Exit Interview: Bruce Klafter, Applied Materials

Exit Interview is an occasional series profiling sustainability professionals who have recently left their job.

Bruce Klafter joined Applied Materials in 2000, after serving as its outside counsel for years. Applied is a Silicon Valley-based provider of manufacturing equipment for the semiconductor, flat-panel display and solar photovoltaic industries. In 2012, it had annual revenues of $8.7 billion.

Klafter recently retired from his job there after serving as head of both environmental health and safety and corporate responsibility and sustainability. The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Joel Makower: Tell me about your background.

Bruce Klafter: I’m an environmental lawyer by background. I practiced environmental and natural resources law for about 20 years before I joined Applied. Applied was one of my clients, which was why I knew them and they knew me and I eventually elected to go in-house. I’ve worked in the field for my entire career and handled virtually any type of issue you could name. I worked both in government practice and private practice. I always had quite a bit of diversity in what I was doing.

Makower: What your job was at Applied Materials?

Klafter: I essentially morphed my position into a sustainability one. After working for a few years in the law department, I was asked to become the head of the EHS organization. It was in that position where I gradually began to identify sustainability issues as strategic issues for the company, and started adding those to the list of things that EHS was working on.

There came a point a couple of years into that where I went to our VP of strategy and said, “I want to make you more aware of some of the things that I’m doing and our department is doing. And I think for purposes of gaining some traction internally and some recognition externally, I’d like to add a sustainability title.” I got that proposal accepted, and from that point on I referred to myself as both head of environmental health and safety and head of corporate responsibility and sustainability.

Makower: What were your duties?

Klafter: Well, there were all the conventional environmental health and safety function, of course — compliance, permitting, internal auditing, assessment of new chemicals used in our operations, and a whole gamut of safety issues, including incidents, investigations, etc.

What I saw among those emerging issues were things like carbon footprint inventory, external reporting, and a whole variety of external engagements with local and industry and international organizations. So I gradually added those to the menu of things that I was doing. I didn’t have a dedicated staff for that, but I would utilize our environmental engineers and individuals in other departments, and I would spend as much time as I could on those subjects.

Makower: What did sustainability mean at Applied?

Klafter: I think initially we were very focused on greening our operations, like many companies, for no other than reason than when you’re trying to build that case internally, you tend to look there because that’s where you can generate some quick wins. You can save money, you can energize your employees somehow, and potentially, you can also garner some good public relations recognition for the company.

I think typically that’s where it begins, and that was true in our case. I was looking at what other companies were doing. I was trying to discern what the best practices were. But I’ve always told others, the real trick is being able to take those best practices and adapt them to the business where you’re working to take bits and pieces or transform it somehow. Because a lot of it is depending on what your business is all about and, of course, the culture — who are the individuals that you’re dealing with.

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