“The Power of One” is a series of stories about people who have helped to make their companies more sustainable. They can’t do it alone, of course. But by coming up with a good idea, enlisting the help of others and making persuasive arguments, one person can change a company and, sometimes, even an industry. The story of how Chuck Gerhardt helped create a new business for Underwriters Laboratories, the product safety certification organization that dates back to the 19th century, begins with an email.
“First, I’m not a tree hugger,” the email began. “As you know, I’m a corn-fed Midwesterner who is surprised that he is even thinking ‘green.’ However I do value the environment and all it has to offer.”
It was July 29, 2003, when Chuck Gerhardt, a facilities manager at the Santa Clara office of Underwriters Laboratories, sent an email about what he described as “a thought rummaging around my head lately.” Chuck, who is 43 and has worked for UL for 25 years, isn’t an engineer or an MBA. “I’m just a working stiff” with a high school education and a little bit of community college, he tells me. But it struck him that UL, a global organization that has become the most trusted name in product safety, might expand to become an arbiter of what’s green, and what’s not.
As he wrote:
Has UL put much thought into the “Green” or “Sustainable” arena? In my simple thinking I see the standard UL mark on a lamp cord but I also see another lamp next to it that has a UL mark but this one has a little green leaf meaning it not only should be safe but it has been manufactured by a company that has a LEED rating on their facility, (More about LEED in a minute) and if the company doesn’t have a LEED rating on their facility maybe they manufacture their products in an environmentally sound way. So, I buy the lamp with the green leaf because I want to help the environment. Since UL promotes public safety this seems to all kind of fit together.
The thought running that was running around Chuck’s head is today a real business. UL Environment , which calls itself a “full-service environmental solutions company,” offers independent green claims validation, product certification, training, advisory services and standards development. It’s got close to 60 employees, based all over the world, and it expects to certify products in 12 to 15 categories by the end of 2011. There’s no “little green leaf” — not yet, anyway.
While Chuck is too much of a company man to say so, that first email was pretty much ignored. He followed up with another, and talked to people he knew inside UL. For several years, he didn’t get anywhere. But he didn’t get discouraged either. “It would die off a little in my mind, and I wouldn’t pursue it,” he says. “But I always felt it was a good idea.”
His instincts were reinforced by a couple of experiences that he had. He went to a seminar at Stanford University one day, and heard an executive with Diversey, a company that makes cleaning products, say that a third-party sustainability standard was needed to help customers tell “green” products from others. He went shopping for a mattress for one of his kids, and saw that UL had certified mattresses as safe–but there was no reliable way to tell what chemicals were inside. “I wanted to know what options I had,” Chuck said. He ended up buying “all natural” mattresses, but thought the process should have been easier. (See my 2009 post, A new green sheriff in town, which makes a reference to this purchase, without naming Chuck.)
Not until 2006–when a senior executive at UL introduced Chuck by email to Marcello Manca–did the project start to get some traction. A native of Italy who was educated in the U.S., Marcello was then in charge of new business development for UL. He had thought about the idea of environmental certification, but wasn’t sure the time was right. “Nondum matura est,” he says, quoting a Latin phrase meaning that it wasn’t quite ripe. Chuck’s passion helped put the idea into play, as did the explosive growth of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), a voluntary standard for buildings. “The green building movement was the right spark,” Marcello says.
What followed was a more rigorous analysis of the market for green certification, the drafting of a business plan and ultimately a presentation to UL’s board. By then, Marcello had become so excited by the potential of UL Environment that he left his business development job to become its first vice president and general manager. For his part, Chuck has moved from the Santa Clara office to UL’s Chicago headquarters where he is now an employee of UL Environment, focusing on the company’s internal sustainability work.
Chuck says the keep to making change inside UL was “finding the right champion” and “being persistent.” He also learned to “keep refining the message so it’s able to speak to people at the top. The people running the company speak a different language from people in day-to-day operations,” he says.
Marcello says much the same thing. “It’s great to have passion and and it’s great to have persistence. Everything starts with those elements but once you start to run an idea up the flagpole, the hard analysis, the due diligence is what pays dividends. Ask a lot of questions. Talk to a lot of people. Get industry feedback. Get customer feedback.”
What Chuck and Marcello accomplished was really hard–getting an entirely new business launched inside a well-established organization. Timing was key–it’s possible to be too early with an idea, as well as too late. But the blend of passion, persistence and analysis they brought to the task is required to drive any kind of meaningful corporate change.
Tomorrow’s Power of One will look at how thinking outside (and inside) the box drove innovation at eBay.