Joe Mitchoff graduated from the WashU Olin Business School in 2000 with a Master of Business Administration. He is the co-founder and CEO of Viridian Reclaimed Wood, a company based in Portland, Oregon that has pioneered a method to up-cycle used wood into unique pieces of furniture.
Viridian Reclaimed Wood began in 2004 as a humble initiative to rescue the lost wood used in shipping crates from the ports of Portland. They now have over 40 employees and recently moved into a new building to house more people, equipment, and imagination. In the last few years, the company has expanded its wood sources and product line, offering furniture ranging from tables made with up-cycled wood from rustic barns to slick lumber fences. Certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, Viridian products are increasingly popular in local restaurants, as they add a unique look to any space. The company’s commitment to more sustainable methods makes them stand out as a premier provider of handcrafted, wooden architecture.
Tai Huynh, an intern with the Office of Sustainability, spoke with Joe Mitchoff to learn more about his professional career and gain further insight into how WashU has helped bring him to where he is today.
How did your years at WashU prepare you for a career in sustainability?
My company is very much modeled around my experience at Olin. Like the MBA program, my company Viridian is made up of a small, committed group of A-players, and we use a team-based approach to achieve our goals. When I graduated, there was no set sustainability curriculum. However, the entire program instilled the importance of doing good in the world, and WashU had ample examples and opportunities to make it tangible. As the CEO of a small company, I am responsible for overall strategy as well as having a broad understanding of all facets of our business. The interdisciplinary nature of my WashU experience definitely gave me the tools I need to make good decisions for our business. My WashU experience taught me the right questions to ask and how to gather and interpret information to help guide our strategy.
From friends rescuing wood from a dumpster to a 40+ employee award-winning company, Viridian Reclaimed Wood has come a long way. What is your main takeaway from this journey?
We started this company as a hobby because we saw wood going to the landfill and had to do something about it. It took us a lot of trial and error to find the highest and best use for the wood we reclaimed, which is complicated. I am glad we scaled slowly because it enabled us to refine our lineup and ultimately have greater success. That extra time upfront helped us make a bigger impact on reclaiming wood in the long run. The company flourished when we pivoted from merely recycling to making finished goods. I think the takeaway from that time is that the faster you can identify your purpose and core values and then follow a structured strategic process, the more effective you will be in focusing your team for success.
How would you like to see Viridian Reclaimed Wood grow in the future?
As you can imagine we have an equipment-intensive business, and we just moved into a new building that I have been calling our “forever home.” I only half-jokingly told my team we need to get this right because it’s the last move I have in me. This move has given us new space and tools for our future growth, but we are laser focused on making an impact in sustainable wood by making tabletops and paneling locally in Oregon. We’ve always been about trying to do more with less, so our goal in the new building is to automate and streamline our processes so we can keep our close-knit team while making the biggest impact we can. We are also working on using technology to make our website the primary driver of sales, so we can reach new groups and serve our existing customers even better.
Your company has three principles: to sustain, innovate, and create. Can you give some examples of how these principles are being applied?
Sustainability is our entire goal, so it permeates our culture at Viridian. We took our 2019 relocation as an opportunity to retrofit the building and many of our processes to be more energy and resource efficient. We also switched all our paneling finishes to an ultra-sustainable and efficient UV light process. The new process is 100% VOC-free and it eliminates the need for thousands of gallons of finish chemicals every year.
Finding the best use for all the different woods we work with requires us to constantly innovate. For example, in the past year our product team created an entirely new product from the byproduct / fall off from Viridian’s most popular paneling material. This massively lowers waste and ensures this wood will be enjoyed for many years to come. Another recent innovation is that the waste wood we can’t use now becomes Biochar, a product that sequesters carbon and can be used for both soil enrichment and water remediation.
The word create is by far the most fun for us. We are craftsmen at heart, and we try to make beautiful products that inspire our customers to buy more and do cool stuff with our products. At times reclaiming wood can be a gritty and discouraging process, so we make sure we celebrate our victories by sharing photos of all the amazing things people do with our paneling and tables.
Your products display the heterogeneity of the reclaimed wood, a unique look that clients are demanding more and more. Do you see a parallel between this growing demand and an awareness of the importance of reclaiming materials?
Reclaimed wood is a fun business because the look of the product instantly conveys its sustainability and value. The character of each piece of wood tells a story that resonates with people, and that has helped us grow (and reclaim more and more wood!). While sustainability is at the top of our minds internally, interior designers have a host of other factors they have to consider when choosing products. We listen to them and make sure our products meet their aesthetic needs and are easy-to-install, meet local codes and are built to last. People generally think of reclaimed wood as rustic, but we have to stay abreast of the latest trends in order to stay relevant in the design world. One of our core competencies we knew we had to develop early on was our custom finishing shop. In addition to rustic woods we have a variety of smooth products, custom stains and colors, and other treatments to help achieve our customers’ vision for their projects.
Recently this year, Viridian Reclaimed Wood partnered with the National Forest Foundation to plant a tree in a National Forest for every table sold. How has the venture gone so far?
It’s been such a rewarding thing for us! We’re all about preserving forests, so to be able to give back through reforestation in such a tangible way feels good. We very carefully selected NFF because their admin costs are low so our donations go directly to tree planting efforts. We also chose NFF because the trees go to places my team loves and cherishes. This year, 50% of the trees will be planted in Northern California forests ravaged by fire. We reclaim A LOT of wood from NorCal, so we’re glad we can help the communities we are connected to.
What is your advice for WashU students interested in creating a business with sustainability as a core value?
My business partner literally stumbled upon a waste stream that was so shocking we had to do something about it. It was a ton of work to get to where we are today, but the journey has been fun and definitely worth it. My advice is to:
- Clearly define the sustainability problem you are trying to address and take extra time to understand the various players involved in the current system. When we began our port reclamation process, we were effectively replacing the decades-old waste hauling process. Even with an admirable goal of recycling, we had to take each groups’ concerns into consideration if we were going to change the process. Be tenacious and don’t give up when you encounter roadblocks!
- Follow a set strategic planning process with regular meeting rhythms to focus your team’s efforts and make working as a team a lot more fun.
- A sustainable mantra is not enough; you must be customer focused and give them things they want and need so that you can succeed.
- Pay attention to your finance and statistics coursework – even the best mission-driven company needs to pay close attention to the economics and key performance indicators of what they do.
Interested in connecting personally with more WashU alumni involved with sustainability work? Join the WashU Sustainability Network LinkedIn Group–an online networking and resource group that brings together alumni, students, parents, staff, and faculty to network, explore, discuss trends, and share technology, business, and market information in all areas of sustainability.