At 6-foot-4, Elisabeth Fornés clearly stands above her supply chain professional peers, applying teamwork skills honed as a French professional basketball player and knowledge of four languages (and cultures) to her role with the world’s largest building materials company.
That the France-born Fornés is entering her 10th year as global supply chain and compliance manager for Saint-Gobain/CertainTeed – a company with French roots dating back to the 1600s – is, as she tells it, largely coincidence, but it seems fate has put her in just the right place.
Fornés, who is based at Saint-Gobain/CertainTeed’s North American headquarters in Malvern, Pennsylvania, 25 miles west of Philadelphia, loves basketball, as well as sparking wine, cheese and chocolate, but her true passion is her work, as the licensed customs broker relates in an interview with the American Journal of Transportation.
How has Saint-Gobain/CertainTeed, as the world’s largest building materials company, been engaged in breakbulk and containerized shipping?
Our company is very diversified in terms of products – from windshields to performance plastics on yachts to medical equipment, such as tracheotomy tubes. And we have roofing, siding, insulation and other construction products.
So, when it comes to shipping products, goods or raw materials, we definitely go on the container side. The majority of our shipments will be FCL [full containerload] or LCL [less than containerload].
However, in order to manufacture those goods, most of which are manufactured here in the US, we import machinery and big project pieces, and that’s where we’re involved with the breakbulk, with dedicated skilled teams helping us go from Point A to Point B.
How do you flex your supply chain to deal with the ups and downs of the construction industry?
We have teams that are experts in real estate, experts in demographics and trends in construction and development, which they study on a daily basis.
As far as the CertainTeed building products subsidiary of Saint-Gobain, people ask me how I manage working for a company where nature comes into play, with hurricanes and hailstorms.
Our company is always ready to do whatever we can for our customers. Customers always come first. Our supply chain is all studied for that.
This is the particularity of working for CertainTeed, where you’re not going to have a day of routine, equally each month.
I compare it to maybe a chocolate factory. They’re going to have their Valentine’s Day and Christmas or Easter, when they know it’s going to happen. But, for us, because the U.S. is so spread out, it could be hot in Los Angeles when it’s freezing in Boston, so the market is not the same everywhere all the time.
We have 16 plants for just the roofing, not counting insulation, ceilings and siding, and we’re all set up for those ups and downs, as you call them.
We sell to wholesale distributors, like [Beloit, Wisconsin-based] ABC Supply [Co. Inc.], selling to roofers, insulators and other contractors.
What challenges are posed by the present state of the ocean carrier industry, and how are you responding?
Obviously, it’s no secret that it’s very volatile. We try to have enough stock at the plants. We export to 48 countries right now, be it the shingles, insulation, any of the products we make.
Let’s say you have an ocean freight rate that’s maybe low right now on the Chinese export into the United States. But then you look at the export for our customers, and there are rates that are pretty stagnant at the moment, but we’ve been seeing things that are really up and down. So customers paying for the freight are impacted first.
The demand stays the same, so it’s not impacting the company as a whole, but it may be impacting our logistics. For example, if the rates are going to be going up or if there’s lack of availability, maybe a customer who wants 10 containers should order 15 right now.
Shipping to all those countries, you see a trend in seasons. When it’s winter here, it’s summer in Australia. So somewhere in the world, they will always be in season for installing some kind of product on their housing.
You forecast as much as you can, but you can’t forecast nature.
The [ocean carrier] industry isn’t helping. Everybody’s talking about Hanjin going bankrupt. You realize, wow, we really depend on those containers and vessels delivering the goods or shipping to our customers. At that point, you have no control.
Is there any pride – or pressure – associated with being with a company with more than 350 years of history, having begun as a maker of mirrors in Paris in 1665 and with global headquarters still on the outskirts of Paris?
Pride with a definite capital P. I started working for Saint-Gobain nine years ago, and I have to say I am passionate about my job. There’s always a story about Saint-Gobain. I mean, 350 years, so many things happening.
When you think about the King of Versailles getting the mirrors done by a small factory in Saint-Gobain, where there’s still actually a village outside Paris. It’s amazing when you think about how they blew glass at the time, with all that manual labor.
