For Feiy’s new Impact Series our writer in residence Nika Dulevich is talking to entrepreneurs who pursue a path greater than just profit and strive to contribute to the greater good with their products and services. The first business owner she talked to is Robin Dell, the founder and managing director at Imondi, a Shanghai-based reclaimed wood flooring company.
This is the second part of a two-part interview, where Robin talks about succeeding as an impact-driven company, creating sustainable change and his personal contribution to the environmental and social well-being. You can read the first part of the interview here.
在Feiy新的影响系列，我们的常驻作家Nika Dulevich正在与追求超越利润、努力透过产品和服务来贡献的企业家访谈。她访谈的第一位老板是Robin Dell，他是上海回收木材地板公司－Imondi的创立者和执行董事。
Do you think of the impact-driven business world as more of a game of competition or a place of cooperation?
Realistically speaking, in our sector at least, there is always competition between suppliers. However, I don’t think competition is a bad thing, it encourages suppliers to enhance their services to match clients' requirements. As we’ve seen in the last few years, many clients and governmental bodies are increasingly concerned about sustainability and in a competitive market, it results in suppliers adapting to that. There are still some awful companies in our industry that contribute significantly to global deforestation and many that actively “greenwash”, pretending they care about sustainability, but it’s nice to see many companies that have changed their practices.
What has been your biggest lesson learned throughout the years working with reclaimed wood in China and around the world?
I’m not sure if this relates to reclaimed wood, but on a personal level, as an entrepreneur, you’re going to have a lot of ups and downs and dealing with those psychologically is incredibly important. When we first started, when there was an up, we were popping champagne corks and when there was a down we were going home feeling really s***** for days on end. I think one of the most important lesson I’ve learned is to let the ups and downs happen and just carry on because at the end of the day life goes on and it’s very much your choice whether to be happy or unhappy. So why choose to be unhappy? I know it’s easy to say, but it’s important to say it nevertheless.
In hindsight, what was the smartest decision you made with the company?
Our decision to focus on reclaimed wood has probably been the smartest decision we made. When we opened our first factory in Dalian in 2006 we were arrogant enough to think we could build a long-term business by being one of the first factories in China to make flooring with “European-style” finishes. However, within a few years, several other much larger factories started copying these colors and, being larger than us, could manufacture them cheaper, even if without the same level of service. And so we reinvented ourselves by launching innovative patterns and dimensions. But again, within a few years found ourselves being copied. However, since we started working with reclaimed wood, eight years ago, we are more or less alone in the field. There are many reasons for this – it's very difficult to source the wood in long-term sustainable quantities, it’s difficult to process the wood and it’s difficult to find the clients that appreciate it. But I hope it will inspire impact-driven entrepreneurs who read this to consider focusing on one industry and learning about it with the aim to, hopefully, find a niche with decent barriers to entry.
If you had the chance, taking all factors into consideration and understanding how the industry has changed over the years, would you choose to start Imondi right now?
Yes, I love what I do. If I had a bit more energy and time, I would open the “House of Reclaimed” chain of retail shops all over Europe and America, that I've always dreamt about. I think the market is crying out for it, but I've got so much on my plate right now. But I do love what I do and I would definitely do it again if I were to start now.
Do you think it’s more important to have a sustainable product or a sustainable company culture that invests in its people and processes?
I can only answer from Imondi’s perspective. We started off with the sustainable product and then we realized that it's great to be sustainable as a company, so we started introducing this idea into our company culture. Different companies have different journeys. A lot of impactful entrepreneurs come from another direction, they want to do something sustainable in the community and then create a sustainable product. So I think it doesn't matter where it starts, it only matters where you end up.
How can we as employers and employees encourage companies to have more sustainable products and practices?
I think it's all about clear communication. When we started our video discussion forums (editor’s note: you can find more about it in the first part of our interview with Robin), I thought how great it would be if a year later Elain from the admin department, or anyone else in the office, were to suggest, for example, to have a recycling bin next to our normal bin. It’s when the message of sustainability, which is so ingrained as brand value of Imondi, becomes ingrained in the culture and ethos of those who work here, that we will have succeeded. Communicating that goal very clearly at the beginning has made people in our organization think a lot more about their personal impact. In the end, you can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink, right? So we can do all these cool things: videos, discussions, events, but things really change when Elain says, “Why don’t we have a recycling bin? Maybe I can do something about it.” And I think you can only get that through constant communication.
Who do you think plays a bigger role in driving sustainable change: governments, businesses or consumers?
