Podcast: Lee Clark-Sellers, Innovation at Ply Gem

Lee Clark-Sellers
Lee Clark-Sellers, Ply Gem

Not only is innovation perhaps one of the most overused words in business, it also might be one of the most misunderstood.

Many people think of innovation as “eureka” moments. It’s not. Those are “eureka” moments. Instead, as you’ll hear, innovation requires purpose, design, process, and, yes, the room to take some chances.

Lee Clark-Sellers is the Innovation Officer at Ply Gem Industries. Sellers is systematically integrating innovation into the all areas of the company. And if you don’t think you can find innovation in the exterior building products industry, well, that may be another misunderstanding.


Transcript: Lee Clark-Sellers

Chris Riback: Innovation might be the most overused word in business, but it also might be the most important. So let’s start with the definition. What’s your definition for innovation?

Lee Clark-Sellers: I have to reflect on the first comment you said, the “Innovation, the most overused word in the business.” I just did a quick search on this yesterday and there was about 1.3 billion references online about innovation, and this morning there was 1.7 billion.

Chris Riback: Wow.

Lee Clark-Sellers: I’m going to do this tomorrow, and I’m just going to see how much this grows day over day. I completely agree. The term “innovation”, very very widely used. It’s interesting, we use it so much. But then the question is, “How much do we actually do with it?”

So, when I think of innovation, I think of innovation as a mindset. I think of it as a mindset that you want to challenge the status quo. That you are observing, you’re networking, whether it’s within your company, your industry, or out of your industry. It’s to develop and implement, which is key, is to implement something that’s value add to somebody. So that could be a solution, it could be a product, it could be a business model. So that’s the way that I look at innovation as a term.

Chris Riback: Ply Gem is building products, building materials, and it’s not necessarily the area that a layperson or an outsider, like me, might think of when we think innovation. What’s the reaction you get when you say that you are Head of Innovation in this sector?

Lee Clark-Sellers: You’re correct about the building industry. I can’t even remember how long we’ve been building homes out of wood.

Chris Riback: Yes.

Lee Clark-Sellers: It doesn’t seem to be, on the surface, and industry that changes much, but there is actually quite a bit of change. When I look at Ply Gem, I look at the building industry, some of the changes and some of the ways that I see innovation being used is that, if I look at the industry today of housing, there’s some key challenges. One of those is labor. How do you find enough labor, whether it’s manufacturing, or the building of homes? So when I look at how we design products, one of the key things I look at is how do I design for install? So, as we design products, we’re very careful to make sure as we’re designing these products, they’re easy to install.

One of the other challenges is affordability of building today. So again, it goes back to, how can we create materials that are sustainable, materials that are durable, that are less expensive to be installed. Then I think the other way we effect innovation in this industry is, in housing, the cost of ownership is very important. So you want to minimize the cost of ownership to homeowners. So when we look at the exterior of a house, we look at it in terms of how can we make this the most energy efficient? How can we make this the most durable from some of our siding products, or our roofing products?

So that’s where we bring in innovation, so it’s not just a product, but it’s also understanding the long term use of the product, how the product is installed, how the product is even shipped to site. We take all of that into account as we’re looking at delivering a better value to our customer or to the homeowner.

Chris Riback: In your role at Ply Gem, do you see yourself as a connector? Are you a catalyzer? Must all innovation come out of your brain? How do you think about your role, and how do you describe what you do?

Lee Clark-Sellers: Yes, so when I look at my role, one way I think of it is I work with a company so that the company itself is ambidextrous. It’s basically that we’ve got to have the business units focused on that day to day innovation, as to what can they do to hit that requirement of the customer, to get the product out there on time, with quality, that we can address the shareholders requirement of profitability. So, we’ve got a lot of requirements on a business unit. That is a day to day issue. As part of my role within Ply Gem is how do we put forward structures, processes, methods back into the business units so that that type of day to day innovation can be successful. That’s sponsoring challenges, it’s sponsoring different projects within the business units. So that’s where I see my role as helping to facilitate those activities, and drive those activities.

And then on the flip side, as a company, we always have to be looking at those things that aren’t just one to two years out, that are more three to five years out. That requires a dedicated focus. That requires someone to be looking and focused, certainly outside our industry. Looking at trends, looking at technologies. What’s happening, what’s changing outside the industry that we could bring into our industry. So from that part, my role is actually leading what we call our Innovation Center.

It’s a startup group that we create to flesh out new ideas. These can be very different from what the business units do today. So you have both sides of it. So you have that day to day innovation, and then you have that innovation that certainly has to look longer term, that’s fundamentally different from what the rest of the company is doing.

Chris Riback: Talk to me about that, and about bringing in some of those outside ideas. Because, obviously, as we discussed, when most of us think about innovation, we may think about Apple or Google or Silicon Valley or Bangalore, or in different places around the world. I think I understand the first half of what you’re saying, that part of your role is to help integrate or help advance everyday innovation in the standard operation procedures of your business units. Understood. That’s key. At the same time, you just described you’re bringing in and figuring out ways to integrate ideas and insights from outside of the sector, and bringing them into Ply Gem, and into your industry. Give me an example of one or two of those.

