Saint-Gobain North America CEO John Crowe Speaks on how the company leads in sustainability
By Elliot Clark
Spending nearly your entire career at one company is a rarity in today’s day and age. CR Magazine recently spoke with John Crowe, president and CEO of Saint-Gobain Corporation and CertainTeed Corporation, who has been at the company for 38 years total. He offers some insight into how and why sustainability is so important at Saint-Gobain and what it means to be a “lifer.”
CR: You have worked for Saint-Gobain almost your entire career.
JC: That’s correct. I’m in my 38th year of Saint-Gobain service; you don’t find too many people anymore who are ‘lifers.’ I was part of a major acquisition Saint-Gobain made back in 1990, Norton Company, in Worcester, Mass. And that was the acquisition that brought abrasives, ceramics, the genesis of our performance plastics business. So I’m a lifer and it’s one big huge global family I feel part of today.
CR: How does that longevity in the business help form your opinions of how a company can impact society?
JC: To start the answer from a high level, Saint-Gobain is 350 years old, and it’s something I’m proud of—to work for a company that old. When you’ve been around that long, I think it brings a pretty unusual perspective of the world, of social responsibility, of being a good actor in all the geographies and environments that we work in around the world. I’ve always found Saint-Gobain, in the years I’ve been with them, to be very responsible, very concerned about the community, very concerned about the Earth, and carbon, C02 emissions.
For me personally, I’m sure my upbringing had something to with it. I grew up in New York City. The way my parents taught me about respecting people, respecting the environment, living well and living right is instilled in me. I started at Norton Company, which I thought was as responsible a company as I’d really ever been exposed to (and I know a lot of businesses, I know a lot of people, I travel all over the world). From my first year at that company, [I saw] the emphasis, the importance on giving back to the community and getting involved in the community. I think the company itself really had an impression on me. I would get exposed to the benefit of some of these programs and initiatives. As a younger, more impressionable person, I really bought in—I thought it was important. We do it as well today as we did 38 years ago when I started. I think the building of that foundation is important and I do want to be involved and support our initiatives.
I got an MBA at Boston College. I took a course on corporate social responsibility, back before it was more mainstream and widely accepted. I still remember that the takeaway was that companies have a responsibility to the geographies, the cities, the towns, the communities they operate in. They often have adequate financial resources that they can give some back and encouragetheir people to participate in different types of organizations.
CR: Let’s talk about your early career. Do you remember a moment when you realized you had a passion for corporate responsibility and was there a professional influence, mentor, or particular event that triggered your focus on responsibility?.
JC: It’s hard to explain how deep rooted this corporate social responsibility, this philanthropy, is ingrained in this old Norton company culture that transferred to me. Year after year after year, we had fundraisers, events, exposure to everything that was being done in the community. I don’t know that there was just one trigger point, it was a series of years and experiences and observations. And feeling good! Feeling proud about what we were able to do as a company, in terms of giving back.
CR: You joined the Norton company where a big part of the culture was giving back, and then the company is acquired and merged into the Saint-Gobain conglomerate. How were the programs that existed affected by becoming part of Saint- Gobain, a much larger company?
JC: I would admit that at the time of the acquisition, there was concern that maybe Saint-Gobain would come in with a different approach to philanthropy and corporate social responsibility. From day one, they said “we absolutely support everything you do, keep doing it; we’re not going to cut your budget, we like the involvement we see in the community.” They were overt in their support for what we were doing and wanted us to continue to do it. You get bought by a big company and they paid a lot of money so they try to get their return. But they didn’t change anything. That’s something I always appreciated about Saint-Gobain, these initiatives are important to Saint-Gobain.
CR: Saint-Gobain is celebrating an astonishing 350th anniversary. Having such a long history, this company has lived through the Renaissance, the age of revolution, the world wars, and into current times. Does the long history of this company help form your priorities for corporate social responsibility?
