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Episode 12 – Our Tips for Creating A Sustainable Business

Discover how you can green your life by building a knowledge base of current sustainable and eco-savvy trends. This series will delve into hot topics, current standards and practices, ways to design better spaces and specify materials that benefit not only us, as consumers, but the world as a whole. Members of CaraGreen, a sustainable materials distributor, and other industry leaders weigh in throughout the series. This is Build Green Live Green.

In this episode, we will cover ways to develop a sustainable business model, like we have done at CaraGreen, and delve deeper into who we are as a distributor. We are here today with Jessica McNaughton and Kim Loftis of CaraGreen, our show's producer and sustainability think-tank.

JESSICA: Okay, starting back up for this new season of Build Green Live Green, this is Jessica.  

KIM: And this is Kim.  

JESSICA: We're excited to hear from you guys on new topic ideas that you want to hear from us in 2019. And we thought we'd start off with something we kind of didn't do in 2018, which is set the stage for “Who is CaraGreen?” and why do we think we have the right to do a podcast, and why do we think we're experts on this subject or some of the subjects that we've become experts on as part of this process. Kim, why don't you start with, kind of, your background and your involvement with CaraGreen, then I'll start talking about myself as well.  

KIM: Sure, yeah. So, my current position at CaraGreen is Director of Business Development and Marketing. I started out as a sales team member, so, I've kind of grown with the company over the past eight years. I have a degree in interior architecture, so, my background is in design. So, I really love, you know, learning about the sustainable products that we carry and working with architects and designers to find the perfect product for their projects and just seeing all the great new things that are happening, kind of, in our industry. It's really fun to, kind of, follow along with that, and being on the marketing side now, it's really fun to figure out how to get our product to market and how to, kind of, continue the sustainability and the trajectory of our company.  

JESSICA: Okay, and I'm Jessica McNaughton and I started out, similar to Kim, as the first salesperson at the company and have since moved through various roles and now in the role of president of CaraGreen. One of the things that was really important to me from the beginning of the company was to not be a traditional distributor and not have a traditional distribution model. That, to me, is kind of very pass-through, you know, stock material, sell material- didn't really seem to have a lot of value add. And having a technical background for me, really digging into the products and getting educated on them became a really big piece of that. So, as CaraGreen has evolved over time, we've really become experts in our field. Whether its sustainability, whether it's the type of material that we have- sintered stone is a great example, Lapitec, where we've really dug in and really tried to understand some of the technology behind it. Recycled products like the PaperStone, IceStone, Durat, elementAl and then some of the more innovative bio-based products like the Havelock Wool, Torzo, reSAWN Timber. So, we've really built this product line. We’ve spent that time really vetting those products and learning so much about them and it's made us experts in our field. You’re a LEED accredited professional, I am a LEED accredited professional.

KIM: Right.

JESSICA: Alyssa on our staff is both LEED and one of the first WELL accredited professionals in North Carolina. So, you know, we kind of think, at this point, given how we've developed over time, that we have the right to talk about these things and that we have the backgrounds where we can dig into them for the purposes of the podcast and speak about them intelligently.  

KIM: Right, yeah, and one of the things that we've tried to do, definitely starting last year and moving into this year, is being a thought leader, kind of, in the industry. So, we have a lot of different things that kind of come across our plate. So, we wanted to start the podcast as another avenue to get the information that we have learned and the experiences we've had out into the world. You know, we have our website, we have our blog, we have our sales team, but it's another format to get information to our audience. So again, like Jessica mentioned in the beginning, we really want to hear back from our audience on what some topics are that you'd like to hear from us about. We had a really successful podcast last year, so, thanks everybody for listening so far.  

JESSICA: So, one of the basis’s of our business that's, kind of, got us to this point is the selection of products and the choice of products that we've made over time. So, myself, along with you and the rest of the team, are very careful about which product we bring into our fold, because we feel like there's a lot of greenwashing out there, and as much as the word green has, you know, kind of, almost become a bad word and people think of it as, you know, everyone uses it so ubiquitously. Greenwashing has not gone away the way the green has. Greenwashing is still there. It’s still a term that's used. And, so, we've been very careful when we choose our products up front to put them through a rigorous process where they have to prove to us that they are truly, in fact, can back up all these claims basically that they're making about the products. So, our portfolio of products includes that vetting process that we've gone through. So, that process in itself allows us to become experts. So, we do a lot of training with the manufacturers. We do training before we decide to bring the product on. It’s an important part of the process to see if the salespeople truly can grasp all the key points and it's led us to the product portfolio that we have today, which, why don't you talk a little bit about the scope of that portfolio and really what applications they're suited for and which new applications were moving into?  

