Interview: Michael Gorey, President of Firestone Building Products Company, Talks About "Making It Right," and Phasing Out PVC

Bill Walsh - March 31, 2005

Today, March 31, 2005, Firestone Building Products Company[1] will take its last order of PVC roofing membrane. In October 2004, the company announced it would phase out its PVC offerings in conjunction with a major expansion of its Thermoplastic polyolefin (TPO) lines to meet the demands of the "cool roof" market for white, reflective single-ply roofing membranes.[2] This represents some six thousand tons of PVC production annually. Based in Carmel, Indiana, Firestone Building Products is the world's largest manufacturer of commercial roofing systems and products including EPDM, thermoplastic and asphalt-based roofing systems, polyiso insulation and accessories for the commercial roofing industry.

Michael Gorey: I'm a second-generation Firestone man. I grew up in Akron, Ohio, "rubber capital of the world." I've spent most of my career with the company, serving most recently as the vice president of finance and controller for Bridgestone Americas Holding, Inc. (BSA), which includes Bridgestone/Firestone brand tires as well as the Diversified Products division. For a little over a year now I've been CEO of Diversified Products, one of the four divisions of BSA. We produce Firestone air springs, roofing materials, synthetic rubber, and industrial fibers and textiles. I'm also president of the Building Products Company, which offers roofing systems and accessories.

HBN: In your first year on the job you decided to phase out PVC roofing membranes. Your press release attributed that decision in part to "the overall company strategy to manufacture environmentally responsible" products. That's a bold move for a leader in the industrial products business.

GOREY: The decision was reached during a mid-term planning process with our senior leadership team. We reviewed all of our products and services against five criteria. Environmental friendliness is one of them, along with things like cost and availability of essential resources, customer satisfaction and global competitiveness. After a lot of discussion we reached the unanimous decision that we would better serve the commercial roofing market by focusing and expanding our TPO manufacturing capabilities. The environmental advantages include avoiding plasticizer migration, the elimination of halogens, and reduced technical barriers to post-consumer recycling in the future.

HBN: This decision distinguishes Firestone as an environmental leader in the building products industry. Other companies, many of which promote themselves as green manufacturers much more aggressively than Firestone does, have been agonizing over the PVC question for years, hedging their bets, even the US Green Building Council. Your decision, on the other hand, put tens of millions of dollars in sales at risk since some of your largest customers specify PVC roofs, Wal-Mart for example. How are you able to reconcile the environmental and business sense of this decision when so many other companies have failed?

GOREY: We concluded that there is a strong business case for the decision as well as an environmental case, and both are consistent with our business model. We think long term, and our mantra is "making it right." We are comfortable adding a margin of safety, performance and environmental quality to all of our products, typically at some additional cost, believing that this will build long-term confidence with our customer base. Continuously improving the environmental performance of our products is part of "making it right." That's why environmental performance is one of the five review criteria on the radar of senior management. As for TPO, it has a strong record of performance in the field, its sales are now growing faster than PVC sales and we confidently offer our customers the same warranty and service we offered with PVC. It's the right move from every way we look at it.

HBN: I've been engaged in environmental advocacy for almost as long as you've been selling synthetic rubber products. Our conversation seems to represent a generational shift in the dialogue between corporate executives and environmental advocates. Not to overstate the case, but there seems to be a shared vocabulary now that didn't exist before.

GOREY: I'm not much older than you. I've come of age with the environmental movement. I've recycled everything I can at home for as long as I can remember. I can see that the planet is going through a significant change. I've traveled enough to observe worse impacts in places that don't have the benefit of environmental policies that have been put into place over time in this country. Now with global warming, it's clear we are playing catch up. From my small corner of the world, I want to do what I can. For example, just yesterday I was learning about photovoltaic panels. I'm thinking now about how Firestone might work with building owners, contractors, installers to aggressively integrate solar photovoltaic panels into roofing installations. That way our business will be prepared, we will have a business case, to support renewable energy. I would like to see more incentives to building owners to invest in renewable energy

HBN: You have emphasized that environmental performance of your products is as important as things like global competitiveness and availability of resources. With oil nearing $60 a barrel, do you think these criteria are becoming more and more related?

GOREY: Yes. It could be that in a year we look fondly upon the good old days of $60 a barrel petroleum, and it's not just oil. Growing economies like China and India are creating enormous pressures on the price and availability of many commodities essential to our business. All the while, environmental issues are making customers more conscious of the impacts of our businesses and our products. By integrating our analysis of these conditions, I expect we will put our company in a strong position to succeed in the tougher competitive environment that is foreseeable. TPO, for example, uses much less petroleum than traditional asphalt roofing products.

HBN: Can you envision a time when the commercial roofing industry, like the carpet industry, could commit to a goal 100% recycling of their product and take back old material as a matter of routine when installing new roofs?

GOREY: I don't think anyone knows more about single-ply roofing than our technical staff, so if anyone could do it, they could. But it would be premature to make that commitment. We are also working hard on the prospects for extended use of our EPDM membranes. There are high technological barriers to recycling vulcanized rubber, I know that from the tire business. One way or another, we plan on being an industry leader in conservation and environmental policy.

HBN: I don't think we could find a better place to end than that.


OTHER NEWS

CITY OF SEATTLE REJECTS PVC PIPE IN FAVOR OF ENVIRONMENTALLY FRIENDLY CHOICE
The Healthy Building Network applauds the decision by the City of Seattle to substitute 34,000 feet of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipe with high-density polyethylene (HDPE). The HDPE pipe will be used for drainage in a sports park. The decision to reject PVC, initiated by Seattle's Department of Parks and Recreation, is a part of the City's 2002 Purchasing Resolution to reduce or eliminate the purchase of products that result in the creation or release of persistent, bioaccumulative, toxins (PBTs), including PVC building materials.

Seattle's official announcement on March 28 cited concerns with PVC manufacturing and disposal, which are major sources of dioxin, a known human carcinogen.


Footnotes

[2] See the press release "Firestone Building Company Announces Phase-Out of PVC Roofing" (October 2004) in HBN's PVC News section


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