This is a transcript for an episode of Branding Love Letters, which is available wherever you listen to podcasts.

Find your platform by clicking the love letter:

"AFM Safecoat: Pioneering Branding That Works" — Andy Pace, Healthy Building Expert

Andy Pace (00:00): Hello, I'm Andy Pace, a 30-year veteran of healthy home consulting and supply and this is my love letter to AFM Safecoat.

Sam Thorogood (00:23): Welcome to Branding Love Letters, exploring the emotions brands evoke and the journeys they take us on. I'm Sam Thorogood, a graphic designer and your host. In each episode, I invite a guest to pick their favourite brand and unpack why it means so much to them. This podcast is a celebration of the branding that informs, impacts and inspires us. So, without further ado...

Andy Pace (01:05): Back in 1992, I was supplying a water-based coating for a big project in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. We were coating all the concrete floors in a parking structure. And we had a situation where the materials we were using were causing occupants of this structure to start to complain about the odours, the solvent smells. And on top of that, we had three of our own workers rushed to the hospital because of inhalation complications. They literally could not breathe because of the chemical off-gassing coming from the floor coating that we were providing. We stopped the project, obviously, because of the worry of what this was doing to people. And we went on a, about a month-long journey around the United States to find a company that could make a product to do the same thing without the extensive use of toxins. We found a small company in California called AFM, and they make products for people with chemical sensitivities, allergies, asthma, people who just can't tolerate traditional building materials. And like I said, that was 1992, and that's the first time I ever heard of the company, and I've been working with them ever since.

Sam Thorogood (02:35): And at the time, in 1992, AFM, what they were doing, was that quite radical? Was that quite different?

Andy Pace (02:41): We had to search really hard because it was not sold through the normal channels. Most paints and coatings are sold through paint stores and hardware stores and other types of suppliers involved in home goods and home building repair materials. These products, the AFM products, were sold through allergists and doctors and clinics, these clinics that were opening up around the country specifically to help people who have been poisoned by their environment. And at the time, we didn't know anything about this. We were learning first-hand and for the first time what chemical sensitivity was, what sick building syndrome was. I know in other parts of the world, they had toxic paint syndrome. These were all new to us, and AFM was the one company that was created to do something about that.

Sam Thorogood (03:51): Tell me more about sick building syndrome.

Andy Pace (03:54): Sick building syndrome is caused by a combination of things. One would be the reduction of fresh air intake in a commercial space. So this dates back to the early 70s with the oil embargo and energy costs started skyrocketing. So commercial buildings, the building managers would actually cut down on the air exchanges to reduce their energy costs. So it wouldn't cost as much to heat up or cool down the air, and they did this as a money-saving action. But what they didn't realise it was causing people inside of the building to get sick. There wasn't enough fresh air. And at the same time you had building materials that were made from plastics and chemicals and so forth that were being introduced into the building environment. And so you created this toxic soup, and it was called sick building syndrome. We've learned an awful lot about that over the last 30 years. And sick building syndrome is not as prevalent as it used to be, but it's actually more hidden. And it's caused by specifically the chemical off-gassing of building materials that can happen for the lifespan of them. And this is where AFM Safecoat steps in, because their paints and coatings and sealers can really take care of a lot of those issues.

Sam Thorogood (05:35): And what was it that kept you interested in this brand? Because you're describing it, and this is a 30-year-long journey, really, with the same brand. So clearly, they're doing something that just speaks to you in a very profound way. Can you talk into that a bit?

Andy Pace (05:52): Well, in the simplest terms, it just feels right that we should be using healthy materials, materials that don't harm us. But I look back to my career, 30-plus years in the construction industry, and I look at how all other manufacturers operate. Yes, they're trying to make good-quality products, but it's all about, at the end of the day, the bottom line and what type of profit margins they can make for their investors. AFM, to this day, is still a smallish, privately-owned company. And their goal has been, from the start, to make products to create a better world, to create a better indoor environment. And they've never wavered from that. When all other manufacturers started making materials to be eco-friendly, to be better for the outdoor environment, which is fantastic, but the downside is when you make products specifically for that, sometimes you have to give up on your human health aspects. And AFM never wavered from that. And for that, I would never shy, waver away from using their products.

