LaCroix Nurtures Green Ways

    GRAND RAPIDS — As current president of the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum (WMSBF), Interface Fabrics Divisional Vice President Mark LaCroix has become one of the leaders of the emerging sustainability movement.

    The forum works to further the movement locally and abroad through facilitating sustainability initiatives among its member companies, while spreading its philosophy to other companies and regions.

    Unlike some key figures in the movement, however, LaCroix was never faced with the burden of selling its concepts to his own company.

    “I am very fortunate to work for a company where the very first person to really understand what sustainability is and articulate it to the organization was the person who ultimately signs all of our paychecks,” LaCroix said.

    Straight from high school in 1977, LaCroix began his career with Guilford of Maine under the wing of a pre-legislature Glenn Steil, then a Guilford salesman. He went to night school at what was then Davenport College.

    As the Maine-based supplier of upholstery and panel fabrics for offices, theaters, hotels, restaurants and other commercial/high traffic environments was acquired, then acquired again and again, LaCroix came with the package each time.

    Interface Inc. bought Guilford in 1985, its first non-carpet business and the foundation of the Interface Fabrics Group.

    LaCroix had worked his way to management level when, a decade later, Interface founder and current Chairman Ray Anderson discovered Paul Hawken’s book on sustainability, “The Ecology of Commerce.”

    Commerce, Hawken wrote, was the world’s most pervasive and powerful entity. It was the primary force behind the degradation of the environment, and by the same token, could and should be used as a tool to solve the world’s environmental problems.

    “Ray went in front of the company and said that we were going to be the world’s first sustainable company,” LaCroix recalled, “not knowing exactly how to do it or how consuming a task that would be.”

    To convert his $900-million, publicly traded company to a sustainable model, Anderson tracked down and hired some of the top environmental thinkers in the world. The group drew up a seven-tier plan to aggressively attack all functional areas of the company.

    More than 1,000 Interface managers, LaCroix among them, were called to a worldwide meeting to receive the company’s new vision. Prior to the meeting, each manager read the books of the steering committee members.

    “We spent a week with this dream team, the environmental advisory team, learning about why this is important and what we were going to do about it,” he said. “The books alone had a profound impact on me. Then we met the authors.”

    LaCroix was selected as a sustainability trainer, tasked with carrying the message into his organization.

    “I was to educate everyone in our company on sustainability and what the seven fronts meant and how they could impact this vision that we have.”

    At the time, the market was beginning to recognize the potential of the sustainability movement, particularly in the commercial interiors and construction markets. LaCroix saw a possibility for a natural extension of his work.

    “A lot of companies were trying to figure out how to address this ‘green’ thing.”

    LaCroix took Interface’s education and workshops into the marketplace. He talked to his customers about sustainability and what it meant to be green, how to evaluate products based on their sustainable attributes.

    He learned early on the importance of whole-systems thinking, commonly known as the triple-bottom line.

    “Often the cause of the problems we face were solutions to others,” he said. “You have to understand the connection between systems, how dependent social, environmental and economic systems are upon each other.

    “It’s an incredibly complex issue and requires a real commitment to learn.”

    When the United States Green Building Council launched its Leadership in Energy Efficient Design (LEED) rating program, LaCroix saw the market for sustainable enterprise explode.

    With the corporate office segment driving the movement, Interface was well positioned to respond, especially with Interface Fabrics’ 50 percent share of the office furniture panel market.

    When the wave spread to the office furniture industry, West Michigan had reached a critical mass.

    “We are one of the few markets in the world where the customers are driving this,” said LaCroix, himself a LEED Accredited Professional. “There are very few markets where customers are saying they want this.

    “It’s catching on, not because business people have become altruistic or environmentalists, but because their perceptions of sustainability have improved.”

    In the past that perception conjured thoughts of regulations and added cost, he said, but for the companies leading today’s movement, it has become a way to drive costs out of business.

    “Most manufacturers understand lean and how it’s a good thing,” LaCroix said. “But they don’t realize that their lean initiatives are actually good for the environment.”

    Furthermore, LaCroix said that sustainability has become not only Interface’s philosophy but also its competitive strategy against the overseas competition that is flooding the textile market.

    With a similar purpose, Interface Fabrics recently consolidated its six mills into one entity.

    LaCroix now has the ability to sell, service, manufacture and distribute any Interface Fabrics product from Grand Rapids. Meanwhile, some of the waste Anderson preached against has been stripped out — LaCroix admitted that some OEMs had been receiving calls from six different Interface salespeople.

    One of the hazards in the marketplace, LaCroix has found, is that some companies or individuals position themselves as having the one right sustainable solution.

    “That’s just not the case,” he said. “There are many ways up this mountain. You have to develop your own path.”    

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