KIM: Yeah, yeah, so what you were mentioning before makes me think of when we present and we do our education presentations, we always say we have chosen the best-in-class materials. So, really going through that vetting process and making sure that we're finding the one that fits our portfolio, so they all make sense together. So, A & D come back to us-

JESSICA: A & D, just for our listeners, who-

KIM: Yeah, architects and designers, sorry about that. They come back to us and they know that they can trust in the materials that we have because of our reputation from before. But getting to your question, our products cover a very wide range of applications. If you look at our website, www.caragreen.com, we start out with the countertop’s category. We have interior cladding, insulation, acoustic products and we've recently moved into more exterior products. You mentioned Lapitec earlier, which is a sintered stone material, which covers both interior and exterior. reSAWN Timber covers interior and exterior. PaperStone now has an exterior cladding product. So, we're seeing ourselves, kind of, get into that category a little bit by accident, but it's a perfect transition for us considering the types of projects that a lot of our clients work on. So, it really runs the gamut of materials, we've had people build furniture out of our products. We’ve had people spec them on large university jobs. So, there's a very wide range of applications, project types, and materials themselves, and that goes aesthetically as well, things that look maybe a little bit more classic. We do have from Lapitec their veined materials that kind of look like the Carrara-marble style and then we have Durat solid surface, which comes in pink and purple and yellow. So, there's a huge range of aesthetics, applications, project types all covered there.  

JESSICA: And you mentioned education and I think that's a big part of how we came to be who we are. One of the first things that we did was develop an AIA Course, which is American Institute of Architects, and that's of course, they have to get continuing education credits. So, we developed a course where we could add value by coming in and teaching them about something relevant and a lot of companies, they'll have a thinly-veiled product pitch and we don't do that. We went out and said, “you know what, we're going to break down the LEED standard and we're going to go into architecture firms and present on the LEED standard,” because that truly had value to them. So, we would break down the materials section of LEED, which is Leadership and Environmental and Energy Design, I think I got the E's right. But we have continued and evolved in that area over time. Now we have over 10 AIA courses that we offer, everything from an entire course on wood, one on turning paper into stone, one on sintered stone, biomimicry, biophilic design and on and on. We have just kept evolving with our manufacturers. In fact, we've written several courses in the product category of our manufacturers to help them, so that we have, you know, all these avenues to go and truly add value. So, for me personally I don't feel comfortable just taking someone's money and giving them product. I don't think that that is the kind of personal value that I want to bring to a relationship with a customer. So, being able to add that value through education is really special to me as a person and I think it’s part of the underpinnings at CaraGreen that really make us who we are.

KIM: Yeah, and it's beneficial to both our audience and to us. Of course, that wouldn't be a very good business decision if it wasn't. But when we go in there and we have presentations that they truly, honestly want to hear about, they’re topics that they're really intrigued about, then they're really listening to us and they're things that we purposely make easy to transition back to our products. So, biophilic design, for instance, which we have a podcast episode on as well, that easily flows right into the products that we have in our portfolio and being able to help them achieve biophilic design or whatever the topic may be through the products that we carry.

JESSICA: Right, so, for architects and designers. their projects have certain criteria they have to meet these days, and a lot of times that is incorporating biophilic design or using biomimetic architecture, which is the biomimicry podcast that we did. So, we're providing a service and it is beneficial to them. But you're correct, it's beneficial to us because at the end of this presentation, we bring out 15 different categories of products that apply to the course they just learned about. So, at the end of the day, our goal for CaraGreen is to be the resource that they see for information on sustainable materials, for samples of sustainable materials. I want people going to our website to get answers to “what should I use in this sustainable application or in this healthy building,” and as healthy building becomes more and more popular, you know I'm hoping that, you know, CaraGreen more and more becomes that resource and we continue to evolve. So again, we ask our listeners: tell us what you want to hear about. Bring us those products that you want us to vet and we will vet those. In fact, our next podcast we're actually, I'm going to be interviewing Julia, who was one of the developers of the elementAl product, which just came on the market, and we want to ask her some questions about, you know, the ideas behind the product and so on. So, that’s our first foray into that. So, we welcome our audience to give us ideas. You know, we're evolving with you and, you know, you can help us continue to do that.

KIM: That makes me think of the product that we carry, Koskisen, as well, the beautiful plywood material, decorative plywood. We actually had an architect bring that product to us. He said, “have you ever heard of this stuff? You know we love it. It’s really beautiful, but we can't really figure out how to get.” So, we looked into it and we fell in love with it too and now we distribute it. So, we really do, kind of, rely on our community and hope that they rely on us to bring these things, kind of, to the forefront. Which, I think, kind of, brings us into product knowledge as well. We really pride ourselves on our sales team and our staff having a very high level of product knowledge, so that when people call us to ask questions or call us to order product, whatever the situation may be, we have the answers easily and we can explain things to them, you know, in a very easy way, so that they are understanding, and we get the point across. So, having that product knowledge is very important to us and you mentioned in the beginning when we bring on a new product, having those product trainings. It’s really crucial to have our staff trained on those and very educated.

