This interview is one in a series of profiles on sustainability leaders among Georgia Tech alumni. Michael Oxman, managing director of the Ray C. Anderson Center for Sustainable Business, speaks with John Wells (IM ’84), longtime president and CEO of Interface Americas, where he worked alongside Founder and Chairman Ray C. Anderson (IE ’56, Honorary Ph.D. ’11) in building a company that became an exemplar of “doing well by doing good.” John shares his career trajectory, memories of working at Interface at a time of incredible change, and best practices for embedding sustainability in a company. John currently leads the CEO and Leadership Practice as a Partner at The Goodwin Group.
Michael Oxman: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us. Would you tell us a little bit about your life prior to coming to Georgia Tech and how you came to study here?
John Wells: My dad was a doctor with a passion for working in small towns. In the early ’50s, he and my mom moved from Atlanta to Dalton, Georgia, which is where I grew up. As you might know, Dalton is the unofficial “Carpet Capital of the World.” I got interested in the industry as I began to look at colleges. I ended up going to Georgia Tech as a co-op student working in the carpet industry with Shaw Industries Group, Inc. beginning at the age of 18. After I graduated from the College of Management [now Scheller College of Business], I went full time with Shaw, where I stayed for ten years. In early ’94, I went to Interface.
MO: Interface in ’94...that was quite a time of change within the company!
JW: It certainly was. I joined Interface early that year. The company wasn’t doing very well, and I was part of a small group that came to do a turnaround on the core business. Later that year, [Founder and Chairman] Ray C. Anderson had his famous epiphany about this thing called “sustainability.” I’m not even sure if I had ever heard the word before. When Ray first introduced the concept, I thought, What’s he talking about? In my early 30s, my belief was “whoever sold the most carpet wins.” “Sustainability” was not in the vernacular of our industry. Frankly, in the early ’90s, it wasn’t really in the vernacular of any company. It certainly wasn’t in the mission of any company.