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A Conversation with Jeff Shay of Rejuvenation

A little while ago, I had the pleasure of a short interview with Jeff Shay, Engineering Manager and Environmental & Safety Officer at Rejuvenation. For those not familiar…

Rejuvenation began in 1977 as an architectural salvage shop in a derelict North Portland saloon. Jim Kelly, who still owns the privately held company, began the business with $1,000 and an eye for discarded architectural treasures. When business was slow, Kelly rebuilt vintage light fixtures found amidst the castoffs. Demand for the fixtures grew until eventually Kelly began manufacturing period-authentic lighting in his Portland factory for customers throughout the United States.

Today, Rejuvenation is America’s largest manufacturer and leading direct marketer of authentic reproduction lighting and house parts. Rejuvenation products are made-to-order and sold through the company’s catalogue, website, and retail stores in Portland, Ore. and Seattle, Wash.”

More about the company history…

Given their ties to the Arts & Crafts movement which has had the concept of sustainability and appreciation of quality materials infused in its value system for over 100 years, I wanted to understand more about what their thoughts were on this “new fangled ‘green’ movement.” Below are some of the Q&A’s from that conversation.

What is Rejuvenation’s philosophy on sustainability?

Rejuvenation has been reticent to talk about how we operate or participate in the “larger world” or to the customer because we’ve been sensitive to companies that greenwash.

Side bar: Greenwashing is a relatively new term for me, as I’m just getting into this subject. But I can understand what he is talking about. When you see things like Monsanto talking about how green they are….you have to pause a moment. Check this out.

It’s difficult to come up with a message that makes sense when you are in the middle of it (the creation of something). Craftsmanship is a component of that in what we do. For us, the sustainability aspect has its roots in liberal politics. Jim is a fairly left leaning person and has built a business that reflects his values and interests.

At its core, Rejuvenation is a manufacturer and gets regulated so we have to keep track of the environmental impacts. We have always been aware of the environmental side of things. We’re in a an unusual position in that the engineering manger is the environmental & safety officer—so there isn’t much of a sell job necessary.”

Does Rejuvenation speak publically as influencers?

Members of the management team teach classes and give lectures. We also provide tour groups through the factory

Who do you talk to? What are some of the topics you concentrate on?

We speak to fair number of architects and specifiers, manufacturing folks and pollution prevention conferences 

We talk about the process we went through to integrate sustainability. We worked with the Department of Environmental Quality and the Bureau of Environmental Services  to create a tool to do an environmental assessment of your business. This effort resulted in a rating tool based on the Natural Step Framework for businesses to objectively rate themselves.

Often when discussing the environment, you are really discussing your personal values. These debates tend to get reduced to emotional discussions v remaining fact-based. Being somewhat biased toward process and science, I appreciate the objectivity this brings to a business conversation. It cuts right to the important issues.     

Businesses that go through the value stream mapping and process flow mapping have learned valuable lessons they were able to apply to their businesses which immediately saved them money. People hear process flows, and they think it’s just for big business, but small businesses are prone to growing organically. They get out there and start doing their thing and wake up one day and ask “how did we get here?” At the very least, it will cause businesses to dissect what they want to do, and a map to go do it.

How does Rejuvenation apply the triple bottom line towards its people?

We believe in fairness to workers, etc. The Natural Step Framework is the first sort of environmental/philosophical thing that I’ve run into that included the people component. From a purely pragmatic standpoint, if you are asking someone to pick your cause while they are trying to put food on the table for their kids – I can tell you which one is going to win. It shouldn’t be a choice, but a way of doing business. We as a company have a history of trying to attend to that sort of thing.

We look at vendors for environmental and working conditions and don’t do business with companies that aren’t within our value system. We have a luxury–that our goods have a reasonable margin. If we were in the cut throat business of Intel servers we might not.

We have internal debates around what the components of a good work place. Fair wage, decent benefits, health care—which for a business our size is very difficult to provide.  We try and provide other benefits, for example: home buying benefit to help out with first time home buyers. Could we do more, maybe – but we always have to keep in mind that we can’t do good business if we’re out of business

How has remaining a privately held company influenced your thinking about the rate at which a company needs to maintain growth?

I do think that the Wall Street shareholder set up is the very worst thing you can do to business. There is no question that if we weren’t private there are things we couldn’t do; or had we done those things, they might become some public relations exercise. 

Some public companies spend more time managing messaging than really getting the things done that they intended. Being private affords that ability without the pressure of shareholders demanding a particular revenue number, without thought to what is getting created or its overall impact.

Last thoughts on Greenwashing? Do you think it’s just another phase? Do Americans have the attention span to make change?

I don’t like the idea of a company “going green” because it’s the new hot thing. Now, there is at least a little bit of a realization that no one is exempt from playing their part in realizing their impact on the world. As a country, we have some huge structural issues that will make green hard to adopt the way it was in Europe. The power structures here don’t hold those values. Companies are doing it bc it makes good business sense, and nothing more. It makes sense to adopt from a bottom line perspective.

Attention span? Well, it would need to be mandated over several generations for it to take, but I believe it can change. Our reputation (here in Oregon) for being lefty and strange is founded in reality in many ways, and it’s taken 2-3 generations for that reputation to stick. Take Oregon and Washington as examples. We should be more alike given our proximity; it goes back to the ‘60s when we had a progressive government and a legislature that worked together, unlike the folks up north.

Globalization will force it. The multinationals will have to deal with it whether they like it or not. When you are talking about global manufacturing, it doesn’t make sense to make different products for everyone. You make the same for both (countries) and you make them to the higher standard (in this case, sustainable).

Do you think Rejuvenation will face the same sort of competition others have from China (or other cheaper markets)?

Rejuvenation doesn’t compete with products from China. Our customers  are very knowledgeable about what they are looking for. In some cases, know more about our products than we do. They are looking for quality materials and a particular craftsmanship. Mass market products don’t provide that.

About Jeff Shay

Jeff has “a couple of old degrees in science.”  He started at Rejuvenation fifteen years ago on the sales floor as a day job,  after getting a degree in Fine Arts. When asked if he could supply a few power points of previous presentations, there was a slight pause. “I don’t do powerpoints, I talk. When I’m forced to do them, my wife (an IBM veteran) helps me.” Then he pointed me to his favorite presentation: The Gettysburg Address.

Point taken.

Links:

-          Oregon Natural Step Framework The Oregon Natural Step Network (the Network) was formed to support Oregon business, governmental, and educational organizations interested in using The Natural Step (TNS) framework for sustainability. The Network is a membership organization open to interested organizations and individuals.

About the Author: Christine Haskell

Christine is a Senior Program Manager at Microsoft with several years experience in the .com industry. She recently started social venture labs, an idea incubator for those leading small mission-driven businesses or organizations looking to create relationships, share ideas and [...]