JESSICA: Yep, I agree. It’s nice to loop back to, you know, we call ourselves a sustainable materials distributor and we truly are that. You know, we have a warehouse, we stock material, but it's that layer of value-add that we put on top of it that I think really differentiates us and a big part of that is in your group, the social media, the website, you know, the accounts that we manage, the imagery and the language that we use, our blog and our podcast. We are very progressive for a distributor. I mean, if you would benchmark us against most distributors of building products in the industry, we are head and shoulders above and we are trailblazing. So, one of our biggest challenges has been in kind of, “what do we do next,” and one of our issues has been, it's hard to know where to look because there's nobody who's in the exact same or close enough category that's doing the same thing. So, we find ourselves kind of at the forefront here, which is exciting. It also means we are going to make some mistakes. And the nice thing about CaraGreen, too, is we can re-trench and regroup and fix those very quickly. I call us “right-sized,” right? We are not too big, we are not too small. We are, you know, we have the resources that we need to do what we want to do you know at this point in time. So, you know the more products that we bring on, it's an incremental cost to us. Because the infrastructure is so streamlined. And speaking of that, do you want to talk about, kind of, the engine of CaraGreen, what sort of drives our productivity?

KIM: Yeah so, we have used a CRM software called Salesforce, which is, kind of like Jessica said, our engine that runs the company. It’s where we have all of our clients are added in there, all of our projects that we work in are in there. We have our sampling, all of our inventory. We basically keep track of everything that goes on in the company through that software. All of our employees have access to it. So, it's really crucial that they are part of that process and can assign tasks to each other. So, really, people go in, first thing they get in in the morning is to sign into Salesforce, see what tasks they have going on and kind of line up their day. Especially important for the sales team for them to figure out what appointments they have, make sure they're following up on projects. So, it also kind of keeps us ahead of the game and making sure that things are not falling through the cracks, were not forgetting about a sample that we sent out or a project deadline that we're trying to meet. It really keeps us on top of the game.

JESSICA: Yeah and I can say, you know, as management I've used it at times to really oversee people and, you know, its lack of use is a very good indicator of, you know, your productivity and it's resulted in some people's careers ending quickly. But no, I mean you're right. It does drive the company. To me it's like having another team of inside sales that's really managing the sales people. So, Salesforce like our education has evolved with us over time. We have done customizations to it, we've created modules on top of it that are really great for the building industry and in typical CaraGreen fashion, we’re very much partners and we often share those changes that we've made with our partners so that they can run their businesses better, too. So, you know I would encourage, you know, anyone who's got questions about Salesforce and its implementation in the building materials space to talk to us about that because, you know, our system is 10 years in the making, it's all online. It’s all easily replicated by another company if they wanted too, but we've really, I think used it, honed in on how we need to use it.

KIM: Yeah and you mentioned something about management, and I think that that is a really important level that we have gotten to in Salesforce. Putting all your information in there is one thing, but then being able to then run reports off of that that we can use internally or use externally. I know that you use them a lot to send out to manufacturers. So, it's a really helpful tool for us from a day-to-day perspective, but then sometimes, like at the end of the year, we're always running reports trying to see where, you know, opportunities are, trying to see how much material we've sold or how much is specified. It even helps us figure out how much inventory we need to order. So, there's a huge spectrum of problems that it helps us address and solve.

JESSICA: At the end of the day, I think we're a really kind of fun, cohesive group of people that all have different personalities, all have different skills and strengths and we've really worked hard to, kind of, optimize those and come together and, you know, we laugh a lot, we make fun of each other, we applaud each other when the time is right, which for me is probably less often it should be. But I think that at the end of the day, you know, we call ourselves a distributor. We are an educator, we're a marketing company for our brands. We are, I would say, the predominant sustainable building material distributor, certainly in the eastern United States.

KIM: Yeah, I actually want to expand on that marketing piece just a little bit. So, for some of the brands that are maybe smaller brands that have a really great product, but they're not quite sure how to get it out to market, we have really taken on those brands, kind of as our little babies, and developed them into a bigger brand by coming up with the marketing terminology, coming up with branding, coming up with external marketing pieces that really help explain what the material is, etcetera. So, we really try to help build those brands up, because we believe in them and we believe in the sustainability aspect and getting those things out to market and making them available. And then for some of the bigger brands that maybe already are established, like Lapitec is a massive brand in Europe, but in the US, they're not as well-known. So, we're kind of doing something different for them than what we have done for, say, PaperStone or for Koskisen, so it varies by product. We really do, you know, bring those products on and try to do the best that we can for them, like we've talked about kind of traditional distributors don't add that value. So, we really try to add value to the design community, to the manufacturing side, as well, when we bring on these partners.

JESSICA: Okay, so, we're CaraGreen, you know, we’re a distributor by name, but we add value as an educator, as a marketing resource, as a technical sales team, technical marketing and inside sales team. So, and as a partner. I would say that is one of the strongest attributes we bring, as CaraGreen, to our relationships with our partners, is we are partners and we are friends. So, CaraGreen means friend of green and this is Jessica.

KIM: And this is Kim. Thanks for listening today.

For a written manuscript of this episode as well as supporting resources, visit our website at www.caragreen.com/podcast. Want to know more about a specific industry related topic? Shoot us an email at social@caragreen.com. 

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