Innovation speaker: If we don’t disrupt ourselves, someone else will

Alumnus Jay Henry helps guide legacy flooring brand to new products and markets
Jay Henry smiling

People have been making carpets for 5,000 years, so when Jay Henry explains that he’s the director of innovation for a company that manufactures carpets he sometimes gets a quizzical look.

He’s quick to explain that it doesn’t matter how established your company is or how long they’ve been making a product, innovation is a necessary part of every business plan.

“What got us to 55 years is not going to get us to 60 and beyond. If we don’t disrupt us, someone else will disrupt us, and it will be painful,” Henry told students and guests at the inaugural lecture for the Terry Innovation Speaker Series. Sponsored by the Terry College of Business, the event took place Nov. 3 at the University of Georgia Chapel.

“We need disruption. We need to do it ourselves,” Henry said. “This is why innovation is important.”

Terry College of Business Dean Benjamin C. Ayers launched the new speaker series to inspire students and cultivate a mindset for innovation. The series will bring industry leaders to campus who have sparked real-world growth by embracing big ideas, disruptive methods and cutting-edge technologies.

Henry graduated from Terry in 1993 with a bachelor’s degree in management information systems. He joined Shaw Industries right after graduation, and in October 2020 he was named director of corporate innovation. He calls himself an evangelist for innovation and serves on the executive committee of the Innovation Leadership Council, which is part of The Conference Board.

Shaw Industries, headquartered in Dalton, Georgia, has been making carpeting for more than five decades. Over the years, the company has expanded into nearly every category of floor covering — from carpet tiles to hardwood products and even artificial turf.

Their newest products offer enhanced environmental sustainability and integrate smart surfaces. Shaw produces colorful plank flooring made from recycled bottles and developed a pressure-sensitive flooring that can detect when a nursing home resident may have fallen and alert caregivers.

While Shaw is an established company, they’ve continually updated their product line to serve their changing customer base. Focusing on consumers’ changing needs is the secret to building successful innovations, Henry said.

“The customer is not the same as they were five years ago or ten years ago. They’re certainly not the same as they were 55 years ago,” he said. “We have to meet those changing expectations, and we can’t do it by being the same company that we’ve always been. We are focused on being the most customer-centric company in our industry.”

Building a corporate culture for innovation is far from easy, because it requires employees to be a little uncomfortable, Henry explained. Executives must be on board; staff must feel supported by and support their teammates; and they have to be allowed to fail and learn from failures.

Students need to embrace innovation as a work philosophy, he added, whether they end up working at a brand new startup or a legacy company with a global footprint.

“This is not just about Shaw — it’s not about any one company. It’s about all of us,” Henry told the audience. “Every company has to focus on innovation because we’re all facing similar challenges. It’s up to you and me to lead the change for whatever company, wherever we work.”