Exit Interview: Keith Miller, 3M

Exit Interview

Exit Interview: Keith Miller, 3M

Last week, Keith Miller spent his last day as a 3M employee after 37 years, most recently with the title of sustainability strategic advisor. 3M has been an iconic company in environmental circles, having issued its first environmental policy statement, adopted by its board, in 1975.

That same year it started a then-revolutionary program called Pollution Prevention Pays, which encourages ideas and innovations that have saved billions of pounds of waste and emissions. 3P has been copied by many companies and has received numerous awards.

During his final days at the company, I caught up with Miller to talk about his career path and the sustainability journey of his company. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Joel Makower: How did you come to the job that you're now leaving?

Keith Miller: I grew up in the Twin Cities area and my mother worked for 3M. When I went off to college at the University of Minnesota, I was advised to be a chemical engineer and started working for 3M in 1974, right out of university, in a process engineering role in one of our tape division's packaging systems.

My first big project there was converting a solvent coating line to a new, hot-melt coating technology that was just being developed. It was also one of our first Pollution Prevention Pays projects. I left 3M for a couple of years to get experience in the environmental area because I knew after that project, that's what I wanted to do. I came back to 3M in 1978 and have been in the environmental and sustainability area ever since.

I had a number of jobs. I was an air pollution control specialist and then moved into management in the Environmental Engineering and Pollution Control group and then had an opportunity to become the Environmental Health and Safety manager for 3M Europe and the Middle East in 1995.

In 2003, we formed a group called Environmental Initiatives in Sustainability, which was around for 10 years. In 2013, our CEO formed a Sustainability Center of Excellence for the company where I'd been in for the last two years.

Makower: I had the good fortune of interviewing 3M’s pollution-prevention czar, Tom Zosel, in his office during the early 1990s for a book I was writing at the time. Clearly, 3P put 3M on the map, environmentally speaking, and Tom was a good reason for that. What did 3P do for the company in terms of not just saving money, but instilling an environmental ethic?

Miller: Tom was a good friend of mine and mentor in a lot of ways. 3P was really foundational for everything we've done in environmental health, safety, and sustainability. It created a culture. 3M is an innovation company, but it's not just innovative new products. It's innovative new processes and programs. 3P was an innovation in the environmental area. Preventing pollution really wasn't around in 1975, at least not in a corporate-wide basis.

Makower: We don't hear as much about 3P any more. Is it still around?

Miller: It's still going strong and this year is its 40th anniversary. There'll be an event later in the year to celebrate the accomplishments of 3P. We're constantly looking at how we can create products that have less waste and energy use and air emissions. And totally eliminating those where we can.

And it's not just for our operations, but it's also for our customers, and now looking at our supply chain and what we can do to help our suppliers reduce the emissions from what they are selling to us.

Makower: 3M's gone through a lot of changes, including several CEOs, over the last 20 or so years. What have you learned about keeping programs like 3P alive over the course of management changes?

Miller: That these corporate-wide programs, and especially new programs, need that top-down support. You can do a lot from the bottom-up and grassroots levels, but in a large, global company you really need to have that top-down support to succeed. The 3M CEOs have understood that. We've brought in a couple of CEOs from outside, and I think that at that point, 3P and our environmental efforts were so engrained that they were able to see they were great assets that they needed to remain in place.

Makower: When I got into this field in the late '80s and early '90s, 3M was one of the leaders because of its early environmental policy and 3P program. But somewhere around the turn of the millennium, we stopped hearing about 3M. What happened?

Miller: As you know, when Livio DeSimone retired as our CEO, he was chair of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. He pushed a lot of the efforts as well as providing direction for a lot of the programs. Over the next 10 years we had outside CEOs who were not able to be spokespersons and involved in the WBSCD and other organizations. That's probably why you didn't hear as much about 3M.

We still had programs during that time. And we continue to be on the Dow Jones Sustainability Index and a leader in our industrial conglomerate category. But you're right: we weren't out there talking about it very much.

Makower: Do you see that changing in the foreseeable future?

Miller: I do. When Inge Thulin came in as our CEO two years ago, we were working on how we could accelerate sustainability in the company. And seeing that as a growth opportunity for the company, we formed a Sustainability Center of Excellence at the beginning of 2013. That has accelerated our efforts on sustainability within the company. We'd had life-cycle management for a long time, and now are looking at not only environmental advantages for our products, but also social advantages. So, I think you'll hear more about 3M in the near future.

Makower: 3M has about 90,000 employees worldwide. What have you learned about in engaging as many of them as possible and making sure that environment stays — if not top of mind, at least on the list of things that employees think about?

Miller: We really have engaged employees around environmental sustainability efforts. And it really goes back to 3P. When that program was rolled out, it was rolled out to all 3Mers. It wasn't just for R&D or manufacturing. It was a program to engage all 3M employees. Even things like recycling in the office back in the '70s and '80s — it hit everybody and everybody got involved with it.

That created a culture within the company. In fact, when we issued our first environmental report in the early 1990s, it was sent out to every 3M employee — a paper copy, back then. That was the prime audience for it. We wanted people to feel good about our environmental efforts as 3M employees.

Makower: Getting everyone on board is no easy thing. 

Miller: The issues are complex. There are a lot of different impacts and unknown causes at times, and there usually is some sort of technical, science-based solution. But there’s also the emotions in these issues, and you have to deal with people’s beliefs. Tom Zosel was very good at looking at things from the emotional side and how people are reacting.

That was something I was able to pick up in working with environmental agencies and NGOs: You may have the perfect scientific solution, but if there’s emotions behind it, you have to work that. 

Makower: If you're like most of us, you get a lot of incoming inquiries from students and recent grads, as well as mid-career professionals, who are looking to “get into” environmental or sustainability jobs. What do you tell them?

Miller: I do get a lot of those inquiries and there's a lot of interest in the area. I tell them to use your strengths where you've come from to leverage around sustainability. So, if you've been in R&D, maybe you want to get involved in product sustainability. Or if you've come from marketing or whatever your background is, to bring your strengths to that.

Being able to collaborate with others to move these efforts forward is also really critical. I think that that's the only way we're really going to be successful with addressing these big environmental and social issues is through collaborations and partnerships. Those are usually the things that I talk to people about.

Makower: What about if you don't have any path you've been on — if you're just entering the job market and you want a job in this field?

Miller: We've been associated with Net Impact, so I've had the opportunity to talk to a lot of Net Impact people who are either in college or just graduated or in grad school who want to get involved in sustainability. I tell them, “You can get involved with sustainability without having it in your title or being in a sustainability group in an organization, because there aren't just many of those opportunities. You can be in a marketing or other type job in R&D and get involved in sustainability in your job and look at efforts that you can help with.”

Makower: What do you hope to be remembered for at 3M?

Miller: Wow. Well, I had my retirement party yesterday and it was really wonderful to hear what others had to say. One of the things I mentioned is the goals of the company. We just set 10-year goals, so I hope in some way I’m remembered for being involved in those goals. And that they helped advance the company further in sustainability.

More personally, that I was able to help people to be effective in their jobs and to help them to work on sustainability within their business or within their function more effectively.

Makower: It doesn't get much better than helping the company and helping people, right?

Miller: That's right. I think the important thing is helping people to have a good career. And if you can help them along the path with making good decisions and being successful in what they do, that's going to be better for everyone.