JC: I think when you’re a company that old, it’s a level of wisdom and maturity that comes from having such a long, diverse history. Humans are like that—as you get older you get wiser and a different type of perspective. Maturity, maybe, is the best way to say it. I think Saint-Gobain is like that. It’s their perspective on the world, it’s the perspective on their responsibilities, how they treat their employees. It’s different. They have a better touch, I think, on people and issues affecting people than a lot of American companies. We label ourselves as the “reference in sustainable habitats”; we’re the largest building materials company in the world. It’s good business, good policy, to be very proactive in things related to the environment and sustainability. I think the long perspective brings wisdom, brings maturity, brings focus and guidance on what matters, what’s important. You have this long perspective—we want to be here for another 350 years! We have an obligation to solve challenges facing the world, not just selling gypsum wall board or grinding wheels. There’s another aspect to our existence. We’re one of the largest 100 industrial companies in the world—there is a responsibility that comes with that.
CR: As you look at Saint-Gobain in North America, what are some of the priorities you are really focused on? With the accumulated wisdom of the corporate parent in France, what are the things that are the top of your list as a CEO that make you say “We have to do these things and make sure we do them well?”
JC: I recently made a presentation to a global group of new managers for Saint-Gobain and I always start these types of presentations with an overview of priorities. The first is safety, the welfare of our employees. We have 150 manufacturing facilities in North America and some big plants, and it’s important that our people go home safely every day. We take this very seriously as a corporation, so that would be first.
Saint-Gobain is not a well known brand in North America, so we’re working all the time to elevate the brand and the awareness of Saint-Gobain. We’re a great company; there’s a lot to be proud of. The way in which we celebrated Saint- Gobain’s 350th anniversary last year with Future Sensations—a global exhibition that combined science, storytelling and art—went a long way, I think, towards raising awareness. It was exciting to talk about the future of manufacturing and our business during a media tour where at one point we were on Mad Money with Jim Cramer.
Awareness is important. The whole broad issue of sustainability, the environment, energy efficiency—we’re an insulation manufacturer and we make electricchromic glass that helps reduce HVAC footprints—things related to that. The banner headline from Pierre-Andre is “we are the reference in the world in sustainable habitats,” so all things that go into construction, we want to be viewed as a leader, as being proactive. Related to that is how we worry about our manufacturing sites in terms of waste, energy consumption and reduction, water savings, everything around sustainability and the environment, energy efficiency, is really core to us, and it’s part of my thought process when setting priorities as head of the company in North America.
People [are important]. As a lot of companies have today, we have a bit of a demographic bubble coming—there’s a substantial percentage of our employees who can retire in the next five to 10 years. This building [Saint-Gobain’s headquarters in Malvern, Pa.] honestly was more for the Millennial than it was for me. People like working here. It’s a nice place, and hopefully will aid in recruiting the next generation of workers that will be running this company in the next 10 years. We just got the Top Employer designation that we have on a global basis that identifies us as a good place to work, and there’s substantial criteria that goes into that evaluation. Training, development, succession planning, career management—we’re really focusing on that now, but more because we really have to build the organization for the future.
Growth: we’re just under 6 billion dollars in revenue in North America today. We were 8 billion dollars a few years ago, when we divested a few companies. We’ve shrunk a bit through divestitures and managing the portfolio, but there’s a lot of interest to get bigger again. We’re in a good region in the world for Saint-Gobain; we’re very profitable. One of my priorities is growth: internal growth, innovation and R&D, new product development and focusing on mergers and acquisitions, trying to do some of that too. Those are my headlines in and around sustainability. It touches on social responsibility. I always conclude the last 10 or 15 slides as “things we’re proud of.” And in that section, there are examples of what we’re doing as a corporation, a lot touching on CSR, that makes me proud. I want these people to feel proud about what we’re doing.
CR: Saint-Gobain provides sustainable products for residential and commercial building. All companies learn from their customers. What is the next wave in sustainability in building products or trends that you are developing to meet customer demand?
