Last week, Ceres and the United Nations came together to host the 2012 Investor Summit on Climate Risk & Energy Solutions in New York City. With several announcements marking the day—a record $260 billion was invested in clean energy in 2011—it was Bank of America Chairman Chad Holliday’s pre-lunch presentation that stood out for its aspirational message.
I had the opportunity to host Holliday last year for a keynote on responsible business practices. The occasion: The release of Carol Sanford‘s book The Responsible Business, for which Holliday provided an articulate Foreword.
This time around too, Holliday chose to focus on lessons learned from his years leading DuPont, which saw record growth, transition from a chemical company to a science-based products company, as well as the country’s first chief sustainability officer appointment.
“As you listen, make sure you’re not inadvertently betting against something,” he cautioned adding, “Whether you want to own it or not is merely situational. But listen.”
Here then are Holliday’s five things to not bet against:
1. Don’t Bet Against Breakthroughs
“Don’t bet against a major breakthrough or a series of breakthroughs that create clean, cheap energy.” Holliday followed this warning by a reminder that “the price of natural gas in the Middle East” used to be our prime concern.
“No one was talking about shale energy, tidal [energy] 10 years ago. Somehow we missed that,” he added. Holliday also alluded to the American Energy Innovation Council he set up when at DuPont that counts Bill Gates, Xerox CEO Ursula Burns, GE’s Jeff Immelt and others as members: “We
really felt that such a breakthrough was probable so don’t discount the power of innovation.”
2. Don’t Bet Against America
“Particularly American engineers and research universities,” he continued. “Thirty five of the 50 top research institutions worldwide are located in the U.S. Seventeen of the top 20 are in the U.S.,” he said
Admission rates in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) have been declining for years in the U.S., and several sectors are ramping up their community development and research dollars to invest in STEM initiatives and academic institutions. While it is true that graduates from Asian countries have increasingly filled STEM jobs—and have an incredible presence in Silicon Valley—in recent years, Holliday was quite right to point out that “it will require other countries to grow awfully fast to catch up with us.”
“What we see in the press is that China is overtaking us in engineering. In fact, there is no question that China is indeed leading us in the number of graduating engineers. But when it comes to quality and diversity—biotechnology, nanotechnology, quality control, systems engineering—we are hands down champions,” Holliday said.
3. Don’t Bet Against Sustainable Energy For All
“One of the three commitments of the United Nations General Secretary was to provide electricity to the 1.3 billion people globally who still don’t have access to electricity,” said Holliday. “Now let’s discuss the 1.3 billion-strong population of China: How productive would they be without access to electricity?”
His message: That’s opportunity to deliver value for business, investors and entrepreneurs.
4. Don’t Bet Against Dramatic Events Driving Dramatic Government Action
“One nuclear fallout after the tsunami that struck Japan was enough to compel Germany to take the decision to go completely nuclear-free for their energy supply,” he said.
Emphasizing that one must increasingly view business and investment in the context of their social and environmental setting, Holliday offered a glimpse into his role on Shell’s CR committee: “I regularly meet with NGO groups and investors to understand what they are thinking. I then coordinate with Shell’s corporate responsibility committee to visit sites to really check and see if they are doing what they commit to. Then it makes a difference,” he said, adding, “We cannot measure growth and success from afar because that’s just PR.”
5. Don’t Bet Against People in This Room
Putting the onus on the over 500 investors in attendance, Holliday said: “You’re here today because you think private money can make a difference in this sector. You’ve made a good decision.”
Indicating to his recent appointment as Bank of America’s chairman, he continued:
“I joined Bank of America in the time of a recession. I didn’t have much time to do any due diligence so I decided to find out what they were doing on sustainability. And I’m proud to say that I was impressed. They have already made an 18 percent deduction in greenhouse gases (GHG), made a $20 million commitment to loans for sustainable projects and nurture a working culture that prioritizes sustainability.”
Many other firms in the room could probably tell similar stories, he added, warning: “But don’t bet against each other.”
Emphasizing the need for public private partnerships, he concluded: “Working with the public sector and other stakeholders is going to be key in our goal of sustainable energy for all.” There too, he had the same warning: “Don’t bet against each other.”
Originally written for and published on CSRwire’s Commentary section Talkback on January 18, 2012.