Mike Newman: CEO, Returnity Innovations

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My NativeAdmission Statement: I’ve focused on building a diversity of leadership experiences that enable me to develop solutions to address our environmental challenges. From being elected president of a labor union to working in Nairobi advising a non-profit making footwear from used tires – or now tackling the mountains of packaging waste our ecommerce economy has created – I’m a serial entrepreneur with a passion for bringing diverse teams together to solve difficult problems.

Bio: I am proud to be considered one of the leading experts in the transformation of logistics platforms from single-use to circularity, reducing the mountains of plastics and corrugated cardboard entering our waste stream while saving millions in packaging expenses. I received my MBA from the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. Over the last 20+ years I’ve worked at the intersection of supply chain and sustainability; I directed the Sierra Club's political operations in 20 states and built e-waste programs which saved millions of used cell phones from landfills for companies such as Verizon, AT&T, Walmart, and Best Buy during my tenure as the Sales and Marketing Vice President for ReCellular. Through my continued relationships advising Fortune 100 companies as well as start-ups on supply chain and sustainability, I am well-versed on and often speak on panels about:

• Environmental Policy

• Grassroots Activism

• Start-ups

Sustainability and the Shift from Single-Use to Circular Economy

• Supply Chain

• Reverse Logistics

• Systems Change for Major Corporations

I’ve leveraged this unique insight to effectively implement successful programs that balance sustainability with consumer and financial targets, empowering companies’ supply chain and purchasing teams to adopt innovative new packaging models and thereby easing the shift to the new circular economy.

Today, I serve as the Chief Executive Officer of Returnity Innovations, the pioneer in the elimination of single use shipping packaging that reduces packaging expenses and provides a financial return, improved user experience, reduction of workplace injuries and significant reductions in resource consumption. We accomplish this by creating innovative alternatives to cardboard boxes and poly bags - recyclable, light yet durable, reusable bags and boxes. As CEO, I build and manage cross-functional teams to execute the design, manufacturing, and implementation of these reusable solutions while also focusing on significant business opportunities and developing mutually beneficial partnerships. We will replace the use of over 1 million cardboard boxes and poly mailer bags with reusable packaging in 2019 and 10 million+ in 2020.

How did you get into the industry?

In my 30’s it became clear to me that my family legacy combines both entrepreneurship and, oddly enough, waste management; My paternal grandfather owned a scrap yard, my maternal grandfather owned a plumbing business, and my father built a company that became the largest mobile phone recycling business in the world. That legacy seems to have given me insight on a cellular-level that makes me uniquely qualified to face the specific challenges and momentous opportunities that Returnity is addressing.

I’ve been working on supply chain and sustainability long enough to be considered an overnight success. Though great ideas and change often feel like strikes of lightning, for me it was the culmination of 20 years of work building a base of expertise in environmental policy and grassroots activism (the Sierra Club), start-ups (stkr.it, Climb) and reverse logistics and supply chain (ReCellular). That knowledge base led Returnity investor Brian Spaly (Bonobos, Trunk Club) to help bring me in as CEO in 2017. It is the perfect intersection of those previous experiences in sustainability, supply chain and systems change for major corporations.

Any emerging industry trends?

Electric delivery vehicles. The trend lines all point in the same direction: not enough last-mile capacity, improving performance, lower costs, and a desperate need to address climate change as aggressively as possible. The age of the diesel-belching truck will reach an end sooner than people realize.

Any industry opportunities or challenges?

Modern shipping requires attention to details such as dimensions, weight, security and cost. That is why we’ve created solutions that are unique in that they don’t disrupt the logistics that work for each partner, but instead customize them to best fit the way they already do business so that companies can replace defunct cardboard boxes and poly mailer bags with alternatives that do the job just as well, which can reduce packaging expenses by more than fifty percent. Companies should think of packaging as an investment, with boxes paying for themselves after fifteen trips and lasting at least forty trips, and then recyclable at the end of their lifespan, which significantly reduces environmental impact.

Inspiration for the business idea, and your vision for the Business?

