Climatetech Leadership Series: Saint-Gobain CEO Pierre-André de Chalendar on the Future of the Buildings Industry

This interview is part of Greentown Labs’ Climatetech Leadership Series, which profiles C-level executives from our most committed and climate-oriented partners.

The buildings industry, which is responsible for about 40 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions annually, is poised to experience major changes and innovations in pursuit of its decarbonization efforts. A leader in this sea change is Greentown Labs partner Saint-Gobain, one of the world’s largest building materials companies and manufacturer of innovative material solutions.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with the CEO of Saint-Gobain, Pierre-André de Chalendar, about how he sees the industry evolving in the coming years and decades—and what work Saint-Gobain is doing to lead the charge.

Saint-Gobain has been a committed Greentown partner since 2014. The company was integral to the opening of Greentown’s headquarters, donating over $1 million worth of products, and has recently become a Founding Partner of our Greentown Houston incubator, which will open in 2021. In 2019, Saint-Gobain partnered with our internal accelerator, Greentown Launch, for the InNOVAte 2019 Challenge, which culminated with a pilot project agreement with startup participant Inovues.

Emily Reichert Question: You’ve led Saint-Gobain through the Great Recession, it’s increased focus on sustainability, the digitization of the company, and now COVID-19. Are there any key learnings or insights you can share from your experience leading a global organization through such challenges?

Pierre-André de Chalendar Answer: I would say that each crisis is different. You have to be careful when drawing lessons, and to not fight the last war. What I would say is, in each case, you must adapt quickly, not lose time, be agile, to be pragmatic, but be quick. That’s what I’ve been trying to do. During the Great Recession we were quite quick; during COVID we’ve been extremely quick. But when it comes to digital transformation, it’s been a little more difficult to be quick because our customer and our ecosystem is not among the most reactive or proactive ecosystems in the world.

With COVID, I have been struck by one thing: two years ago I significantly changed the organization of the company to better align with our customers. And in the construction area, which is more than 80 percent of our activity, we went fully geographic, by country organization. While this was not done for COVID, it has made management of COVID extremely effective. It has helped us be responsive and react quickly to the unique challenges facing each location.  

ER: I think that makes a lot of sense. Every country is experiencing and responding to the pandemic differently so I can see how the ability to be agile in your response based on geography is important.

PAC: The last point about COVID, and I think it was more the case than before the crisis, is that in this crisis we have to work very closely with local authorities and governments, at all levels. And this organizational model helped us do that because it’s been a challenge for everybody around the world to collaborate more. And I would say that the countries that reacted best are the ones where we’ve had the strongest collaboration across all kinds of organizations. And I think in the future we must foster collaboration on complex challenges that cross those usual boundaries.

ER: Absolutely! And of course the collaboration between Greentown and Saint-Gobain is what brings us together here today. And more specifically, Saint-Gobain’s sustainability efforts. I know Saint-Gobain just unveiled a new sustainability plan around material solutions that sustain life soon; what does this phrase mean to you and how does it chart your path forward?

PAC: It is in line with Saint-Gobain’s purpose which is “Make the world a better home.” Our purpose sets the course for our common future. Together with and for our customers, we design, manufacture and distribute materials and solutions that have a positive impact on everyone’s life and provide well-being, quality of life and performance, while caring for the planet. Providing that is at the heart of our business model, in all our markets: the construction market which is the biggest one, but also the mobility market, the healthcare market, and a wide array of industries.  

ER: I know you’ve committed the company to carbon neutrality by 2050, what are some of the top things you are doing to get there? ­­

PAC: First of all, I want to say it is a very ambitious target that I have set. It’s even an aspiration. We are doing this because we provide solutions that are extremely helpful when it comes to decarbonizing our industries and our world. But it won’t be easy­­our processes are energy intensive, so we have to work on a wide range of internal activities from our industrial processes, energy mix, and product formulation. At the same time, we must also work to improve the entire value chain including upstream and downstream partners and transport. Finally, we also will make sure we are involved in carbon sequestration. It’s a very large area of things we need to do. For me, the most important thing was to set that ambition at the top, then to make it a top priority for everybody. There was a very strong reaction internally when I said that, but now I am asking each business at Saint-Gobain (geographically by country) to develop a roadmap.

