Why aren't there more Ray Andersons?

Long before Ray Anderson, the founder and chairman of Interface, passed away, one year ago this week, I'd been thinking about the above question. For years, speaking at business schools and corporate events, I'd often ask, "Can you name the head of a publicly traded, industrial company who has embedded sustainability into the company's DNA; who has a vision that a company could become not just sustainable, but restorative; and who is out there talking about this widely and forcefully — and not just at sustainability gatherings?”

Typically, several hands would go up, or someone would simply shout out, "Ray Anderson!"

"Great," I'd say. "Now, name another."

Always: silence.

It was, at some level, a rhetorical question. Anderson was one of a kind: a humble, genteel, Southern industrialist who in the mid 1990s experienced an epiphany about his carpet company's environmental impact, then spent the rest of his life transforming that company into an exemplar of sustainable business. He was a brilliant marketer who saw the value of sustainability to sell carpet, but also a visionary who saw the potential to transform commerce. He was an extraordinary man, beautifully eulogized by his friend and mentor, Paul Hawken. 

So, no: There will never be another Ray Anderson. He was a unique individual with a unique circumstance at a unique time.

Still, Anderson embodied the truly enlightened business leader who understood the value of sustainability practices — to increase sales, cut costs, foster innovation, delight employees, engage customers, and build an enviable reputation for his company, even one whose products were based on materials as unnatural as nylon and vinyl. He saw the potential to change the voice of business in the sustainability conversation. He was not an incrementalist.

In that light, where are the others — Anderson’s cohorts, disciples, protégés, and evangelists within the C-suites of other large companies? Who today is the enlightened CEO picking up where Anderson left off?

Over the past month, and informally before then, I spoke with several of those who worked with Anderson — as Interface employees, on the “Dream Team” of sustainability advisors he put together in the 1990s, and others. I wanted to know what it means to be a "Ray Anderson," and who else might deserve that moniker.

My quest was, admittedly, quixotic. It is nearly impossible to take the full measure of a man — his character, warts and all — let alone to do so in the relatively short time I spent on the exercise. I, like many others, knew and admired Anderson, but only a piece of him: his public persona, punctuated by a handful of personal encounters. Even those who worked closely with him don't profess to truly "get" the man.

Next page: The six things that made Ray Ray