JC: To answer your question, with a little of a segue to it, we’re worried about light. SageGlass is unique; we’re one of two companies in the world that makes electrochromic glass. I think that’s on the vanguard of sustainability, energy efficiency, creature-occupant comforts in built spaces. We have gypsum wallboard that absorbs VOCs that are in the environment so you have cleaner air to breathe. The builder of this building (it was a redevelopment, not new construction) said this HVAC installation is the most complex he’s ever seen in his career. And it’s our effort to always control not just temperature, but the level of fresh air. We have C02 monitors in the building so we know when to pump in more fresh air – to have oxygen to feel good, to breathe right. We’ve used all sustainable insulation here; these are clean insulation products. Saint- Gobain is trying to be more innovative. We have started to do some innovation tours. We went out to Silicon Valley, and we wandered around. We visited companies doing all sorts of maybe crazy things while trying to understand where it’s all going. My take away is that digital things are going to be such an enabler in offices and homes in the future. The people that live out in the Valley, they’re so smart in connecting things and controlling things and making information available. That’s really a wave coming, and I guarantee you in the next 10 years you’re going to see it everywhere.
CR: You have programs for youth in the community and for education. If you are following the trend for “shared values” in corporate responsibility, how do these youth programs impact the future business of Saint-Gobain?
JC: It’s smart philanthropy; it’s in our sweet spot to do it.[Through our national partnership with YouthBuild USA], we’re helping—and this is something I’ve had the chance to be a bit involved in personally. One of the homes we did here in Philly, I went to the dedication, and I still remember there was a woman from the inner city of Philadelphia who spoke about how this program transformed her life, and will enable her to have a middle class life going forward as a skilled tradesperson in building— in green building—and this YouthBuild program has really emphasized green building products and techniques.
So there’s a couple of points. It’s a great thing to do for disadvantaged, inner city youth, and we’re doing it in four areas of this country. We’ve expanded it to South Africa now, and I think it’s been picked up and we’re helping the seed Grow in Mexico and Brazil. You have to be there and listen and watch the energy and the excitement and the camaraderie of these students as they’re coming through the program. For us, it provides a vehicle for many of our employees to get involved in these rebuilding efforts—our building science people help teach and train and get involved in these initiatives. But it’s good business for us too; we need more skilled craftspeople. I think the housing recovery is being somehow a bit constrained today because they can’t find enough people. So in our little way we’re helping educate and get out into the workplace craftspeople that are hopefully going to help us sell and use CertainTeed building materials [and other materials from the Saint-Gobain family of companies] in the future.
We’ve been in this now for five years. We’ve just upped again for multiple year financial support to the program and it’s just a great fit between YouthBuild and CertainTeed/Saint- Gobain. So many points of contact, such good relationships, such excitement both from the students, YouthBuild and our employees, something we’re very, very proud of.
CR: Why does this appeal to Millennial— why do they want to have more than just a job?
JC: We’re trying to be the type of company that appeals to the Millennial generation. It’s interesting, when you look at what’s ! Important to them, it’s sustainability, the earth, a healthy environment: that’s very important to them. So as we recruit, it is a bit of a calling card for us. We really are that way, we try to live that way, and it resonates with a lot of the Millennial and younger people and enables us to get some really top talent coming to this company now. They want to make a difference and see us, our businesses, our direction, as the chance to do unique things. And that’s building materials. We’re trying to do that across our high performance materials businesses that make plastics and crystals and abrasives too.
CR: You have an ambitious goal of reducing carbon emissions by 75 percent in your manufacturing facilities by 2040. As a manufacturer, what are the steps you are taking today to prepare the plants for this kind of improvement in GHG emissions and what are the hardest challenges you need to overcome?
JC: A little bit of interesting insight into what Saint-Gobain is doing today already is that we’ve imposed a C02 emission tax in all capital projects above a million dollars. We’re pushing that return threshold to have to take into account, what will this impact have incrementally to Saint-Gobain? It’s just one example, and it’s a bit controversial and everyone’s asking “how are we going to do this?” But we’re doing it! And we have tools now to help with CAPEX analysis and trying to build those in.
