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Remembering Flex exec Bruce Klafter

Reflections on a thoughtful, diplomatic and disciplined leader.

Bruce Klafter, Flex

Longtime GreenBiz friend Bruce Klafter died July 18 after a short and intense bout of pancreatic cancer. Bruce most recently was a vice president of sustainability strategy and outreach at Flex in Silicon Valley. GreenBiz co-founder and President Pete May reflects on his interaction with Bruce over the years. And below, we provide memories of Bruce from many of his friends and collaborators in the sustainability community.

In the course of a business career, you meet colleagues who are smart, or kind, or just really good at what they do. Bruce Klafter was all of those things. 

I first met Bruce in 2007. Joel Makower and I had just founded GreenBiz Group (then called Greener World Media). I was very actively getting out to meet practitioners in what was then the emerging field of sustainable business. Bruce at that time was managing director, corporate responsibility and sustainability at Applied Materials — then and now a massive player in materials engineering for the semiconductor and solar photovoltaic industries.

Bruce was engaging, warm, thoughtful and way farther along the journey in sustainability and environmental, health and safety issues than most people I spoke with back then. (Read his 2013 interview, when he "retired" from Applied Materials, in which he recounts his professional journey to that point.)

Over the years, I got to know Bruce and I considered him a friend. We even got together to play tennis once and he roundly thrashed me. He was in good shape but, more tellingly, he was strategic in how he played — just as he was in his day job. In typical Bruce fashion, he offered no trash-talking after; he instead commended me on my game and noted what I needed to work on. 

Bruce left his handprints all over the industry, a hand that was always advancing good.

Bruce was always a big fan of GreenBiz — our website, our team and our events. He was always diplomatic but he didn’t shrink from giving detailed, measured and constructive feedback. I can still hear him, with his Chicago accent, saying, "Yeah, that article on LCA was good, but I think you could have gone deeper on ..." Or "I thought the conference was good this year, and your team always does a professional job, but I thought the mainstage speakers could have been better."

Or without arrogance, "I thought some of the sessions were too 101."

Feedback from Bruce was always valuable, never trite, never superficial and never a stroke to one’s ego. I always walked away thinking "Yeah, we can really improve in this or that area."

Engaging with and giving back to the community always came easily for Bruce. He was present at most every sustainability gathering in the San Francisco Bay Area and often farther afield — as a speaker or just an attendee. He lectured at the Presidio School of Management and was integrally involved with Acterra, SASB, GRI and other sustainability leadership organizations. Bruce was present at leading conferences such as GreenBiz, VERGE and BSR. He always had time for early career professionals who sought his advice. 

In 2013, Bruce joined Flex, the giant multinational electronics contract manufacturer, where he most recently was vice president of sustainability strategy and outreach.

Over the years, we would meet up regularly at Flex headquarters in San Jose, where Bruce would share insights about the company and the industry. When I saw him in January, we spent some time in the cafeteria. We talked about work and he gave me advice on how GreenBiz should deal with Flex. When I asked him about his family, he lit up, speaking so proudly of his kids. 

By that time Bruce was dealing with a challenge way bigger than any challenge in his career: pancreatic cancer. And he was doing it with courage, in his own quiet measured way, 

Bruce attended our GreenBiz 20 in Phoenix in February. He later confided in me that that was where the cancer treatments really started to affect him.

I last saw him at our VERGE Host Committee meeting at Cisco Systems in late February, just weeks before the world shut down for COVID-19. He participated actively, passionately describing Flex’s work in the circular economy and other topics. During a break, he expressed a quiet confidence in how he was dealing with his illness. 

From the calm way he described it, I never imagined that was the last time I would see him. But it was. And that hurts. 

Bruce was personally warm and engaging, intelligent, blessed with a sense of humor and dedicated to the work of building bridges and bringing change.

On July 21, his family held a beautiful and moving ceremony. With more than 200 friends and colleagues tuning in by Zoom, the officiating rabbi, along with Bruce’s spouse, son and daughter, described a caring father and husband known for his humble, caring and unassuming manner. 

