Redefining the Supply Chain: An Interview with Gaylon White, Part 1

Posted on 04. Nov, 2009 by in Business & Policy, Clean Tech, Design & Culture, Entrepreneurship, Interviews

Gaylon White

Those who have worked side by side with this man have said the experience is better than any MBA you can get. He knows how to forge unusual yet productive partnerships, anticipate needs and developments, and create value for every player at the table. To me, the interesting thing about Gaylon White is that he understands the power of stories, not just the ones in words but those told in a visual language that “appeals to the sensualist side of every designer,” according to I.D. Magazine, and every consumer too for that matter. He started out as a sportswriter and then made his way into the corporate world, all the while developing his ability to distill a complex set of data points into something people can understand and relate to. Now he’s Director of Design Programs for Eastman Chemical Company, and has spearheaded a terrific series of collaborations with some of the premier design firms in the country.  These kinds of projects have resulted in a shortening of the gap between the very beginning of the supply chain and the very end, by connecting raw materials to the finalized products they will become. Read on to learn more.

OG: What’s it like being in Appalachia? Eastman is located in the Appalachian Mountains, right?

Gaylon: Yes, we’re in Tennessee, just north of Asheville, NC, and it’s a beautiful, verdant part of the country. It connects with an area where Eastman has an excellent record and tradition because we are in a very scenic part of the country and the plant is located right on the Holston River, so we’ve done a lot of things that are progressive in the area of environmental responsibility. The people who work here live here, and most of them are from here. We were established in 1920 as part of Kodak and spun off in 1994, so we were part of Kodak for 75 years and we’ve been independent for 15 years. There is this history of being very sensitive and mindful of the environment and trying to do the right thing, and I think our record of environmental responsibility is second to none in the chemical industry.

OG: It makes sense that having the natural environment around you inspires you to respect the earth more than being in a city.

Gaylon: Absolutely. We were one of only two chemical companies in Newsweek’s top 100 green rankings. If you look at the other top 100, they are not involved in an industry such as ours. It’s a steeper hill we need to climb, being a raw material supplier, but I think Eastman does a good job in that area. Because I’m not one who would work for just any company. My background in journalism, and I bring a broader perspective than just dealing with the manufacturing side of things.

OG: Actually, I’d love to hear about your background, and how you got to where you are today.

Gaylon: My degree is in journalism broadcasting, I started my career as a sportswriter for the Denver Post, the Arizona Republic, and then I also worked for a newspaper in Oklahoma City. Then I went into magazines, edited a city magazine in Kansas, and while doing that I did a story on Christmas cards celebrities send, and that landed me an interview at Hallmark. They offered me a job in PR, I had no idea what PR was, but I took that job, worked there for five years, and learned a lot. Then I went to Goodyear and worked in PR, and then got into speechwriting. I was the speech writer for the CEO at that time. Then I went to Control Data Corp and did speechwriting there, so I was involved in that for about 11 years, starting in ’84 at Goodyear, and then I joined Eastman in ‘92 as a speechwriter. So that background as a journalist and then in the corporate world as a speechwriter, what that’s done for me is help me distill the complexity you encounter in the business world and communicate it in a much more succinct fashion. It’s also helped me bring the storytelling perspective to Eastman as it pertains to design. When I think about my background, from sportswriting to now, the Eastman Innovation Lab website telling stories about designers, it really all comes down to storytelling, that’s the one common thread.

OG: Tell me about the Singapore project you did.

Gaylon: One of the things I wanted to do was work overseas, so they gave me the chance to establish a communications function for the Asia-Pacific region, and their headquarters were in Singapore. While I was creating that position, the opportunities I had in the region weren’t your traditional marketing, public relations, and communications, or market development. Rather, it was sort of a hybrid. So, I really used my communication skills to work with companies over there, in creating opportunities both for Eastman and for them. That led me to believe something similar could be done in the US. At that time, this was ’97-’99, when I was out in Singapore and working with companies throughout the region in China, Japan, Malaysia, and Australia, I looked around and saw that we needed to do something differently in the US to better understand the markets we were trying to play in. I saw of course what GE plastics was doing with designers at that time, they were very closely connected with the design community, they were doing road shows and other things with designers that educated them about their materials and also helped them in the product development process. At the time, around 1999-2000, Eastman wasn’t doing anything with design, in fact we had no understanding of what designers did or how we could benefit from what they do. So by learning about what GE Plastics was doing, I decided that there was an opportunity for us there, but we didn’t have as broad a portfolio of materials and we’re a much smaller company, so we’ve got to do thing differently. So I really started going to school with the educators, one of my first conversations was with the head of industrial design at Auburn University, and in turn he recommended that I contact the Industrial Designers Society of America, IDSA. I also contacted some polymer schools, Ferris State University, Ball State University, to understand how or what polymer schools were doing to work with design schools. They weren’t doing anything then, and they’re not doing anything now, which is a gap. But I quickly realized that this opportunity for us wasn’t all that different from what I had been doing in Asia, and that was using my communication and journalistic skills to identify stories and convince the people we were working with to work on developing those stories. The only difference is in Asia I wasn’t working with designers, here in the US I was.

