Best Buy's Sustainability Secret is Wearing a Blue Shirt

Best Buy's Sustainability Secret is Wearing a Blue Shirt

Image courtesy of Best Buy

Best Buy's in a tough business. The electronics giant ($50 billion in 2010 revenues) competes with Amazon, the best of the online retailers, and Walmart, the world's biggest bricks-and-mortar retailer. The company's shares have fallen lately.

What's Best Buy's competitive advantage?

It's the people in the blue shirts, says Brian Dunn, Best Buy's chief executive. "Our business is utterly dependent upon getting those 180,000 people aligned and moving forward," he says.

This is why sustainability is important to Best Buy, the 51-year-old chief executive says. It's about providing those people with opportunities, making sure they are heard and showing them that Best Buy cares about them and their values.

Brian gave the keynote speech this morning at the Boston College Corporate Citizenship Conference, which is being held in Minneapolis, Best Buy's home town. We spoke briefly after his talk, which wasn't your typical speech about sustainability or corporate responsibility. I don't believe he mentioned the words "carbon footprint." Instead he talked, in a personal way, about Best Buy's people, their aspirations, how they connect to sustainability and how he connects to them.

Providing an inspiring, engaging workplace is "the No. 1 element of Best Buy's sustainability strategy," Brian said. "We are leveraging our people as a competitive advantage. We stand on the shoulders of all the people who have worked on the floor for the past 40 years at Best Buy."

This not only sounds good but makes business sense: Just try getting help from Amazon or Walmart if you can't figure out why your TV or computer isn't doing what you want it to. In a commodity business, what makes Best Buy different is (or needs to be) service.

Of course, all CEOs mouth platitudes about how people are their company's most valuable asset. Brian is different, I think, because of where he came from -- he began his career at Best Buy as a salesman, 26 years ago. "This is personal to me," he says. He knows that selling boxes isn't a glamorous job. "Working in retail is tough," he says. "It's the monotony." So he wants to help Best Buy's people to connect their work to a larger mission that matters to them. He told a story about a Mexican-American worker in Las Vegas who wants to help his relatives get hired as Best Buy expands into Mexico, and another about a woman who used Skype connections to talk with her husband, a soldier stationed overseas.

The idea that Best Buy helps people live more connected lives sounds geeky, he said, but it's a very human, very emotional idea. "I travel a ton. It's the thing I hate about my job," he said. "I would not, could not do this job if I didn't have this technology." He talked about watching basketball on TV and sharing the experience with his three sons while on a business trip to London. "The only thing I couldn't do was put my arm around them," he said.

Using social media as well as Town Hall-style meetings, Brian spends lots of time talking with and, more important, listening to Best Buy's people. He writes a blog, called Brian's Whiteboard, he has a Twitter account with about 9,000 followers and he's got 5,000 Facebook friends, the maximum allowed, despite his personal request to FB's Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg for more. "I really do love these vehicles," he said. "We're nuts about listening." It's important for him to connect directly with employees and customers, he says, because "people don't like to tell you stuff that's bad" once you become CEO.

Several years ago, for example, Best Buy executives decided to save money -- about $10 million a year -- by cutting back on employee discounts. The reaction from workers was swfit and negative, and the company pulled back. "What can sound smart in a conference room ... is maybe not so smart at all," he says.

All of this connects with sustainability because the environment matters to Best Buy's people. "Remember," Brian told me, "better than 60 percent of employees are 24 years old or less. They're very in tune with what kind of planet they're going to have."

Best Buy's most visible environmental work has been around product stewardship and e-waste. (See my 2009 FORTUNE story, Best Buy Wants Your Electronic Junk.) The company now recycles about 387 pounds of e-waste a minute, 80 million pounds a year, and the good news is that the value of the commodities that Best Buy collects after taking apart and breaking down all those computers, TV sets, phones, etc., just about pays for the recycling program. "It's neutral on the P-and-L," Brian told me. That's "very, very encouraging to us" because it enables the company can help customers, address an environmental problem and satisfy its employees and shareholders, all at once.

There's another benefit no one expected. Some Friday afternoons, Brian heads to a nearby store and grabs a hammer, to smash up other people's discarded gear.

"I find it enormously therapeutic," he says.

Image courtesy of Best Buy.