Sam Thorogood (07:15): And when you think about AFM, what emotions does it evoke as a brand?

Andy Pace (07:19): Comfort. It would be peace of mind. It would be ease of pain. I deal a lot with people around the world who have severe immune system disorders, whether it's they're going through cancer treatments and they have no immune system left, or they're suffering from Lyme disease, from dysautonomia, mass cell activation, chronic inflammation, all these things that can cause a lack of an immune system. And I hear and I see it in their face, the pain that they deal with on a daily basis of being exposed to materials, whether it's in their home or somewhere else, that can cause severe reactions in their body. And when they send me letters and they send me voicemail messages and you can literally read and hear the tears of joy because they can finally live in their home without that pain, that's what keeps me going. And yeah, I think that's the main motivation for me. It's knowing that what we're doing is the right thing and it's doing right by all of our customers.

Sam Thorogood (08:50): Was that initial encounter with AFM 30 years ago, was that a turning point in your career personally as well?

Andy Pace (08:57): Without a doubt. At the time I focused on commercial construction and architecture. I knew nothing about residential building. I never worked retail in my life. Since I was a small child, my family has owned a construction material supply business and I knew about architects and contractors and buildings and so forth. That's what I studied in school. That's what I always wanted to do. When I found AFM, I remember the day I found them and I went back to the office and I met with my family and I said, what we're doing is wrong. And we didn't know it. We didn't realise we were selling materials that could be potentially dangerous. And so it not only was a turning point for me personally, but for the entire company. At the time, I was the president of the largest architectural commercial architectural association in my area. And I gave up all of that to start selling and promoting healthier building materials. And now almost my entire income is derived not from selling these materials, but working with clients around the country, around the world as a consultant to recommend the correct products for their new builds and for the remodeling. Because I've learned so much about this over the last 30 years. And now I'm giving that back through my consulting.

Sam Thorogood (10:36): We'll be back with today's guest in a short moment. I wanted to just jump in to say thank you. Thank you for listening, for choosing to listen to this podcast above all of the other ones that you could be listening to right now. And also wanted to say that the podcast is released on the 14th of every month. There's a new episode that goes out on the 14th of the month. Normally it's just one episode, but this month there is more than one episode. So do check out what else has been released today. If you're enjoying this one, listen to the others and do share the podcast with friends, with family, with colleagues, with cats and dogs and people in the street that you wander to pass. Just, you know, spread the word about Branding Love Letters. OK, let's get back to the conversation.

(11:25): And what were people saying in the early days when you kind of said, okay, I'm making this career shift? Did people just think you were crazy? I mean, because it sounds like it wasn't, you know, it wasn't the norm. And it's a route that is quite pioneering in a way. So what were people saying to you?

Andy Pace (11:53): There's a lot of laughter, a lot of snickering. People didn't understand it. My good friends in the industry that I developed understood my reasoning why, but didn't think it had a chance to actually work. You know, you have to remember that when I started my business and started selling these materials and promoting them to clients, the word green was simply a colour. You know, nowadays, it's a way of life. But back then, when I started the business, we didn't have the internet. We didn't have the United States Green Building Council, never existed. We didn't have the LEED program, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, which has taken over the world in commercial construction as far as the way, the checklist on how to build an eco-friendly and sustainable building. None of this existed. I did it because we had a problem of people getting sick on one project. And we realised that if people were getting sick on one project, people are getting sick all over the world from using these types of products. And I found a better way. Doesn't it just make common sense to use the better products? If it doesn't cost you anymore and it's not any more difficult to get, and you don't have to give up your aesthetic requirements, colours and so forth, then why wouldn't people use this? So, to me, it just seemed like common sense. And to others, they couldn't understand because they never experienced what I experienced with people getting sick from the old way to do it.