OG: Nothing interests me more than when the fusion of old ideas and concepts results in something completely new and different, and that sounds like it describes just what you did, both in Asia and then at home. Can you describe how you were able to perceive this opportunity or need for something new?

Gaylon: It was relatively simple, really. If you sit in meetings with people chasing their tails trying to find new markets for their products, and identify new applications, and this is not for lack of intelligence, what we ultimately lacked was market insight that we get from our connection to the design community. That was really the light that came on in my mind: we’ve gotta establish a connection with these people who will give us insight we can’t otherwise access. I was reading stories in the press as well as looking at GE Plastics and saw that designers were gaining an influence. We’re a raw materials company, we make the pellets that then go to converters, that then extrude this plastic into products or packaging, and our fibers and materials are also in many cases ingredients that go into other things–we’re way back at the very beginning of the value chain. One of the key things we were missing, in many cases, was that we didn’t know where our products were going. We weren’t sure how they were being used. Designers of course are at the very end of the value chain, they’re working with brand owners, developing a final product or package, and they’re influencing if not specifying the materials that go into the product. So our very simple objective was, “How do we get our materials selected or at least considered at the front end rather than the back end?” Because traditionally what happens with materials is that they are the last thing to be considered seriously, after everything else. Often times products aren’t what they could be, because though they are in effect the DNA of the product or package, they’re not given the kind of front end consideration they need. And designers have come to recognize that too, so what’s happening now is that we’re getting calls from designers early in the process, so we can know help designers pick a material that will enables them in their design rather than dictating it.

OG: This process of doing collaborative projects with design firms and getting involved in the process early on, it really seems like a co-evolution, almost a natural process, that seems to make sense on a fundamental level. Why aren’t more companies aren’t doing this?

Gaylon: It’s a good question, and there’s no easy answer. Let me go back to the first couple design projects we did. One was a happy accident with Tom Dixon, a furniture designer in the UK, he’s well known for his work with Habitat. He wanted to create a line of furniture that he wound up calling Fresh, Fat Plastics. He wanted a material that could demonstrate how precious plastic is–there’s a lot of technology that goes into a plastic and he wanted to showcase that and turn it into a work of art, something that could be as cherished as a product made out of crystal. This line features Eastman’s copolyester material, and it really looks like glass. Tom is good at stretching boundaries and putting materials to extreme tests, almost destroying them in some cases, that’s in his own words what he likes to do. That was one project, and it did give us valuable insight. In particular, Tom was one of the first to notice that our cellulosic family of materials, these are plastics made out of wood pulp, had a great sustainability story. This was in 2002-2003 when sustainability was just beginning to emerge as a benefit for companies, but it wasn’t being articulated. He also helped us realize how valuable this material could be to designers.

Also in 2002, we did an eyewear project with IDEO, and there we saw how materials and design could advance each other. It was a good example of worlds colliding, because here we were, a somewhat conservative manufacturing company based in Appalachia, northeast Tennessee, and IDEO was working extensively in Silicon Valley, well known for their high-tech work–it was two entirely different worlds. So this project taught us how to communicate more effectively with designers, how to understand their thinking, and also gave us a great lesson about how our materials can affect the heart as well as the head. In turn, IDEO learned a lot about materials, I don’t think they had ever worked that closely with a materials company. So both sides learned. Ultimately these projects were instrumental in learning the importance of collaborating with the design community.

OG: Many thanks to Gaylon, and stay tuned for Part 2!

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One Response to “Redefining the Supply Chain: An Interview with Gaylon White, Part 1”

  1. [...] That story reminds me of one of Karen’s favorite people, Gaylon White [see our article here], who works for the chemical company Eastman, which is a raw materials company, so they don’t [...]

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