• Palgrave Macmillan
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Merchants of Virtue

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Q & A with Bill Birchard 

Why did you name the book Merchants of Virtue? 

I had long wanted to write a book about a company that served as a role model for a well-run, profitable, environmentally friendly, socially responsible corporation. I found what I was looking for in Herman Miller, Inc.: People at Herman Miller want to do the right thing and do something that matters. That seemed virtuous to me, and that gave me the title. 

What does Merchants of Virtue offer that other books on sustainability don’t? 

Merchants tells the story of one company that has managed itself well on all fronts, from product development to manufacturing to waste handling to marketing. Many authors select stories from various companies to show how, collectively, industry can master all the full range of practices necessary for sustainable operations. Herman Miller has gone a long way toward mastering all of them, and Merchants shows how they did it.  

What do you mean by “sustainability”? 

For a company, sustainability means operating with no long-term impact on the health of the planet or its people. The definition widely recognized by business comes from a U.N. commission report from 1987. The commission defined “sustainable development” as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” That’s the definition Herman Miller adopted, and many others have also. Many people today have expanded the definition to include a wide range of benefits to the communities and society in which we live. The short definition of sustainability is leaving the planet as good as we got it, for the benefit of our children and grandchildren. 

How does your story of Herman Miller story start? 

It starts at the end of the 1980s, when the materials people at Herman Miller discovered the company was using wood from endangered tropical forests. In fact, the company’s signature product, the Eames Lounge Chair, was made with Brazilian rosewood veneer. In that era, every newspaper and magazine decried the loss of Brazilian forests to ranchers burning the trees to create cattle farms. Over a year’s time, two people within Herman Miller did their homework and talked the company’s CEO into banning the use of any wood from forests without sustainable logging practices.  

What is the most amazing part of the Merchants of Virtue story? 

The transformation of the company’s product development work. Herman Miller set out to make products out of totally recycled materials—and in addition use materials that customers can easily recycle. This “cradle to cradle” approach, developed by Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart, appealed to Herman Miller’s R&D people as the right concept for achieving sustainability. It mimics the cycles of nature, in which everything that dies and decays becomes a nutrient for something new. With cradle to cradle thinking, worn-out products don’t get buried at a landfill or burned in an incinerator. They become feedstock for new materials, with nothing lost but energy from the sun. This is a breakthrough.   

What’s Herman Miller’s biggest accomplishment? 

Making a profit while operating sustainably. Along with running sustainably, Herman Miller has developed a model system of financial management. Most companies get faulted for “going green” while forgetting about the green of money. Not so at Herman Miller. The company focuses on—and rewards its people for—making money for shareholders. Company CEOs have focused on this goal in spite of two punishing recessions, the dot-com bust and the global financial crisis. The company lost a staggering 40 percent of its sales twice in one decade—unprecedented. The story of staying profitable while becoming environmentally responsible is one of the more amazing parts of the book.   

Who was the most interesting person you met while researching the book? 

I never met him, but I got to know company founder D.J. De Pree through his many papers, speeches, and the management legacy he left. De Pree, who died in 1990, had a knack for hiring good people and letting them show their natural brilliance. Today the company reflects his thinking and values, which were carried on and refined by his two sons, first Hugh and then Max. I like to quote Max: “The measure of individuals—and so of corporations—is the extent to which we struggle to complete ourselves, the energy we devote to living up to our potential.” Living up to a person’s potential—how many companies really let people do that?   

What’s the most important point in the book? 

One of the biggest hurdles to creating a sustainable society is figuring out how to sustainably manufacture products. How do we make cars and chairs and toys and computers with no harm to the planet? All this “stuff”—buildings full of it—creates impacts in manufacture, use, and disposal. How do we eliminate this triple whammy? Herman Miller shows that you can do this with the cradle-to-cradle protocol. The point, though, is bigger than one of technology. It is that, with ingenuity, we can continue to make stuff and have a healthy planet, too. This is hard work, but we can do it.  

What’s another key point in the book? 

One of the complaints by the public is that most “sustainable” companies operate sustainably only superficially. They are greenwashers. So how does a company become genuinely sustainable? At Herman Miller, the secret is that management insists on the values and culture of sustainability. Executives today take their cue from the founding De Pree family. The De Prees felt you had to do the right thing, take care of the community, and steward God’s resources. Everyone who joins Herman Miller learns this, and they are told they have the permission to act on these values, even if it sometimes costs money. People with permission to do the right thing do amazing things to improve the world.  

What’s your favorite anecdote from the book? 

In 1995, a Japanese manufacturing guru known as Mr. Ohba visited one of Herman Miller’s plants. The plant managers had planned to take Ohba on a tour, to show him the smart things they were doing. Instead, Ohba took the managers on a tour. At the end, he talked privately with two of the plant’s top people. At the time, the plant operated with 2 assembly lines, 3 shifts, and 126 people. Ohba took a marker and wrote on the board: 1 line, 2 shifts, 16 people. If the plant runs well, he said, you can make the same amount of stuff with a fraction of the time and effort. Ohba blew away the engineers with this ambition. But like a modern-day Yoda, he guided them to success. A remarkable feat. It took 10 years. But with lean manufacturing, Herman Miller now makes “stuff” with far fewer materials, less energy, and a fraction of the waste of 15 years ago.   

How long did you work on the book? 

I approached Herman Miller in the fall of 2008 about getting access to the company’s people and archives. I was proposing a “warts and all” story about their journey to sustainability. That was of course right after the big financial panic, and the company was laying off people as sales plunged, and the timing for doing interviews was not good. In spring 2009, I did get the go-ahead to start so I could get enough material to do a book proposal. I did 25 interviews. When all was said and done, my agent was able to submit the proposal to publishers in summer of 2009. I signed with Palgrave Macmillan in January 2010 and then finished the first draft around Thanksgiving.  

What approach did you take to writing the book? 

I wanted from the start to write a work of narrative nonfiction. There are many books about how to run a company sustainably. But none are written by a journalist that tell how just one company traveled the road to sustainability. I wanted to tell that single-company story, and tell it through the eyes of the people who made it happen, recounting their ups and downs, hopes and fears, successes and failures. I felt a narrative book would make the lessons of sustainability all the more accessible and interesting to learn.  

What most surprised you when you wrote the book? 

The openness of the people at Herman Miller. At most companies, people hesitate to tell you much about the inside story of their business, especially the mistakes they made. At Herman Miller, people were pretty forthright. The company has been through tough times, laid off a lot of people, closed plants, cancelled projects. But the people I talked to at opened themselves up far more than at most companies. They also shared their records with me to see documentary evidence of what really happens inside a company.  

Where can I learn more? 

Buy the book at your local bookstore… 


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