From military to leadership roles in civilian life, hard work, and service define the career of NCFI’s President, Chip Holton. Spray Foam Magazine recently had a conversation with Chip about the SPF industry, his unique role in it, and how service is key.
Spray Foam Magazine: How did you arrive at your current position at the top of one of the most influential players in the spray foam industry?
Chip Holton: Hard work and a good foundation. I got an engineering degree from The United States Military Academy at West Point, served as a U.S. Army infantry officer, then worked for Alcatel (now Alcatel-Lucent) fiber optics division as line supervisor and plant manager, then joined GE Plastics as Southeast Region Operations Manager, overseeing logistics, distribution, and manufacturing for up to 13 facilities. I left GE to serve as Vice President of U.S. Operations for a Swiss company, Jacob Holm Industries, one of the world’s leading non-woven roll goods manufacturers. I met the Barnhardt family, who supplied us with purified cotton, and worked closely with Lewis Barnhardt, BMC’s president and COO, for some time and came to admire him and the company. He suggested I come to NCFI to lead organizational change and process improvement, so I did.
SFM: How does your WestPoint/Army/Jack Welch-GE leadership experience help you leading NCFI?
CH: Two seemingly different questions, but from my perspective they were steps to learning about personal leadership, then organizational leadership, then GE’s change leadership. West Point taught me that leadership is developed. Yes, you are chosen to attend because you display leadership traits, but West Point is the crucible through which leaders teach leadership—both personal and organizational—to young men and women. West Point teaches us to listen to NCO’s (non-commissioned officers), and when I was commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Army, I put that to use. My macro-leadership benefited greatly from the micro-leadership in which the NCO is an expert. I also learned that vision is a powerful thing. Good leaders frequently share their vision and inspire everyone to move toward it. I learned that no plan remains intact once you move on it, so be ready to change and adapt. Working at GE was a never-ending example of this. The GE culture was one of flexibility, readiness to communicate, and change rapidly. It didn’t tolerate bureaucracy or anything that got in the way of change. I learned to love simplifying things and seeing change as an opportunity, never a threat. All three instilled putting values before numbers. I want to clarify though, that we are not doing things the GE way here. At NCFI, we are making our own way. People are the foundation and the real work is on developing passions and creativity. That’s the NCFI way.
SFM: As President what are your daily challenges? Objectives?
CH: T he spray foam market is, of course, tied to the U.S. building markets. Plus, the industry is shifting with consolidation. I see my job as keeping the values that made NCFI one of the leaders of the spray foam industry intact and at the forefront of all we do. No matter how large we become, or how many products we introduce, or how many facilities we open, those values come before anything else. The customer is the single reason behind why we do what we do and how we do it. Begin with that and all other plans fall into place. My goal is to maintain that focus while improving our internal and external processes so that we’re the standard for the entire engineered building products industry. The way we work, the quality of the products we make, the relationships we make and maintain—we want to be known for the “NCFI way.”
SFM: How do you achieve these goals?
CH: Again, we march forward with the values that made us one of the most successful U.S. systems houses out front. We don’t just maintain those values, but strengthen them as we go. We’re known as the company that cares about the individual trade contractor—we know them by name, we go to their jobsites, and we make sure their projects run smoothly. Because that customer— whether they’ve been with us since we pioneered SPF in the 1960s or just joined us yesterday—is what we do and why we do it. If we keep that focus while doing what all three of my training schools, especially GE, taught me to do:
“Pounce everyday,” we’ll keep that lead. To live with a sense of urgency and purpose, to make decisions faster, and to work smarter.
SFM: What sets your company apart in the SPF industry?
CH: Back to our values: Customers are why we do it, and going the extra mile to produce the best-in-class products pays off for everyone. NCFI is the gold standard for polyurethane foam. Our commitment to lowering our CO2 output is an outcome of those values. The homebuyer or the commercial building owner wants a more sustainable home or building. Converting our entire line of residential and commercial foams to SmartSPF, or low Global Warming Potential (GWP) foams, will help give them that.
SFM: What are the company’s goals for growth?
CH: We’ve been growing steadily over the past six years, and our plans are to speed that up a bit. Now, whether that’s through investment or acquisition I can’t say, but we certainly are positioned for growth. Our production has the ability to pick up steam, and our science labs are working on some very innovative products that could get to market this year. Currently our focus is on converting to our SmartSPF lines, and those efforts were recently recognized by the White House and the Department of Energy.
We are looking at value-added markets where our technical expertise and experience allow us to provide innovative products for our customers. We are certainly looking at insulation markets as a baseline, but it’s the custom formulated products, geotechnical products, and specialty commercial applications that will really set us apart from the larger consolidated companies.
SFM: What challenges did your company overcome in the last year?
CH: Our challenges are mostly internal. As I said, keeping strong values as the guiding star of our organization is important, and leading our people in all divisions to be agile, think change, and act on it daily is doing something that cuts against the grain.
Usually people think, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” We’re now thinking, “If it ain’t broke, maybe we should break it so it better serves our customers in the long run.” That kind of organizational shift is something we have to do on a daily basis until it becomes our culture—and it will.
SFM: What markets do you target?
CH: On our specialty products side, in which SPF falls, we produce products for residential, commercial, roofing, and geotechnical. Our new Sealite OCX open-cell foam has proven to be exceptional in real world application—with extremely high yield and coverage, and is easy to spray, so that product is gaining popularity and we’ll continue to put some push behind it. Of course our geotechnical line, TerraThane, is dominating that market, and our only challenge there is to get to these old school infrastructure, highway, and concrete lifting companies to show them how much better TerraThane is for their application. We also think our residential foams will do better with the SmartSPF/low-GWP formulations. Builders need to give their end user more sustainable features and what better than the amazing energy savings from InsulStar and Sealite OCX. They are both low GWP products, so it’s a major benefit.
SFM: What role do you play in the international market?
CH: We currently provide some foams for use in foreign markets, but our core focus is on our own country.
SFM: What services do you offer? Education programs?
CH: We’re full service. We offer equipment sales and formal training, and we also offer select contractors a Gold Star training program that tests their building science and spray foam application knowledge, and also their knowledge of running a successful spray foam business. Of course, every customer of any line of our products becomes our partner and we treat them that way.
SFM: Are there any new products on the horizon?
CH: Yes, but I can’t tell you more about them. Just know this, the way we introduced Sealite OCX last year was a good model for us. We tested internally, and then went out to a small group of applicators to test it. We’ll do that same for the new products—some of which will be first to market and some will be highly innovative reformulations. One thing I can guarantee is we won’t bring something to market unless we’re positive it is best-in-class. We won’t risk our reputation or our relationships.
SFM: What does the future hold for your company?
CH: We’re excited about tomorrow and the day after that. We figure if we keep pouncing with our values intact, we’ll continue to succeed. The turbulence created by all the consolidation, old companies going away, new companies popping up, fiberglass companies suddenly jumping into the market, creates some great opportunities for us. We’re small enough to be agile, and big enough to take advantage of the wake these things create.
SFM: What challenges face your company in the coming year?
CH: Ha! I took the five-year plan part out of my day planner and tossed it. We need to focus on today and tomorrow and maybe the day after that. I said earlier that I learned from being an officer in the U.S. Army about plans and the first shot fired. If we focus on values, processes, and relationships, I’m sure we’ll look back in 10 years from the top of the heap.
SFM: What is your outlook for the SPF industry in the next 10 years?
CH: I think short-run chaos, with all the company changes, but our horizon is brighter than ever. Building codes are changing, energy costs are rising, and the U.S. population is growing at a clipping rate. All good signs for SPF. All great signs for NCFI.