Beyond Electronics with Matt Furman

September 30, 2020

Matt Furman is the chief communications and public affairs officer for Best Buy Co. Inc. In this role, he oversees internal and external communications, government affairs, corporate responsibility and sustainability, community relations, as well as the company’s in-house production studio and event planning functions.

Prior to joining Best Buy in 2012, Matt was the vice president of corporate affairs at Mars Chocolate, the manufacturer of such iconic brands as Snickers, M&M’s and Dove. He previously held senior communications positions at Google, CNN and in the administrations of New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and President Bill Clinton.

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John: Welcome to another edition of The Impact Podcast. I am so honored and excited to have my friend Matt Furman. He is the Chief Communications and Public Affairs Officer at Best Buy. Welcome to Impact Matt.

Matt Furman: Well, thank you so much for having me.

John: You know Matt, so much is going on now and we have so much to discuss that you are doing with your great brand Best Buy, and Best Buy’s real involvement and legacy involvement on social and environmental issues, but before we get to that, I would just love you to share the Matt Furman journey leading up to becoming the Chief Communications and Public Affairs Officer at Best Buy.

Matt: I do not have much of a journey. It was more like a trip, but I will still give you a detailed review. I am what you call a happy lawyer, and that I do not practice law, but I have been to the law school. I would spent some time working in the government in and out federal government. My last stint was the Director of Communications with FEMA under President Clinton. I would like to say FEMA back when it really had a great reputation. From there, I went into the private sector. I worked at CNN, I ran Communications there. I would spend some time at Google and Corporate Communications, and then at Mars Chocolate, the world’s largest chocolate company where I ran Corporate Affairs. All that brought me to Best Buy. I came here just as Best Buy was at a probably the lowest point in its corporate history. Its turnaround had just started with a new CEO and he, the Management Team, and myself included, helped turn around its iconic retailer. Took the stock from a little about twelve dollars to an hour over a hundred, and that is due to incredible hard work over the past eight years.

John: You know Matt, I have to just say this, I have said this before directly in person to numerous of your colleagues, including Hubert, but when everybody else wrote you guys off, and said it was good, you guys were going to go the way of RadioShack, and other brands Circuit City that have fallen by the wayside over the years. You guys just figured it all out. You are a great team. It is just been one of the most remarkable iconic turnarounds in business history in the United States. One day the book will be written on it and you are a large part of that, and I am just a huge fan of what you have done with the entire Leadership Team at Best Buy. It is just a testimony to all of you. Leadership matters and all of you figured it out. I will tell you what, you befuddled a lot of people who counted you out way before it was your time, so my hats off to you, huge respect, huge inspiration to all of us entrepreneurs out there in the business world. It is not easy.

John: Speaking of not easy, we are going through a very difficult point right now in world’s history with Covid-19 and the tragic effects that it has put on all of us, including the social and environmental changes that are going on besides the health issues tied to Covid-19, but Best Buy has one of the greatest reputations as part of its DNA and culture to be a leader of social and environmental impact issues, and that is why I was so excited to have you back on today in Impact. Can you share a little bit of the Journey of Best Buy and your leadership on social and environmental issues?

Matt: Of course, the journey of Best Buy’s started before I arrived. It is often the case that when companies are doing well, they spend some time looking around or whatever else they can help their communities, or the planet, or their employees, and that was clearly the case at Best Buy. What is also often the case is that when companies hit turbulent waters or hit the rocks, they begin to lose focus on those things and focus understandably on saving their company. What is most notable to me about how this business was turned around was that it was done with a focus on both. Our CEO that time, the man is responsible for the turnaround, was then invited to interview their SOE, and he made a very deliberate decision on the first day to turn the company around while maintaining its purpose and growing its purpose.

Matt: I will never forget the moment when he had been become CEO only six weeks earlier because of a series of event. He was really compelled to do an Investor Day in New York, which he had to get up on stage in front of analysts and shareholders, and lay out his vision for company. They need only take it over six weeks before, as if that was not daunting enough. What he did was he created Five Pillars for the turnaround of this company. I will never forget that moment, we had four colors in front of us and they were what you would expect, your shareholder value, and employee engagement, and all the other things, then he said, “Guys, we are missing the step. We are missing our communities, we are missing our planet, we are missing doing the right thing for the world.” To have a CEO who had a reputation for turning companies around, and now had I lay out his vision to turn that company around. To have that CEO say “I am going to do it.”, while still looking shareholders in the eye and say, “I am going to continue to invest in the environment and we continue to invest in our communities.” That was a remarkable moment for me because no one would have blamed myself included. No one would have blamed him. If he had to, “Guys, let us fix the company, let us save your company, and then come back to this other stuff.” We made it part of the turnaround.

John: Wow. Well, you know, when we talk about social and environmental issues that is a wide funnel. Can you share a little bit the thinking behind how your leadership team goes to choosing what issues to actually focus on?

