In this interview, Michael Oxman, managing director of the Ray C. Anderson Center for Sustainable Business (“Center”) speaks with Chris Hagler, Southeast practice leader of climate change and sustainability services at Ernst & Young (EY). Chris shares her career trajectory; thoughts on leadership across environmental, social, and governance (ESG) criteria; and advice for students looking to incorporate their passion for sustainability into their careers.
Michael Oxman: First, in light of Covid-19, how are you holding up?
Chris Hagler: Not too badly. How about you?
MO: Two of our three children are at home. Being able to see them is one of the silver linings.
CH: There are many silver linings. It will all be about what we can learn from this.
MO: I totally agree. So, let’s dive in. Can you talk about how you first got interested in sustainability?
CH: It’s funny. People often ask me, “Were you always interested in sustainability?” To be honest, I never thought about it. I studied marketing at the University of Toledo, and my big dream was to become a brand manager for Ivory Soap. When I think about what in my life led up to my career, part of it is that I grew up in a really poor, single-parent household. We lived by the motto, “Waste not, want not.” My bath on Saturday was in two inches of water—which was so cold in the winter! But to this day, the idea of wasting things drives me nuts. I’m sure it’s because my mother put that in my head.
MO: How did you find your way to Atlanta?
CH: My husband was finishing a degree at Georgia Tech, so I came to Atlanta to be with him. He and I owned a software company in maintenance management. That was when I started pursuing my master’s degree in management of technology at Georgia Tech.
Chris and her husband Bo Hagler get ready to hit the slopes.
MO: Why did you choose to enroll in business school?
CH: I needed to fine-tune my skills and get more technical. In the software company, I was selling to a lot of engineers. Just saying I was attending Georgia Tech gave me credibility as a young professional. When I got out, I actually left the software company because my husband and I are better off not working together. [Laughs.]
MO: That’s probably true of most couples.
CH: I ended up working for three years at Deloitte, where I did business process reengineering. I worked for Sonoco, a packaging company in South Carolina. They had a division in Atlanta, Sonoco Printed Packaging, and I worked on reengineering their processes in sales and marketing. They ended up hiring me as director of marketing, which was great because I had two kids by then and wanted to get off the road.
MO: Looking back, did business school prepare you well for Deloitte and the work that followed?
CH: Absolutely. Georgia Tech was great for a couple of reasons. First, since I was working at our software company during school, I could instantly apply what I was learning to my work. I often used our company as a case study in classes on intellectual property protection and international business. It was really hands-on. Second, when I went to Deloitte, I felt very well prepared for a consulting career. I became friends with the head of HR, and she told me they loved the Georgia Tech grads because they were so practical, humble, and hard-working
MO: You described earlier what sparked your interest in sustainability. Now, how did it become a part of your career?
CH: Sonoco sold its packaging division, which gave me the opportunity to pursue something else. I started a company called Resources Global Professionals (RGP) inside of Deloitte. RGP was a project management firm. Instead of providing a full consulting suite with methodology, we had very high-quality professionals with an average of 18-plus years of experience to help companies get stuff done. I started the Atlanta office. Company revenue was $27 million when I started and $850 million by the time I left ten years later.
MO: Very impressive.
CH: We then spun RGP out of Deloitte. We took it private, then went public. We were the highest performing IPO in 2000. Almost everybody in the company was an accountant, and they said, “You went to Georgia Tech, so you must be the technology person.” I ended up building our IT practice to $100 million and our change management practice division to $35 million. In that ten-year period, I learned so much about strategy, technology integration, and change management. Those skills are really important when it comes to sustainability.
CH: Then I got to a point in my life where I was, by most people’s standards, very successful from a business perspective. But I wanted something more. I wanted to do more than just make money. I wanted to make an impact in the world. In 2008, I went to the CEO and said, “I think sustainability is a ‘thing’ and that we should focus on it.” He had always trusted me. I had worked closely with him for many, many years. But he literally said, “The only thing green I care about is the color of my car.” It just wasn’t the right time to do sustainability at that company. I should add that I believe they are more focused on sustainability now. I knew no one was going to hire me to be their chief sustainability officer because I didn’t even have “sustainability analyst” on my resume. So, in 2008, with another woman, I started a consulting company focused on sustainability. Until we got some calls, we provided free consulting, such as working to make the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl the greenest bowl game at the time.
MO: Wow. That’s a big thing.
CH: That project introduced us to all the game sponsors: Coca-Cola, Home Depot, and obviously, Chick-fil-A. We created good relationships. We also worked with the Atlanta Ballet to create a sustainable set qualification, kind of like LEED. Those early projects gave us the ability to tell stories. I would say, “Oh, I was working with a client, and…” It didn’t matter that we had done the job for free. We then built up a real business with clients such as Abercrombie and Fitch, AGL Resources, Chick-fil-A, Cox Enterprises, and Hearst Corporation. My business partner and I did very well over a timeframe of a couple of years, but we ended up having different areas of interest. I wanted to focus on the environment. EY recruited me, and I’ve been there now for almost eight years.
MO: Along the way, you had so many successes. However, were there any setbacks that taught you lessons along the way?