It always blows me away when I read negative articles in the Western press about how China and India are polluting the world, when the reason why they are creating this pollution is actually to supply the needs of the western society. I think a lot of consumers don't realize that the throw-away products they buy and consumer society, in general, is what creates so much of this mess.
So I think the change has to come from the consumer. There is an increasing awareness from people about environmental issues in the world, so the government can be a reflection of that and businesses can respond to demand. Governments can impact the way the culture thinks. For example, they are taxing producers of plastic packaging in England now – how great is that? It’s initiatives like these that governments must take to stop the disasters from happening. However governments can’t get away with being too radical either or they’ll receive pushback from their stakeholders. There has to be a balance. I also think the role of media is very important in creating awareness and pushing cultures in a certain direction. And it all combines, doesn’t it?
As a consumer and individual, how do you contribute to the environmental and social well-being?
On a personal level, I now work with schools around Shanghai to introduce some of the Green Initiatives and Seeds of Change programs and I'm really enjoying it. I put in a couple of hours a week, as it is my personal goal to impact our community and because it is a truly rewarding thing to do. I really enjoyed the recent Dulwich eco-campus where I was given the opportunity to teach various classes of students about deforestation, and how we can personally counter it, a subject very close to my heart. I am very impressed with Dulwich’s commitment to the environment and try and encourage other schools to learn from them. I think this generation messed things up and I really hope the younger generation can help sorting it out. If you can take a couple of hours a week to think about ways to contribute to your community, I cannot encourage it more. It took me too long to do it but has already given me a lot.
就个人层面，我现在和上海附近的学校合作，介绍许多绿色倡议和Seeds of Change（改变的种子）计画，我也乐在其中。我每周花几小时，因为我个人的目标是影响我们社区，也因为这是真正有益的事情。我很喜欢Dulwich的生态环保校园，我最近有机会教导不同班级的学生有关森林砍伐以及我们如何以个人的力量对抗，一个与我相当密切的主题。 Dulwich对环境的承诺并努力鼓励其他学校与其学习，让我留下了深刻的印象。我认为这一代的人将事情搞砸，而我真的希望年轻一代可以帮忙解决。如果你每周可以用几个小时想一想，如何对社区做出贡献，我会非常的鼓励。我花了很多时间才做到，但我已经学习到很多。
What impact do you want to make in the world? And how far are you into realizing it?
I enjoy our role in helping the construction industry become greener. In the same way that Bea Johnson has inspired a generation of people with her Zero Waste philosophy to aspire to minimize your waste, I see many of the larger companies in our industry looking at Imondi for inspiration on how to be a greener producer and supplier of construction materials.
What is your ‘Why’? Why are you doing what you are doing, personally and professionally?
When I set up the company I wanted to be a successful entrepreneur because my family were entrepreneurs and honestly speaking, I felt I had something to prove. That motivation lasted only up to a certain point. It's not a bad motivation, there's nothing wrong with wanting to make money or to build a large company, but it's not something that will get you through the millions of ups and downs. At some point, there has to be more. And so as our business grew, our motivations changed. Our “Why “is that we believe in helping people experience an emotional connection with their interiors. Our “How” is that we create cutting-edge designs, working with sustainable wood with awe-inspiring and unique histories, utilizing manufacturing methods that preserve age-old traditions of craftsmanship. We love that moment when the client enters their house for the first time, walking over the flooring that has been hand-made from oak mooring poles reclaimed from the canals of old Venice in Italy. They now have their own “little bit of Venice” at home, which helps it a little bit more in becoming a “home” rather than a “house”. I cannot state more the importance of understanding your “Why” and “How” as an entrepreneur.
当我成立公司时，我要成为一个成功的企业家，因为我来自企业家的家庭。而坦白地说，我感觉我有东西要证明。这种动机只持续到一定的程度。这并非一个不好的动机，要赚钱或建立更大的公司并没有错，但并不是会让你经历数百万的起伏。在某一个时间点，必须要有更多。而当我们的企业拓展，我们的动机改变。我们的“为什么”是我们相信让人们体验他们的室内设计与情感的联系。我们的“如何”是我们开创设计先锋，使用回收木材以及其凛然和独特的历史，并以传统保留的古老工艺来制造。我们深爱当客人第一次踏入他们的房子的时刻，走过使用来自义大利威尼斯运河的橡木系泊杆的手工制作地板 。他们现在有属于他们的“小威尼斯”在家，让房子更像家。我对你作为企业家需要理解“为什么”和“如何” 的重要性非常同意。
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