Sam Thorogood (13:45): Talk to me about the visual identity of the brand. So, when you see these paint cans, for example, on the shelf, how do they stand out? How do they appear differently to the alternatives?

Andy Pace (13:57): So, this actually changed for AFM about 15 years ago. And before that, their labels were very clinical. It almost looked like the label was like a prescription bottle that had very specific information on it. It was very terse. Matter-of-fact, this is what it is. Safe coat paint. Here's how to use it. You're done. This worked well for people in construction, in commercial industries, because we liked that the labels were very easy to understand, easy to read. But on a shelf, if you were a homeowner and you're looking at a shelf full of paint from all different manufacturers, it didn't stand out because it looked too simplistic. So, about 15 years ago, AFM changed the label. And they have about 55 different products. Every product has its own label and its own little identity. And what that identity is either like a specific type of flower or a specific type of natural material like stone or wood or water. And it all correlates to the type of product that it is and where it's used inside of the home.

Sam Thorogood (15:28): And what has AFM Safecoat done over the years that has maybe surprised you? Have they released any products that you've sort of thought, wow, that's surprising? Or have they tried to branch out into different industries, for example, that have surprised you in some way?

Andy Pace (15:45): Three things that have pleasantly surprised me. Number one, I think the most surprising is over all of these years and with all of the attempts that other companies have made to try to buy them or partner with them to utilise their technology or to water down their technology, AFM has never wavered from their original mission. To create the least toxic interior, exterior coatings imaginable. The original founder of AFM literally died trying to make non-toxic formulations. He was a paint chemist, developed cancer because of the industry he worked in. And after that, after finding out that he was sick, he said, I've got to change my ways because I know it's from what I'm working with. And he said, from now on, I'm making nothing but non-toxic formulations. And he's passed now 25 years to almost 30 years. But the manufacturer, the company today still exists solely by following those guidelines to continue to make the healthiest materials possible. That's number one.

(17:08): Number two, about 10 years ago, AFM launched an entirely new way of making paints and coatings out of non-synthetic but completely natural materials. And so they make a line of paints and wood coatings out of natural oils and minerals. So that kind of surprised me in a good way. And the third thing is, is that they don't shy away from large-scale application. They make a very unique material. But when companies like automakers like BMW come to us and say, can you make a coating to seal up the off-gassing from these components, AFM will do it. And they did do it. They also work with other auto manufacturers. They work with large furniture companies, large toy manufacturers. They're not shy to work with large companies to help them solve their problems. And they do this in a very quiet way without taking a lot of pats on the back for it. They're not one for telling everybody about how good they are. They just want their products to work.

Sam Thorogood (18:19): And in terms of their mission, I mean, is that something that you see more widely in the construction industry? Or is that quite rare to have a company that is leading with its mission rather than necessarily the product itself?

Andy Pace (18:33): I think it's very rare. I think especially in manufacturing. In retail, we find retail stores opening all the time that are more mission-driven than they are profit-driven. Especially in our industry, in the green building, healthy living industry, stores open up all the time because they want to do their part to help the environment, help the earth, help the people. And again, they're more mission-driven than they are profit-driven. AFM is unique. Yes, they have to make a profit in order to keep their business going. But they never waver from the way they get to that profit, which is the mission that they started back in the 80s. And they still operate under to this day.

Sam Thorogood (19:30): Have there been any times where it's been harder to love this brand?

Andy Pace (19:35): Yes. It's hard to love the brand when every other paint manufacturer on earth wants to talk about how their products are green and eco-friendly and meet all these outdoor air pollution regulations. But they don't make materials that are designed to be healthy for humans. And AFM is still this lone company that's out there making human-friendly products. Sometimes I wish they would just match what everybody else is doing so we could enter that space a little bit, maybe lower the prices because we're using sub-quality, sub-standard ingredients. On the other hand, then I think about my customers and what they would think. They're used to buying high-quality, toxin-free materials. If we would ever waver from that, we would hear about it right away. So it's kind of a catch-22.