CH: Probably many, right? [Laughs.] I think one of the lessons learned is that you have to find what you’re good at and try to stay focused on that. So many people will focus on trying to fix their weaknesses instead of building on their strengths. I thought I wanted to be an entrepreneur—maybe to build a company that changed the world. But I’m better at bringing other people’s ideas to life.
MO: Would you share a bit about your current role at EY and what makes EY unique in the sustainability space?
CH: When I joined EY in 2012, I believed they took sustainability more seriously than other consulting firms. I still believe that today. We now have 1,500 people globally who focus on climate change and sustainability. The field has changed extraordinarily over eight years. When I came on board as a senior manager, every single opportunity was one I created with my climate change and sustainability team. But the broader EY wasn’t terribly focused on this. People in, say, finance or process improvement, didn’t think sustainability was their job. Today, however, many account teams are interested in talking to their clients about sustainability. The clients want to know more about it, too.
MO: What’s driving that demand?
CH: EY has five focus areas: strategy, reporting and assurance, outcomes measurement, climate, and environmental health and safety. In reporting and assurance, investors are asking for higher quality and more specific information, which is driving demand. Also, a lot of the work we’re doing is related to strategy and outcomes management. I’m incredibly passionate about companies shifting to outcomes measurement—which focuses not on “what we do” but rather on “what change we are creating.” Climate change, too, is driving a lot of growth. Companies are realizing that the climate impacts their organization and that they impact the climate.
MO: How does that demand cut across the different industries you serve?
CH: Consumers care especially about things that go in them (like food and beverage) and on them (like beauty products). So, our business has been strong in consumer products, but also in other industries like energy, mobility, and industrial. Lately, our financial services area is exploding. While property and casualty insurance companies have known about climate change for quite a while, other financial institutions, such as banks and asset managers, are coming on board and seeing ESG as a strategic opportunity.
MO: How has Covid-19 been impacting your clients and subsequently your portfolio and what you’re trying to achieve from a sustainability perspective?
CH: Obviously, our clients are very focused on the “S” piece of ESG right now—on their employees and the community. Clients are focusing on lessons learned from Covid-19 and what needs to be carried forward. For instance, if a company didn’t offer sick pay in the past but now do, should they really take it away? Also, what resiliency factors should an organization focus on so it’s prepared for the next pandemic or a reaction from climate change? From a practical standpoint, reporting is going to be challenging next year. You can’t get that excited about meeting your greenhouse gas target if you haven’t traveled for six months. There are going to be a lot of footnotes in sustainability reporting next year.
MO: In ESG, “S” has typically received the least amount of attention. Now, employee wellbeing and community engagement are front and center. When the pandemic is over, do you think this will carry over?
CH: The whole point of “E” is “S.” However, I think the “S” piece will stick only if we do a good job documenting how business benefits from societal value. Right now, companies are understanding what happens to them when 20 percent of our population is not working—and not buying things or paying rent. Also, racial inequality is a systemic issue that we have to change. We’re seeing major companies address this. Companies are deciding that if the government is not going to lead on this issue, they are going to lead on it.
MO: What advice would you give a student who is interested in sustainability?
CH: I have a career in sustainability, but it’s my experience in strategy and change management that makes me good at it. While a sustainability-focused role is very fulfilling, there are many other ways to make an impact—from finance to the supply chain department.
MO: I often tell students that it’s unlikely they’ll get a job in sustainability straight out of business school, and also that they’re likely to be more effective in sustainability if they have experience in core business functions first.
CH: I fully agree. That broad business background is so helpful. I find I can connect the dots thanks to my years in IT, finance, and marketing. Pure business consulting is a great place to start because you’ll learn about different industries and business functions. In my three years at Deloitte, I learned how to be professional, to be thoughtful, and to get my ideas across. Communication skills mean everything. I don’t care how good your ideas are if you can’t communicate them effectively both verbally and in writing. I also recommend reading up on sustainable business. I read everything I can get my hands on. I couldn’t put down Ray C. Anderson’s book, Mid-Course Correction. I often go back to it, read a chapter, and think about how it applies to my clients.
MO: Ray combined inspiration and practicality in such a unique way.
CH: Who else does that? Nobody.
In 2019, Chris discusses investor focus on sustainability in the Center’s Business, Environment, and Society Speaker Series.
MO: How do you stay connected with Scheller College?
CH: I serve on the Center’s advisory board. I’ve been a guest lecturer in the Sustainable Business Consulting Practicum. If I can ever slow down, I’d love to teach a class at Georgia Tech. I’m very inspired by the students, and I hope in turn I can inspire them.
MO: What do you like doing outside of work?
CH: I’m currently in Maine, where I’ve been working in my flower and vegetable gardens. As a family, we like to ski, kayak, and go rock climbing. Our family sports generally all include helmets. [Laughs.]
MO: Thank you so much for your time, Chris. Do you have any last words?
CH: Yes! One of the things I love about working at EY is that I get to host a podcast called Sustainability Matters. It’s so much fun doing interviews and getting to know sustainability leaders from around the country. You should tune into the latest episode, which addresses how ESG issues are being discussed in the boardroom amidst Covid-19. My guests were fascinating!
Written by Jennifer Holley Lux