Last year, we had a worldwide 350th anniversary celebration. We had 25 containers going from China to Brazil to Philadelphia and on to France. Each place had a week-plus of celebration, where we built these pavilions and explained to people what Saint-Gobain is about – about innovation, safety, being green.
It’s a hard name to pronounce, but it is amazing.
How did you wind up with Saint-Gobain, after it appears international sales, export and contract positions with Philips Healthcare and a maker of dental burs?
It was a total coincidence. I was working in New Jersey [for dental manufacturer SS White] and one day opened the internet looking to do something a little bigger.
When I looked at the job here, I said, “Hmm, CertainTeed, I don’t know what they are.” Then I got the paperwork for the interview with a few questions and saw “Saint-Gobain,” and said, “Oh my God, really? This is awesome.”
Quelle coïncidence! So how has your own global experience, being born and schooled in France and with an arsenal of four languages – English, French, Spanish and Japanese – helped you in your work in international supply chain management?
It has helped me and it still does, though not necessarily the language itself, and I started learning a second language at 7 in France, where I was born and raised. When learning a language, you have the advantages of learning a culture at the same time.
You learn the people, you learn the traditions. You have to understand the way people live and think. It really has helped.
What is your involvement with the French-American Chamber of Commerce in Philadelphia, and what other outside interests do you pursue?
I’ve been on the board of directors of the French-American Chamber for about five years. It allows me to meet people from not only French companies but all kinds of companies doing import-export business with France. Our business is to motivate those companies. It’s a very good way not only to network but to get Saint-Gobain known.
I’m also involved with the World Trade Association in Philadelphia. It’s more transportation-oriented. We promote the Port of Philly.
I am an Eagles fan, a French girl passionate about [American] football.
I’m a U.S. citizen now, but the first foot I set in this country was on July 4, 1990, in Boise, Idaho, with an exchange program for three or four weeks, and went back a few times and wound up in Laramie, Wyoming, also with an exchange program, so the far west part of this country is something I discovered. It’s gorgeous.
I used to play basketball professionally. I’m 6-4. I used it for something.
When I was 13, I got to a new town [in France] with my family, and my mother was trying to have me make some friends and said I was going to have to start some other sports besides swimming by yourself in the water, where you can’t really talk to anyone.
So I quickly started basketball, and, when the coach saw I was growing half an inch every two months, he quickly got me into practicing every night. It was a great experience.
By the time I was 17 or 18, I got into the high level of semipro, where you play with a team that is not linked to a university. You play against other teams in France, and, once you become French champions, which we did, we played other teams in Europe, like in the European Olympics in ’93. I traveled all around. I was the center, the post, for the team.
It’s been part of my life. I miss it. I don’t have much time for it now, although I do go and shoot around when I can, not too far from my house. And I’ve got kids in the neighborhood who ring the bell and ask, “Can Elisabeth come out and play?”
The team spirit is in me. When people say we’ve got to think as a team, I don’t need to think about it; it just comes naturally.
I can’t live without sports.
Can I assume you enjoy fine wine and chocolate?
Chocolate, yes, that’s my little treat. And the wine, definitely.
I was born in a beautiful town called Tours. I actually just visited my parents last week. All my family and friends are in France, so I’m just basically by myself here.
This town of Tours is on the Loire River. The region – the Loire Valley – is full of wines, including fizzy wines, sparkling wines, champagnes. I had the chance to have a dad, who is still alive, who had a cave under the house – something not unusual in France – and would teach me the names, the smells, the tastes.
We started when I was 6 or 7 years old, just having a spoon with a square of sugar and a couple drops of wines to get the taste of it.
I did find one or two wines that are close to my hometown, probably 15 minutes from there, that are here imported in the U.S., that are a pleasure to go buy. And now, probably this weekend, now that you’ve given me this taste in my mouth, I’m going to go get a bottle of Vouvray.
It’s probably trop cher here?
No, you know what, it’s bon marché. Not as cheap as it would be in my hometown, probably double the price, but, once in awhile, when you really deserve it and have had a good work week, you say, I’m going to put that in the fridge and have some good cheese…”
I just brought one cheese from France that they put in a vacuum-seal bag that Customs allows you to bring back, so it could be a good Friday night treat.
Bon appétit! À la vôtre!
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