Sam Thorogood (20:35): How would you describe AFM to someone that's never heard of them before, never come across them? How would you describe that?

Andy Pace (20:44): The way I describe AFM is AFM was developed specifically to create paints, coatings, specialty sealers for residential and commercial spaces. And specifically to make materials that are not only toxin-free but are not going to contribute to any indoor air quality issues whatsoever. And so those who suffer from allergies, asthma, chemical sensitivities, and depressed immune systems, 98% of these folks can tolerate Safecoat, the AFM Safecoat paint products, where they wouldn't be able to tolerate other brands.

Sam Thorogood (21:32): And can you kind of talk to me about your particular relationship with this brand? Because I know with the Green Design Center, you have a relationship with AFM. How does that work in practice?

Andy Pace (21:45): Yeah. Well, back 30 years ago when I first found them, and I knew we had something. I knew we had a tiger by the tail, something that would eventually just take off. I developed a distribution arrangement with them because my background was commercial construction and commercial materials. So we decided that we were going to represent their company and try to mainstream them. Again, at the time, they were selling their products through doctor's offices, through allergists, very alternative sources of building materials. And we entered an agreement with them to be able to distribute their products through mainstream paint stores and hardware stores. And to this day, we are still AFM's North American distribution point for all the stores across the country who sell them. We sell their products both wholesale and retail. And that's through the Green Design Center.

(22:51): But personally, most of my day is involving consulting where I'm working with homeowners and contractors because of specific projects. And I can recommend anything in my consulting business. I don't recommend products that I sell all the time. Matter of fact, my goal is to recommend products that are the easiest for them to get, that meet their budget, and most importantly, will hopefully solve the problems that they're having inside of their home. And because of that, I wouldn't have to always recommend the Safecoat products. But you know what? I normally do because they meet all those requirements, and I've never been dissatisfied with their performance.

Sam Thorogood (23:41): And can you tell me more about where we can connect with the Green Design Center, where we can find you online? And I know you have a podcast as well, so maybe you could just share about that.

Andy Pace (23:51): So the best way to find everything would be our website, which is From that front page, you can find the materials that we supply. You can find a link to our podcast, which is called Non-Toxic Environments, which is also on all of the other podcast publishers out there, whether it's iTunes or Spotify or others. You can also link to my consulting and where you can hire me for a 15-minute phone call all the way up to a year's worth of consulting if you're doing a whole house project. And then you can also join our, we have what's called a Circle Community, which is a private community for customers, for listeners who want to learn more. It doesn't cost a thing to join, but from that community, I do a weekly live television show where I bring in not only a special guest each week, but I also have customers, listeners, join us to ask questions. So it's a fully interactive weekly live programme.

Sam Thorogood (25:12): Fantastic. Well, finally, I would love for you to just share your love letter that you have written to AFM Safecoat.

Andy Pace (25:20): Excellent. Well, I do a podcast and I do my live show, and I'm used to speaking in front of people. Sharing a love letter is a little different than what I'm used to, but I love the concept, so thank you for asking. Dear AFM, I can't believe it's already been 30 years since we first met. As smitten as I was way back then with your non-toxic products and commitment to human health, you've never given me a reason to stop recommending you to every consulting client I've ever had. These 30 years have been a blessing, and I can't wait for the next 30.

Sam Thorogood (26:02): Well, Andy, thank you very much for letting us hear your branding love letter.

Andy Pace (26:07): Thank you so much for allowing me to share.

Sam Thorogood (26:12): You've been listening to Branding Love Letters and I've been Sam Thorogood. I'm on a mission: equip pioneers like you to bring others onto your journey. Come and find out more Thanks for listening. Oh, and big thanks to Thomas Thorogood for the music. Take it away, Tommy boy.

Sam Thorogood | Pilgrimage Design