface has been trying to build a brand focused on a new idea and approach. For us, we had to talk directly to the consumer to communicate the idea and the value of the idea. We are still building that category and demonstrating its value proposition. It is an ongoing conversation that takes into account trends and seasonality in a very different way than happens when you are merely trying to distribute a product.
Q: Who is the customer?
A: I think it’s the user of the product. There are multiple channels that are really important and interesting—A&D, dealer distribution—and those people are vitally important because they add value within the channel, and they’re the ones who have to tell your story, but the ultimate problem that you’re trying to solve is the person that walks on the product, lives on it, breathes on it every day.
The industry has matured. Everybody’s tried to organize the channels differently and get control of them because of the discretionary business or the lack of capitalization or whatever reason, but it’s a different day.
Q: Interface is recognized as the green leader in many of the surveys we conduct. How did this company that makes floorcovering out of petrochemicals earn a better reputation in the sustainability world than the tile and hardwood companies have?
A: Being there first and being there in a scientifically sound and deep way that was more purposeful than just a marketing trend was the difference maker. This issue was not on the table in the flooring industry before Ray Anderson and Interface started the dialogue in 1994.
I think the thing that Ray did that gets overlooked is that he went to the best people in the industry—in the world—on this subject. Paul Hawken, Bill McDonough, Janine Benyus and Amory Lovins—he assembled the green leadership team to design the strategy.
That’s why Ray never let us market it. He fought us on putting a name on it until two or three years before he died, when we could start calling it Mission Zero. He would say, ‘This is not a marketing thing. This is a values thing.’ And he was right.
Q: You’ve worked with many of the great leaders in this business. Aside from Ray Anderson, which ones stand out in your memory and why?
A: Bob Shaw plays to win. He possesses a great confidence that is contagious. Dan Hendrix for his intelligence, extremely strong financial acumen and deep experience in global markets and in global business. David Oakey for his combination of futuristic vision and prolific execution of category-changing ideas. And Charlie Eitel, a strong turn-around leader. I learned the culture development piece from him. Charlie was intentional about it. Ray’s big shift in ’94 wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for Charlie saying, ‘I’ll come in here, but you have give me the freedom to do some things differently.’ So we implemented a culture change that then allowed Ray to come back a year or two later with this idea of becoming the model of environmental sustainability. I don’t think the culture would have accepted it so readily if not for the work Charlie and our team did.
And I can’t leave Ray out. He has had a profound impact on me in many ways. He was courageous. He was a true entrepreneur who put his family and livelihood on the line for an idea that became a billion dollar global enterprise. At 60 he transformed his company and his personal life when he had his sustainability epiphany. Most everyone around him thought he was crazy. He was tenacious. He would never give up on an idea. He understood that it all starts with the customer. For me, Ray brought into focus the noble purpose of business.
Q: What advice would you give to people who are just entering the professional world?
A: Focus on the system versus your specific starting point or role. See the customer all the way through the system. Learn where value is added and appreciated, and apply your focus there. Discover your talents, your strengths and develop them to apply to whatever you do. Listen empathetically. Pay attention to what makes a great day for you. Observe great managers and leaders, as well as those who aren’t, and reflect on the differences.
I learned from Ray Anderson and some others that we all want meaningful work. We want to make a difference. I think that relationships are so, so critical. At the end of the day, it’s who we touch and it’s who we help.
Getting the next generations ready, that’s sustainability. I love that. Whatever I’m doing, it will be in a servant mindset, and I will be trying to develop the next leaders who can follow this mission.
Q: How do you keep a good balance between professional time and family time?
A: I married well! I have an incredible wife, Wendi Wells. Wendi is an interior designer in high-end residential who just went back to work in Atlanta. A great mom and community volunteer, she has always understood what I do and has great appreciation and support of it.
I also believe that you need to keep the feedback loops short and tight at home like in business. Know what is going on.
Q: What is your favorite book or quote?
A: The One Thing You Need to Know by Marcus Buckingham, a great read for personal and professional development, for those who desire to be great managers or leaders or both.
Q: What do you do to decompress and relax?
A: Read Floor Focus—of course! Golf, and we have a cabin on a lake. I love to be on the water.
Copyright 2014 Floor Focus