Exit Interview: Bruce Klafter, Applied Materials

Exit Interview

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.

Makower: Applied is a global company with offices and in China, Europe, India, Israel, Japan and elsewhere. Were your responsibilities global?

Klafter: One of the great things about the job was that it took me to all those parts of the world. That was a big part of the challenge — trying to identify the opportunities outside of North America and make the programs work outside of North America. Sometimes, we had missteps where we would learn that a particular type of messaging wasn’t resonating with our colleagues in a particular area, or that other priorities that were getting in the way. So that was really interesting. I think you have a tendency, in many cases, to believe that if a program is well-designed, one size should fit all. But that’s often not the case.

Makower: Were there parts of the world where it just was hard to implement this stuff?

Klafter: Somewhat perversely, we had some interesting issues from time to time in Europe where they would affect an attitude that, “Hey, we’re very green by nature here. We’re super efficient; we know what we’re doing and we don’t really need your programs to get us excited about being a green company.” I didn’t really expect that. I think our colleagues in Asia and elsewhere were generally very receptive, but we had to work with them to make sure that we had tailored the program for whatever their local needs were. But they certainly were interested. Europe was somewhat dismissive.

Makower: And how did you deal with the know-it-all Europeans?

Klafter: It just meant that we had to roll up our sleeves and make a business case a little bit differently there. What we were trying to show them was, we understand you got an early start on some of these things, but here’s an example of what we’ve been able to do. You haven’t really accomplished this yourself, and we’re going to make your facilities better. So I think it was just a case of extending the arguments a bit further.

Makower: You’ve said that the chief sustainability officer’s job kind of resembles the movie Groundhog Day. What do you mean by that?

Klafter: That was definitely my feeling the last couple of years, when I was doing sustainability exclusively. Our company has been going through a lot of changes, a lot of restructuring — some new businesses coming in, some old ones coming out. With that, you have a lot of changes in senior management. And as strong as I thought our commitment was to these programs, what I would find is that sometimes it was sort of a veneer.

There was no dismissal of what we were doing, but in order to get additional resources, in order to get the involvement of the new executives, I had to go back and make the case again. You have to put aside whatever frustrations that might create and just deal with it, frankly. But it was remarkable: You’d be having these flashbacks of the kind of conversations you’ve had a number of years ago.

Makower: Is it because there’s new people coming in all the time or because the people you’ve explained things to need to be explained again?

Klafter: A little bit of both. The ones where you were explaining it to them again, it might be because now somebody else had given them a different task and placed a very high priority on it. What you had to do in a lot of instances was to remind them that if they used sustainability thinking, they could potentially enhance what they were doing. So it was a reminder that this wasn’t meant to be an overlay — it was meant to be an enhancement to the way they did business. But you have to keep chipping away at it.

A few years back, when I attended the Net Impact conference, I came back saying to people, “Wow, when all these people are in the workforce, these kinds of conversations will be so much easier because people will be very open, receptive, and knowledgeable right from the get-go.

Makower: Do you still believe that’s true?

Klafter: Yes, I do. I’m continuing to work with students at Presidio Graduate School and I visit at other local institutions. I find them remarkably knowledgeable about how sustainability can be employed, but very business-minded and focused at the same time. I’m very confident that if they were in the shoes of some of my colleagues, it would be a much easier conversation.

Makower: One of the things I’m always most impressed about CSOs is how much they do with few resources in terms of head count, budgets, access to other company resources. Tell me a bit how you were resourced.

Klafter: That’s definitely an observation I would second. As I said, when I was head of the EHS organization and sustainability was under that umbrella, we had no dedicated sustainability team. I had one individual — half of his job was to work on carbon inventory and some other issues of that nature. I probably was spending 25 or 30 percent of my time, and then just tapping people as I could.

When we moved it to a dedicated function, it was myself full time and one manager full time, so just two people. I had put together a budget which I thought was not immodest and would get us a number of new partnerships and other things. I was basically given a third of it to work with, and it never increased. Sometimes you count yourself fortunate that you don’t get whacked and decreased, but I could never get the additional resource that I wanted, particularly an additional head or two.

To do things like employee engagement well, you need a certain amount of bandwidth, because a lot of it is communication. You’re doing newsletters, you’re working with your volunteer green teams, you’re sending people to meetings. But if you don’t have a body to do that, you can only reach out on an occasional basis. And that doesn’t give you the steady drumbeat that you need to make some change. So that was frustrating.

Makower: In retrospect, are you optimistic or not about the potential for business to make the kinds of changes it needs to make to address sustainability at the scale and speed it needs to?

Klafter: I tend to be an optimist, because if you look at the record of business in industry generally, there are a tremendous number of accomplishments that have been made, in some cases that have been transformational.

I think the point where we’ll say that we’ve really achieved something in the business world is where we’ll have more businesses on the transformational side of things. It’s superficial at this point, and in some cases outright greenwashing, frankly. I think there’s clearly some companies in that category. But I think the kinds of things we’ve seen in terms of energy efficiency and operational changes, those are a part and parcel of business today. I don’t think any leading company will lack those sorts of programs very shortly. Supply chain is moving in that direction as well. I think what we’re doing in supply-chain management is here to stay. I don’t think that’s going to be a fleeting thing.

Makower: What do you miss about not being in that job?

Klafter: I got a tremendous amount of personal fulfillment out of the external engagement that I did. I loved going to conferences in other places and telling our story and interacting with other professionals. And I loved the cross-sectoral and industry collaborations that we would work on, like the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition. Those sorts of things where you could take what you had learned inside of a single company and create leverage out of it were very, very fulfilling to me.