One of the main areas where I think we need to do additional things is innovation and R&D, because we will have to meet earlier targets for 2025 which for an industrial company, is tomorrow morning. So even if 2050 seems far away, the processes we put in place in ten years will last and be there 20 years later. So the reality is, we don’t have as much time as we think. We need to work very hard on some of our processes to make significant progress. We are currently working on the exact path forward. It’s an aspiration and a great ambition we intend to meet so we are putting in a lot of effort.

ER: We need major organizations like Saint-Gobain to set ambitious targets like this to serve as an example for the rest of the world! Well done. I completely understand what you’re saying too—2025 feels a lot sooner than we think. I imagine collaboration will be key in meeting these goals. How do you work with external partners to drive climate action toward achieving this goal?

PAC: We will have to work on our energy mix. And from that standpoint, you know the type of energy that is at our disposal depends on what our governments invest in and support, so the situation is different in each country. Because of that, we must advocate with public authorities. We also work with NGOs a lot, I’d like to point out the World Green Building Council, we work very closely with them and are actively engaged with the council because the value chain in the construction industry is quite vast even by country. But there is not one player at one level which can really drive the issue. So, we need to work alongside various people, and the Green Building Council is helping to put people together to try to determine the best ways to work. This is key, because our sector is very much a source of greenhouse gas emissions, around 40 percent worldwide. But what’s really great is that, technologically, in terms of the emissions from the building sector, we know how to do it.

We have a huge responsibility because if we work together we can drive the whole industry. Working with partners is extremely important. And I mentioned the NGOs, but I could have highlighted ventures like Greentown Labs because startups are just as important since we are not going to be able to find the solutions to all the problems we are tackling on our own.

ER: We’ll dig into startups and how Saint-Gobain works with them in just a moment. But I wanted to back up and talk about that responsibility that you are talking about—40 percent of GHG emissions come from buildings. When you look ahead to 2030, and you think about buildings and the building process and what it will look like in 2030 or 2050, how do you see things changing or staying the same?

PAC: I would say the main changes fall into three categories. The first one is that companies like Saint-Gobain producing materials and associated solutions must support the growth of the circular economy, including recycling and using less virgin materials. The fact is, the Earth is not capable of giving us the resources we need in the next twenty years. And by the way, using recycled materials means emitting less when we produce. In glass, it’s absolutely obvious that the more we use cullet (recycled broken or waste glass), the less we consume energy to make glass. So that’s the first area: circularity.

The second area is to change the way we build. I think we are going to become more modular and more committed to light building solutions. In the U.S., with individual housing, you’re already lightwood frame with twice as much plasterboard compared to what is normal in Europe. Light building solutions, which are more effective from a CO2 and ecological perspective across the entire value chain, are going to become the norm. That’s good for Saint-Gobain because that’s where we are.

The last one is that I think you are going to see more and more technology within buildings. The solutions exist, they are just not widespread. Passive house, electronic glass, most of this technology will be adopted more broadly and we must play a role in that process and find new technologies along the way.

Those are the three main areas. And when I look at that, I think there are some countries and sectors within Saint-Gobain where we are able to be carbon neutral well before 2050. There are others where it is going to take time. But when I look back, and when I see what has happened within the last five years, I have plenty of optimism.

ER: I love that optimism! And that’s something we share for our shared sustainable future. When you think about these decarbonization efforts, what are the biggest challenges you see facing the industry? How will Saint-Gobain work through those challenges?

PAC: The biggest challenge we face is how to track sustainability across the whole supply chain which is very fragmented. And the way to do that is by measuring. We need more standardization for measurements. As a key player in that value chain, Saint-Gobain can take a leading role, and we are ready for that.