Everybody loves the convenience of ecommerce – and everybody loves complaining about the mountains of shipping packaging it creates. In that tension is our opportunity: eliminating single-use packaging that is expensive, cumbersome, and bad for the planet. We’ve done that by developing light, durable, easy-to-use bags and boxes to replace cardboard boxes and poly bags. These bags and boxes can accommodate larger or uniquely-shaped items and are water-resistant, durable and feature proven security and labeling components. Best of all they are made from recycled materials and are recyclable at the end of their lifespan. Switching from cardboard and poly mailer bags to reusable packaging leads to a significant reduction in natural resource consumption. More fundamentally, it helps reinforce the necessary move away from a single-use to a circular economy. Technological developments are creating a path towards that more sustainable future – but the more we can do to ease that adoption, the faster we can realize the benefits. We aggressively focus on details such as dimensions, weight, security and cost. Our solutions are unique in that we don’t disrupt the logistics that work for each partner but instead customize them to best fit the way they do business. In that way, we are making that path towards a more sustainable future more accessible right now, at this moment in time.

Career advice to those in your industry?

It is easy to dream of all the markets you can disrupt with your big idea – and to think it wise to place a bunch of small bets on all of them to increase the odds something makes it. In my experience, this strategy always backfires. At my first start-up, we kept throwing our technology at new categories – Kids books! Quilting! – but it just resulted in a lack of focus and inadequate resources to make anything successful. Not picking a priority is just as bad as picking the wrong one.

Successful startups need to focus on being great at as few things as possible. Every discipline or market you have to disrupt or excel in for your business to thrive just compounds your risk.

Network aggressively – but never assume that anybody knows your market or concept better than you do.

How you raise money impacts the definition of success for your company more fundamentally than you can possibly imagine.

Stopping is much harder than starting. This might seem counter-intuitive – starting a new venture is an enormous undertaking – but that same drive that compels an entrepreneur to launch a company can make it very difficult for them to know when enough is enough. At stkr.it I felt tremendous responsibility to protect my investors, but I also subconsciously was afraid of what calling it quits would say about me and my stewardship of the company. Businesses fail in so many ways, and so long as you conducted yourself with integrity and transparency, you ultimately are not serving yourself or your stakeholders by keeping a business going if the fundamentals are not there.

What makes me the best version of myself?

I was raised in a family that puts integrity above everything – and has no tolerance for ego. I’ve learned hard lessons along the way, but that translates into a few core approaches to my business and personal life. In 2005, I was Head of Sales and Marketing for the biggest cell phone recycling company in the world. We built and managed the e-waste programs for Verizon, AT&T, Best Buy and more – but had yet to land the Walmart account. I flew to Bentonville full of the expertise and confidence that came with being the market leader and most innovative firm in the field. When I arrived for our meeting, I was put in the holding area for everybody else trying to do business with Walmart. Meeting rooms were assigned numbers, and a blinking screen much like one you would see at the DMV told you when your room was ready. Sitting beside me was somebody with a wheel of cheese. Another person had a big stuffed animal. A third was holding garden hoses. We all sat in silence, awaiting our fate. That moment was humbling and transformative. I was brought to the realization that no matter your job, no matter your company – you are always selling. That realization has served me well and has stuck with me through the years. I firmly believe that if you build products and services that create value and service your customers with integrity, and you will find success, no matter what industry you are in. And never think you are better than the garden hose salesperson.Daily Rundown

What are you doing at:

6:00 AM: Walking the dog before the kids are awake!

10:00 AM: Caught up on overnight correspondence from our production partner in China and European clients, and ready to tackle the priorities of the day.

12:00 PM: Favorite Lunch spot/meal?

Lunch is almost always at my desk – with two kids under 5, I’ve got limited time in the office and have to be as efficient as possible!

7:00 PM: Bath and book time! Young kids require a strict routine; that consistency helps keep you focused and task oriented.

11:00 PM: Asleep if I’m smart; I’ve wrapped the last WeChat talks with China and get to bed