Cancer is cruel. It often takes the best among us. Like Bruce Klafter. 

Bruce, you were loved and will be sorely missed by the team at GreenBiz Group, and by the sustainability community all around us.  

The Klafter family has requested that any donations in his name go to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, dedicated to fighting the world’s toughest cancer.

Below are a handful of memories from members of the sustainability community who Bruce touched.

Eric Austermann, Vice President, Social and Environmental Responsibility, Jabil

Deepest condolences to Bruce's family. I've known Bruce since the early beginnings of the Responsible Business Alliance (EICC when we first connected). Bruce was an outstanding person, with contagious impact. Bruce left his handprints all over the industry, a hand that was always advancing good. 

Evident by our respective companies, Bruce and I were direct competitors. Bruce's intellect, gentle (but very effective) passion and overall leadership at Flex inspired a healthy competitiveness that, frankly, raised the bar for all. 

Peggy Brannigan, Global Senior Program Manager, Environmental Sustainability, LinkedIn

I also want to share my appreciation for Bruce. I worked with him on the Acterra Business Environmental Awards program, and from the first time we met, I benefited from his generous welcoming spirit and his kindness. He was purposeful and had a big impact but always sensitive to taking good care of the relationships with people.

Bruce Hartsough, former director of sustainability, Intuit; Board Chair, Bay Nature

I was deeply saddened to hear that Bruce Klafter had passed. I met him when we were both members of the GreenBiz Executive Network (GBEN) at the time that he was leading Sustainability at Applied Materials while I was doing likewise for Intuit. Bruce was personally warm and engaging, intelligent, blessed with a sense of humor and dedicated to the work of building bridges and bringing change. He was one of the nicest people that I met during that time, and afterwards I was always glad to catch up with him at some of the nonprofit events that we were both involved in. I'm truly sorry that he has left us.

In a situation where some would resort to divisiveness, aggression, preconceived opinions or determination to outshine all others, Bruce did none of those things.
Ellen Jackowski, Chief Sustainability and Social Impact Officer, HP Inc.

Bruce was one of the best in our business and his legacy will live on for generations. He contributed to so many solutions, co-developed important pathways forward and did everything with such intention and openness to create change within our industry. I will miss Bruce’s friendship, and will never forget him or his passion to create a better world.

Cecily Joseph, Board Chair Net Impact; former vice president, Corporate Responsibility, Symantec

My heart aches for Bruce's family. Bruce was a mentor and friend to many in the sustainability space including me. He was always so kind and gracious. When we last met, I recall him speaking so very proudly of his children. He will be missed.

Mike Mielke, Senior Vice President, Environment and Energy, Silicon Valley Leadership Group

Bruce was my first professional mentor upon my arrival in Silicon Valley. I had heard so much about him before our meeting, and I was nervous that first time. Bruce, although he offered me some really helpful and point-blank advice, did so with such insight, thoughtfulness and kindness, that I knew right there and then I wanted to work however and whenever I could with this sharp, experienced, kind and witty man. I must confess I was overcome with grief when I learned of his passing. But I am comforted by the knowledge that Bruce positively touched and affected the lives of so many people — more than he could possibly know. Life is short and precious, and we should try our best to take advantage of the time we have to make a real difference however we can. That is what he taught me, and I believe Bruce tried to live every day that way.

Adam Stern, former director, Acterra

Many people talk about corporate environmental sustainability. Bruce lived and breathed it and made it happen. He was a brilliant strategist and an inspiring leader for all of us in the field. May his memory be a blessing.

Kathrin Winkler, former chief sustainability officer, EMC; Editor-at-Large, GreenBiz

In a situation where some would resort to divisiveness, aggression, preconceived opinions or determination to outshine all others, Bruce did none of those things. He was thoughtful, kind, open to others' perspectives, willing to listen and with his calm demeanor, able to bring peace. 

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