The Triple Bottom Line
Uponor's progressive products, dedicated partnerships and commitment to sustainability set the company apart from the crowd.
BY SARAH ASP OLSON
Employees at Uponor North America care deeply about the company's bottom lines--all three of them.
"Triple bottom line takes into account the social aspects, the environmental and the economic, which is sometimes known as people, planet and profit," says Ingrid Mattsson, senior brand manager at Uponor North America. A Finnish-owned manufacturer of cross-linked
polyethylene (PEX) tubing, Uponor North America has adopted the triple bottom line philosophy and takes it seriously.
Uponor, an international leader in radiant heating and cooling, operates in 30 countries with 3,300 employees. It is North America's largest producer of PEX, turning out about 1.8 million feet of the flexible plastic tubing each day in its Apple Valley factory. The tubing is
used for radiant floor heating and cooling, plumbing and fire sprinkler systems for residential and commercial properties.
With its triple bottom line firmly established, Uponor has been able to weather the economic downturn, lean its processes and maintain a solid market share of the industry, all while looking forward to substantial growth.
What's in a name?The Swedish company Wirsbo set up shop in 1620 as a steel weapons manufacturer to the royal family.
As the company--and technology--progressed into the mid-20th century, Wirsbo emerged as a leader in chemically cross-linked polyethylene (PEX) and introduced the new product to Europe. In 1984, Wirsbo crossed the Atlantic and set up shop in North America. Four years later,
Wirsbo was bought by Uponor, a young international plastic-pipe manufacturing conglomerate based in Finland.
For nearly two decades, the company's North American operations continued to operate under the name of Wirsbo--and eventually Uponor Wirsbo. In 2006, as part of an international effort to consolidate all of its brands, Uponor Wirsbo became Uponor North America.
"The name change was a challenge," says Ingrid Mattsson, Uponor North America's senior brand manger. "We had a lot of customers that ... had grown a really strong, fierce loyalty to the Wirsbo brand, which they felt they helped build in the U.S. as part of the pioneering
As Uponor North America and its customers settle into the new name, the company's mission, commitment to clients and strong product offerings remain unchanged.
"The culture has become so embedded and so strong, even with the name change, it still remained," says Mattsson.
Focus on People
Uponor's core purpose, according to the company, is "to partner closely with professionals to create better human environments. That means working with them to grow the business together and build mutual success around a stronger, clearer and consistent brand message."
The company lives out this message daily in its close partnerships with customers and clients, which include extensive on-site and field training, conventions and trade shows.
"What sets us apart from our competition?" asks Dale Stroud, Uponor North America's senior manager of business development. "It's the training. It's the education. It's the strong bond we have with the people who install our products."
Education and training are keys to building awareness and product knowledge about PEX. Education and training are particularly important when it comes to radiant floor heating and cooling, a solution that is only found in about 4 percent of North American homes, compared with
90 percent in Nordic countries and 50 percent in the rest of Europe.
"These are accepted technologies for sure here, [but] there's a long way to go with regards to creating awareness and understanding," Mattsson says.
Beyond offering training sessions, Uponor aims to build relationships and loyalty.
"We have a loyalty program for our contractors in which we provide additional services to them as far as education, service on new products, that sort of thing," Stroud says.
To that end, last spring, Uponor hosted 658 contractors at the Bellagio in Las Vegas for its biannual convention.
"The focus on the training is obviously how our products work, how to use them, how to install them properly, but the partnering goes waybeyond that," Mattsson says. "It's actually helping them with ways to improve their business, as well as giving them a sense of issues
happening in the world through things like this convention or Webinars that we do."
Uponor's focus on people extends beyond customer relations to its employees.
"We have a terrific culture here at Uponor-- [a] very teamwork-oriented group that is anxious to get the job done," says Mattsson, who has been with the company for 15 years. "We really stand behind our vision."
Mattsson and Stroud attribute the healthy company culture to employee confidence in Uponor's mission, values and product offerings. They also cite its collaborative management structure and their high-quality coworkers.
"We all get along with one another," says Stroud, who has been with the company eight years. "We've attracted people who generally like each other and work well together. It sounds kind of corny."
"But it's true," Mattsson adds. "We're making the world a better place and enriching people's lives around the world."
Anders Tollsten, executive vice president of Uponor North America, agrees. He also fosters the company's healthy culture by empowering employees to succeed.
"We're not that formal a company," he says. "If you have ideas, do them. Make sure we share information freely.
"Ideally, everyone in the company should be able to run the company."
Focus on Planet
PEX tubing is at the heart of Uponor's three primary product offerings: radiant floor heating and cooling, plumbing and fire sprinkler systems--all of which have been lauded for their environmentally friendly attributes. In fact, one case study found radiant floor heating and
cooling yielded 30 percent to 40 percent in total energy-cost savings.
"We've known for years that radiant floor heating is an efficient way to heat," Stroud says. "Our products have lent themselves to being environmentally green."