Lee Clark-Sellers: So, that part of what we do really starts the strong ecosystem. So we have to have an ecosystem that we have a couple of universities that we work with. We have a couple of technology partners. We have partners than can go out and do market landscaping, technology landscaping for us around certain subjects that we’re interested in. Then we have our vendors we work with and our customers. So they all create a strong ecosystem that we pull from.

Then one of the areas that I have within the team is that they usually have come from outside industries. So they are pulling in their experience, and their backgrounds into the discussion as well. So, you have to be looking certainly within the industry, but absolutely outside the industry, and that is done just through your ecosystem, and making sure that you’ve got a healthy, diverse group of companies, of individuals that you can go out and ask for collaboration, depending on which area that you are going to be focused on.

Chris Riback: That’s got to be fun. I mean, I’m sure a lot of what you do is fun. A lot of what you do, like any job, it requires energy and might be tiring, but that’s got to be fun, that part of it.

Lee Clark-Sellers: Well, it is. I mean, a lot of people look at innovation and they say, “Hey, you’ve got the fun job.” It’s down and dirty as well. It is looking through a lot of information, trying to understand what’s a fad. What’s going to be here today, gone tomorrow, versus what’s going to be long-lived. What’s actually going to be affecting us in the future. You also have to be able to identify those areas that just aren’t going to be successful, and stop them. That can be hard. You’ve got to figure out how you don’t demotivate a team by stopping a project.

So there’s actually quite a bit of change management that happens within this role, and I find it, for me personally, it’s a very high-energy role, and that’s what drives me. It can be one that can be very frustrating to people. You start out in one direction, yet you end up four steps further in another direction. So as I hire people into the team, you can pretty quick tell those individuals that like things a bit more structured. They want things more predictable. They want to be able to know the outcome of the direction you’re going in. You’ve got to have somebody who doesn’t mind that change, who doesn’t mind coming in and not knowing if something is going to work or not that day. That’s the challenging part of the role, and I think that’s a part of the role that they don’t get or they don’t understand unless they are part of a startup community, or have some of that background.

Chris Riback: Ambiguity can be difficult for people.

Lee Clark-Sellers: It is. You can clearly see different functional roles. People that migrate toward those very highly-regulated, succinct, process-driven roles, you can tell what degree of uncertainty that people are comfortable with. When you look at both sides of this innovation, that’s where the people tend to fall one or the other, based on their ability to adapt to new and changing environments.

Chris Riback: How does innovation translate into revenue?

Lee Clark-Sellers: I’ll talk less about the day-to-day innovation, because that’s required to hit the bottom line. That innovation is required to hit your numbers that you put out there to the street every year. So that is a must-have. I’m keeping my lights on, and I’m able to pay the bills, get even further down the road.

When you look at the revenue on the flip side of that … I just saw a study about how long does it really take for new ideas in this industry, in the building industry, to really take off. If you look at things such as vinyl windows, or the fiber cement products, and a few others, it takes five, seven years before those products really can hit their stride. So when we look at revenue from very different products, you’ve got to have a longer term in mind. You’ve got to be willing to do that invest over years. It’s not just a one, two, or three year activity. It could go into that four and five year before you break even.

So, you’ve got to have a vision. You’ve got to be able to have the tenacity to stay with, if you feel that, yes, you have got everything in place to really fundamentally change the market, and you’re going to make a difference. So that revenue pays off, but it is longer term. If I look at some of the projects that we start and stop, again there’s that 20%, 15% rule of thumb for innovation, that that’s about the only amount of the projects that move forward. And that’s probably accurate. You do see a very, very small percent of these type of ideas that actually move forward into commercialization, and then actually start to generate that revenue.

Chris Riback: I’ve also seen where you talk about democratizing innovation. What do you mean by that?

Lee Clark-Sellers: I use that term to say that innovation is everyone’s job. I look at that as giving our employees a voice. Companies sometimes don’t understand the power of their employees, and they certainly hire a person to do a certain job. They look for reliability, they look for dependability of that person in that role. When I look at democratizing innovation, I want to go to those people and say, “Okay, tell me things that could be done differently in that role, to make it better. And what can you do, and do it now.” So, democratizing innovation is creating that environment where everybody feels that they have a safe zone with what they’re doing, and that they are allowed to do things differently, or that they can take a certain amount of risk in the roles that they play, and to give them support and structure.

So, democratizing innovation is that it’s not just one group in a company. “Hey, that’s their job. It’s an R and D team, or it’s an innovation center. I don’t need to worry about innovation. They’re taking care of it.” I like to look at innovation as it’s more of a culture in a company versus just a term. But it’s an environment that people can feel that they have the freedom that they can go in, and make changes, and look at how they can do things different and better.

Chris Riback: I was just going to ask you about that culture point, because listening to you … Is there a percentage of your role, or is there a mindset that you feel that somebody in your role has to have, in terms of advancing the culture of an organization? On the one hand, I’m sure that for somebody like you, going into an organization that is built from day one on a culture of innovation, that’s a great place to be. Not every company is like that. How much of what you focus on is carrying the flag, trying to influence culture, and trying to get that to grow within the company? Or, to look at the flip side, was Ply Gem, in particular, a place where it was born on a bed of innovation, and that’s just baked into the culture from day one?