I was in Paris a few months back, and the head of research for Saint-Gobain, Didier Roux, made a presentation to the construction products management committee. He discussed all of the thinking and analysis and simulation on how you could make fiberglass insulation differently, how you could make gypsum wallboard differently, with the ambition that they’re all directed at reducing the C02 footprint from the manufacturing processes. It’s a journey; I don’t know where it will end up. Every plant—we’ve been an ENERGY STAR participant for many years in a row—have energy conservation programs sort of built into our DNA. Lighting, compressors, we study the carbon footprint of raw materials.
So all I can tell you is that it’s a bold goal our chairman made. I’m not sure we know exactly how we’ll achieve it over 25 years, but I can tell you we’re working at it already at a pretty high level, into the details. It’s become a bit pervasive in the company in how we look at things, how we justify things, how we study things from a technological standpoint to help build a roadmap on how we’re going to achieve those goals.
CR: Are you already doing a lot of things many of the modern manufacturers are doing with co-gen plans in your manufacturing sites? With trying to use renewable energy as a portion of what you draw down from the grid, are you now looking at having to redo your whole product strategy to figure out how to make the factories that can meet this goal.
JC: In this building, teed up for this year, we’re putting up a bank of [our] solar panels. We’re a big company in the U.S. with lots of sites and open space, and we’re working with power utilities to put solar farms in as an energy source. So we’re working on those, and as long as the tax credits are still in existence we’re smart to take advantage of these things. We’re working at it and the chairman and CEO of Saint-Gobain is quite engaged and quite active in establishing policy for us to follow.
CR: With that kind of goal, what are the metrics you look at as a CEO? Do you get a CR dashboard, and if so what are the things you’re looking at here in Saint-Gobain US or the CertainTeed global business that you’re watching to meet some of these goals or objectives, to create the social impact with YouthBuild etc.?
JC: For YouthBuild, in the cities we’re directly involved in the programs is their high school equivalent education process. Headline one is the number of grads going through the system, getting out, and getting jobs. For abused women in Worcester, Mass., how many people, how many women are touched through our contribution? So there’s sort of an application process that’s quite detailed that helps us to understand the metrics of “what’s the benefit?” We want to Give money to things we feel will be impactful. Requests for funding come in but if we don’t have a connection or we don’t understand it, we actually will pass and make sure we’re using our money smartly.
From an environmental standpoint, I can’t tell you how rigorous we are as a corporation globally in calculating the amount of energy savings, in amount of water discharge reduction. Those types of things that touch the environment get incredibly detailed. We have the environmental impact annual report, it’ll blow you away. You’ll find the metrics on what we do around the world, more from an environmental standpoint. It’s indicative of Saint-Gobain’s leadership in sustainability and in the environment and you get annual reports in your programs scored, and our ambition is to be in the top tier globally every year.
CR: This is a question I probably shouldn’t even put to you, I should probably put it to Mrs. Crowe. You’re an executive in the largest construction products company in the world. Are you any good at fixing stuff around the house?
JC: So, interesting answer! I’ll be candid. I grew up in Queens, N.Y. with four brothers and sisters in a two bedroom apartment. My dad worked on Wall Street most of his life, and I was into sports, and my father had no real interest in fixing things, other than when the toilet would break and he’d swear and try to get the thing working again. One bathroom for six people; my kids couldn’t imagine how to live life today with that sort of thing. So I honestly never grew up with a father who fixed things. I’m a chemical engineer, not a mechanical engineer. I never grew up with really an aptitude to do it. I can do basic stuff, it’s not a strong interest of mine.
My wife grew up the exact opposite. Small town in southeastern Mass.; her father could build anything, fix anything. So you know who has the toolbelt in my family? My wife! I gave her a toolbelt for one of her birthdays a few years back. I said “honey what do you want for Christmas?” Two years ago, and she said “could you get me one of those little portable sanders?” Her father instilled it in her. She watched him and she helped him and she got that interest and inclination. So my wife is much better at fixing things around the house than I am. And she has the toolbelt.