Uponor's customers appreciate that PEX is an energy efficient heating, cooling and plumbing material that also is long-lasting and non-toxic. Yet they may not know that the company's commitment to green starts on the manufacturing floor. Over the last few years, Uponor has
been methodically greening its production processes.
"I think the key is that we're not near where we want to be but we understand that within the communities [where] we operate, we're a big producer of materials," says Rusty Callier, plant manager. "Knowing that, we need to be sensitive to where we live and operate. We
need to do the best things for the community as well as our employees who live in those communities."
Uponor started walking the talk with a lighting upgrade, swapping out an inefficient system with new, high-efficiency ballasts. In addition to recycling office and shop paper, plastic, metal and glass, all PEX scrap is shredded and sold for use as raw materials. The company
also helps employees to safely and efficiently dispose of personal batteries and household chemical waste by adding those items to its own waste stream.
To save energy costs and reduce the plant's carbon footprint, Callier switched the facility's primary energy source from oil to electricity. The switch cut overall energy expenditure by 40 percent per machine.
"We were able to virtually eliminate thousands of gallons of oil going to our facility. We've replaced that now with electricity, some of which is purchased in a green manner," Callier says. "Oil that we couldn't get away from, like hydraulic oil, is recycled."
Beyond manufacturing, Uponor's employees are committed to environmental and social responsibility at work and in the community.
"We have a multi-functional green team that oversees all our sustainability efforts," Tollsten says. "We have several programs ongoing directed towards increased sustainability."
Mattsson, who spearheaded the green team along with Callier and Stroud in 2006, is proud of what the team has accomplished over the past four years.
"We've created a certain awareness here at the factory among employees," she says. "We're starting to recognize sustainability, and green is on our radar."
In addition to recycling efforts, the green team created a community garden where employees can grow healthy, organic produce.
"We have one plot this year that is dedicated to providing food to the shelter," Mattsson says. "It [provides] a sense of community that has come around because of the green team."
Uponor employees also are encouraged to get involved in their communities. In addition to vacation and sick days, each employee is allowed to take 24 hours of volunteer time.
"In a couple of weeks, some of us will be doing a Habitat for Humanity project in Hastings," Stroud says. "We have volunteers that go clean the local park several times a year. We support other charities in the area from a company standpoint and as individuals.
"It has gone beyond just putting the products into the market. It takes a company commitment to all aspects of sustainability."
Focus on Profit
Like most companies serving the housing market, Uponor was hit by the recent economic downturn. "On the North American end, we've seen the automotive crisis times two," Tollsten says. "It's something like a 74 percent drop in new housing."
Yet even amid economic challenges, Uponor remained competitive.
To combat the dramatic drop in new housing starts--from 2 million a few years ago to about 554,000 last year--Uponor continued to diversify, putting more focus on the commercial sector, while still serving residential clients.
"Like a good portfolio, we have differentiated offerings," Mattsson says. "We have opportunities for residential; we have opportunities for commercial. There's the plumbing aspect, there's the fire, then the heating aspect. There are different stakeholders in each of
While the economy may have delayed rapid growth, "from everything we can look at we have outperformed the market as a whole," Stroud says. "People continue to embrace our products and our philosophy."
Even as Uponor continues to weather the economic storm in North America and abroad, Tollsten and the entire Uponor team now have set their sights on future growth.
"We see the housing prices picking up now, and our plan is to at least quadruple our business," Tollsten says. "We have also invested a lot in new products, and going after new markets, reinforcing our marketing and sales and our R&D. We've done two things at the same
time--making sure we're as lean as possible, but also investing to make sure we gain new business, developing new products and reaching out to more customers. We've taken a lot of the market share by doing that."
The company's strong market position combined with the ever-growing trend toward energy-efficient homes makes Tollsten confident that Uponor can reach its growth goals within the next four to five years.
The Uponor team also anticipates growth from recent changes in residential fire sprinkler codes that will require new single- and two-family homes to install sprinkler systems. The sprinkler system mandate already has been passed by several states, where it will take effect in
"States will adopt the code gradually," says Tollsten. "That's going to be a mandate for fire sprinklers in all new residential homes, that's a big part of [our growth plan]."
On the manufacturing side, Callier also seeks growth opportunities while continuing to lean up operations. With the help of a Minnesota Job Skills Partnership grant, Callier is focused on training staff in lean, obtaining ISO certification and implementing an environmental
management/quality management system.
"We're heavily leveraging the principles of lean to help us get more throughput efficiency," he says. "[This] will allow us to continue the training for our employees, bringing their skill sets up and ultimately turning that into better productivity."
As training progresses and the economy levels out, Uponor plans to amp up marketing initiatives and continue to build awareness for its products in North America.
"We have competitors that copy us or follow us, but we are definitely pioneers when it comes to PEX plumbing systems, fire sprinkler systems for residential homes and, obviously, radiant heating," Tollsten says. "We bring a good solution to the market--and that's the