ER: Speaking of measurements, thinking about a different kind of measurement—I wanted to talk about how the company aligns its sustainability goals with its overall innovation goals. How do you make those two move forward in lockstep?

PAC: At Saint-Gobain, sustainability and innovation are at the core of our ambition and are completely linked. We know all our innovation processes must take sustainability into account as a fact of life in everything we do. When I talk about the 2050 objectives, I think the main impact of this objective is a fundamental change in our R&D innovation. I know how to deliver the objective of 2025but for complete carbon neutrality, we need innovation and that is why every part of our innovation organization is starting to work very hard on this. Sustainability is the overarching framework to our innovation efforts across Saint-Gobain.  

ER: That’s wonderful to hear and I definitely see that reflected in the work that we’ve done with you all, especially in the 2019 inNOVAte challenge. We see the startups that participated in the challenge working in the areas that you talked about. Being digital, making more progress toward measurements and metrics, and helping reduce carbon emissions from buildings. Saint-Gobain worked closely with a number of these startups. What do you see as startups’ role in Saint-Gobain’s innovation strategy?

PAC: It’s very important, but to some extent for a reason that I do not like. As chairman of a large organization, I have to recognize that, even though we are reacting swiftly from the crisis, it is almost impossible to be as agile as a startup. Startups are designed to take disruptive steps. They don’t have a business to protect so thinking outside of the box is easier. We will always be a bit more conservative, more focused on incremental innovation. But we still want to  be confronted with other ways of thinking that are sometimes more radical, and at the same time, find ways to use our strengths to nurture those radical ideas. That’s why I think we need to collaborate with startups and Greentown Labs is of the best ways to get in touch and stay in touch with them as they grow.

ER: Saint-Gobain has been a wonderful, longtime partner to Greentown and our startup community, is there anything that your company has learned from collaborating with startups, or anything that surprised you?

PAC: Oh many things. We have learned a lot through our collaboration with startups and incubators. And I don’t say that just to be nice to you Emily, but I think that Greentown Labs is the number one I would highlight, just because we started with you, and though we have other examples from around the world, it is quite unique what we’ve been able to do with you [Greentown]. I am very, very happy about the work with Greentown Labs because it is so focused on the areas in which we are looking to innovate. So that’s amazingly helpful. I think we’ve been able to get in touch with a number of startups in various areas, sometimes investing in them. There is one I find very interesting that I’m personally working with at the moment, it’s a Greentown Labs startup called CrowdComfort. We have implemented it at our headquarters in Malvern, PA. Looking at measurements is what CrowdComfort does and remember, I said that I am always talking about measurements because that’s one element of the answer that we need across the industry. And measurement can be adapted. We’ve even used CrowdComfort during COVID to better understand what we needed to change in the post-COVID world. At the moment, I am working on bringing that technology to our new headquarters in Paris which opened in May. And that’s just one example that I really trust. Over the years, we have had a lot of good examples of collaborating with startups that we have met through our involvement with Greentown Labs.

ER: Congratulations on the new headquarters! And it is exciting to hear that CrowdComfort’s technology will be incorporated. For any other startup founders reading this article, what advice would you give them if they’re interested in working with Saint-Gobain?

PAC: Don’t be shy! Talk to us. Whether it’s NOVA or our business teams, I don’t think it’s very difficult to find us. Through corporate communication on our website, depending on what kind of startups you’re talking about, try to see how they can fit and be of interest to Saint-Gobain, then just reach out! It’s as simple as that. And now at Saint-Gobain, we have dedicated and opened organizations to facilitate dialogue. We are always interested in new ideas. We are not going to work with all of them, but the first step is for us to know what the idea is, and I would encourage those to reach out.

ER: Well that openness and collaborative spirit are certainly values that we share! Pierre-Andre, thank you for taking the time to speak with me today.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and conciseness.

Emily Reichert is the CEO of Greentown Labs, the largest climatetech startup incubator in North America, on a mission to support entrepreneurs tackling the biggest climate and environmental challenges.