One CEO’s Trip From Dismissive to Convinced

When Interface’s Ray Anderson founded his commercial carpet company, he’d never heard of ‘sustainability.’ Now his company has turned it into a competitive advantage. Here, a timeline for how one CEO’s ‘mental model’ changed.

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For Ray Anderson in 1994, two decades into building his Atlanta-based commercial carpet company, the intellectual case for sustainability had suddenly become obvious. The writings of Paul Hawken and others had convinced him that man and nature were on a collision course. The signs of environmental degradation were multiplying. And as one-time industrial engineer Anderson — then 60 and Interface Inc.’s founder and CEO — began to think about his legacy, it made him uneasy. Deep down, Anderson realized Interface’s business model was based on “digging up the Earth and turning petroleum and other materials into polluting products that ended up in landfills” — not something he wanted his grandchildren and great-grandchildren to remember him by. So in 1994, Anderson broke with the old model and began anew. Standing up to naysayers (whose ranks included associates, suppliers and Wall Street analysts), he set out to transform Interface from a traditional business built on consumption and waste to one whose focus — that is, beyond profitable growth — would be zero waste and restoring the Earth.

Since the journey began 15 years ago, Anderson and his associates have confronted technical barriers that no one could have anticipated. For example, you cannot eliminate waste and effluents from factories until you know what the materials you’re using are made of, which often meant going back to do research with suppliers … or with their suppliers, who didn’t always want to tell you how they made their goods. And even if they did tell you, the technology for fixing the waste problem didn’t always exist. “When I conceived of this whole thing, I didn’t see the specifics,” Anderson says. In the pages that follow, see a timeline of how Ray Anderson and his company moved along the road to sustainability.

  • 1973:

    Ray Anderson founds Interface as a joint venture with Carpets International Plc, a British company, to enter the emerging carpet tile market, emptying his personal savings accounts and drawing investments from friends. The company has one plant and 15 employees. As the father of two daughters, he says, “This was my third child.”

  • 1978:

    Stressing close relationships with customers as the driver of growth, company sales reach $11 million.

  • 1983:

    Interface reaches $80 million in revenues, completes initial public offering.

  • 1987:

    Revenues continue to grow from both existing operations and acquisitions, reaching $267 million.

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