Lee Clark-Sellers: Yes, and a question. I will say, as a starting point, innovation as a culture absolutely has to start at the top. It has to start at the CEO. They’re the ones that are going to influence the culture of a company. A company like Ply Gem, Gary Robinette’s a very, very strong advocate of innovation. Had he not been, then it would not have been able to be successful within this company. Regardless of it was myself or someone else in this role, it absolutely has to be supported and championed by the CEO, by the top person in the company. Because, in order to influence innovation as a culture in a company, there’s a lot of different things that you can do. It has to start at the top, and because of that, it’s influenced at the executive level. So, within the company, we actually had objectives set at the executive levels around key performance indicators for innovation.

So we actually had measurable objectives of innovation. So, to really establish innovation as a culture, you have start it at the leadership level, and you have to be able to measure it, and you have to be able to provide those methods and processes. When all of that comes together, then you can start to say, “Yes, this is becoming a part of our culture.”

As far as my role, I spend a significant amount of time on that side, as well as on the flip side with our incubation system. It’s hard for me to put a percentage on that. It really depends on the day, and what programs we have underway as to where I’m actually splitting my time.

Chris Riback: How’d you get here?

Lee Clark-Sellers: Good question. I look at this as my third career. It really even started before then, I just happened to be a part of a very entrepreneurial family. Growing up in that environment, I actually had a couple of small companies going through university. Went with a major company as I graduated. Basically, worked at the company and gradually worked my through the company into working with leading-edge technologies. So, working within the chief technology office, looking at how to apply technologies in very, very different industries. To working at a university, and then with Ply Gem. So I think that life experiences bring you to this point, for anybody in their current role. It’s just been a series of both professional and personal experiences that’s brought me here as well.

Chris Riback: If I were to look at a product manual, let’s say, are there any products or things that I should look at right now, I’ll ask you about the future in a moment, that I should look at right now where you would say, “Hey, Riback, right there. When I’m talking about innovation at Ply Gem, this is what I’m talking about.”

Lee Clark-Sellers: You’re talking about current product that we have out on the field today?

Chris Riback: Yes.

Lee Clark-Sellers: Yes. If you take a look at some of our products that we have from a window technology perspective. Some of the sound dampening technology that’s going into the windows, to being able to use very dark colors and certain substrates that hadn’t been possible before. You can actually see that in some of our siding products as well. We look at that, but it’s also business models. There are some different business models that are coming to play that we are doing in Canada, as an example. We’ve got a couple of things I can’t share a lot about at this point. There are certainly some very interesting things in the works that we are talking with some other companies as well on.

Chris Riback: Come on. Don’t you want to break news right here, right now?

Lee Clark-Sellers: I don’t think … We would probably have to edit it out later, so I’ll just go ahead and save you that work.

Chris Riback: To the extent that you can talk about it, and maybe it’s a trend, looking forward and what’s next, and what, in three to five years would you say to me, “Hey, Chris Riback, you know an area that I really wasn’t able to talk about the specifics, but this is an area that I meant.” Is it energy? You mentioned that earlier in the conversation, and that’s obviously such a key part of really every industry. Is it materials? Where do you see the innovation growth that excites you, or is that even too specific and you’ll be giving away state secrets?

Lee Clark-Sellers: One of the key trends that I see, that’s ever-growing, is the connected home. The smart home. You get into smart cities, you get into smart transportation. It all gets connected. I think you’ll see future trends that are coming out with the 5G technology, that will allow more interconnectedness between devices. It’ll allow them to be a little bit simpler. A lot more voice over cellphones. Everybody uses cellphones for everything, but I think you’ll see voice, you’ll see more augmented reality that comes into play. You’re going to see intelligence. It says smart because of connected, but it’s also intelligence. Being able to have the envelope of your home inform the interior of the home what it should be doing. Or, to recognize certain things. “Hey, by the way, I’ve got a leak up here. Can somebody come check it out?” How do you build that intelligence into the exterior envelope of the home?

Certainly, the energy efficiency. I think that we’re going to see advances in certain power technologies that will enable less wiring in a home. That will simplify the home construction as well. There’s very interesting activity with power. Then from a material science perspective, certainly the focus on healthier materials. On those materials that can adapt to the situation, that can adapt to the environment. I was just recently looking at tennis shoes that you basically put your foot on material, and that material will actually form around your foot and create a shoe.

Chris Riback: Wow.

Lee Clark-Sellers: So how do you have smart materials? We’re looking at materials now that have nanotubes embedded in them. I think you’re going to see quite an interesting variety of activities that are going to come out. Trends that are proving to be true trends. They’re not just fads. Everything from, as you said, thermal efficiency and how do we continue to push that envelope, to more intelligent buildings, connected buildings, as well as smart materials.

Chris Riback: Lee Clark-Sellers, thank you. Thank you for your time and your insights.

Lee Clark-Sellers: Yes, it’s been my pleasure. I appreciate the invite.

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