Matt: Of course, we do it in the way that many companies do. You focus on your core capabilities and your core mission. In our case, we sell arguably more consumer electronics than any other company in the world. So we realized early on that if we were to sell these products, we had a responsibility to the environment, to the planet, or grandchildren, to figure out how to recycle it, then so we became the largest recycler of consumer electronic waste in the country and perhaps in the world with more than two billion pounds of e-waste already recycled. That is one example. Likewise, we recognize that the digital divide was growing in the country and not shrinking it because of what we sold and because of our in-house expertise in the form of Geek Squad agent. We had particular capability of training under invested use around the country in the technology skills that would make them employable or would make them better suited to higher education. So we started a network of Teen Tech Centers which will grow to more than a hundred over the next several years. Then finally, as we thought about the environment, we recognize that the intersection between technology and carbon reduction was increasing every day, every year. So we understood we had a responsibility to use technology to reduce our carbon footprint and we are on track to reduce it by seventy-five percent over the next couple of years, seventy-five percent reduction. Much of it on the basis of better use of technology.

John: Wow, that is incredible. For listeners out there who just joined, we got Matt Furman on with us today. He is the Chief Communications and Public Affairs Officer from Best Buy, and to learn more about what Best Buy does socially, environmentally, in their communities they serve in all around the United States. You could go to bestbuy.com and click on the Corporate button and there it is. So I am on that, I am on your page right now. It is so full of great information about everywhere you are touching and reaching and it is just fascinating. Can you share with our listeners a little bit about your Teen Tech Centers? Because that is one of the great almost start up stories that was born at Best Buy, and that is touching so many communities around the United States now and growing really quickly.

Matt: Sure. The Teen Tech Center is our remarkable team for the company. This started before I got here. There were a few and over the past several years, we have made the effort to expand and begin to more than a hundred for the next couple of years. The premise is very simple. There is an increasing need for technology-enabled employee, people who understand technology and use it, and yet there are fewer viewers. So the market requires more in our society turning now. In the place in which that gap is the greatest, not surprisingly are in communities that are most under invested. So what we have done is we put these centers in communities. We associate them with libraries or community centers’ YMCAs or Boys and Girls Clubs. They are installed in their existing infrastructures. We build out a space. This place is open virtually three hundred and sixty five days a year, and it is available to kids starting in their freshmen year of high school. They enter and they typically stay for four years. The average student comes to the Teen Tech Center three or four times every week after school, and they spent hours there each time. They are exposed to a range of technology that will allow them to pursue a career or go to pursue higher education. So you could learn how to make music because of course, music making these days is all digital, just like movie making, just like digital photography. Obviously, you can learn how to do 3D printing, you can learn how to do coding. All these things are skills that you would might not otherwise have any exposure to, and now can after four years leave our Teen Tech Centers as something like an expert.

John: Wow, that is just incredible.

Matt: To be clear on that, we do this in concert with many partners, including the community centers that we partner with on the ground, but more significantly most, if not nearly all of our vendors, our vendors are the largest technology companies in the world, most of not nearly all our partners, and increasingly a wide range of desperate partners from Hollywood stars to professional athlete are joining in and co-sponsoring these Teen Tech Centers.

John: It just goes to though, the great culture that you have developed at Best Buy that everything is about a collaboration, and your leadership team is just truly collaborative in every sense of the word, and you welcome people, entities, and organizations into the fold to be part of the solution. That is just one of the many great things about your leadership team and I know that personally. Matt, we are just still living in the wake of some of the more recent tragic events that actually started in the great city where you reside in, and Best Buy’s headquarters is in Minneapolis. How has that helped speed up some of the social impacts that Best Buy has decided to continue to make?

Matt: So we have a new CEO now for the past about a year ago. Hubert retired first to become Executive Chair, then right we see the company entirely. Our new CEO is a woman, Corrie Barry, she is in her mid-forties and one of the very first female CEOs of Fortune 100. She was born and raised in Minnesota. So the events of George Floyd’s murder hit her and other Minnesotans in a way it only can if it is your hometown. Obviously, the event itself was impactful, but having it in your hometown having occurring in your hometown would be more so. It was for us like many companies a galvanizing moment.

Matt: Corrie to her everlasting credit wrote an email to our customers as she does some time to time in which she talked explicitly about racial equity and justice. She said two things, she said, “We have not done enough and we will do better,” and on those simple words have formed a number of initiatives that the company undertaking the most notable which is a CEO Task Force, which we have a multi-levels of people from very seniors or very junior company and obviously very diverse demographically. Gathering out twice a week for an hour and a half each time for the next of a month to tackle some of the biggest issues over which we have some influence. How do we spend our money? Where do we invest? What supplier to the engagement? How do we lobby? What laws we try and get pass? All of those things have in the past in the purview of individuals or small teams in the company, and now it is being tackled by CEO Task Force in a holistic way, designed to really move the needle as much as any one company can. So that is a great example of how we are thinking about this from the philosophical and practical perspective.

Matt: Of course, given our work in communities, like the north side of Minneapolis where we have fourteen tech centers. The work we are doing with that network of centers are perfectly aligned because of more philosophical view that we can do better.

John: I love that. We can do better. I am so glad you brought up those words. I did read that letter when she wrote that, Matt. People say that after we get through this tragic Covid-19 period, we are going to a new normal, and I say no, new normal sounds so defeatist, sounds so that we are already hanging and posting the white flag that we have lost the battle, and I am thinking along the lines that you just said and the Corrie’s words, we are going to a new better. If we do this right, we should be going to a new better. That is how I get through every day. That is how we are focusing our company and that is how we are messaging to our partners, but I love that we can do better, and we all should do better. Best Buy is just an incredible brand and that just makes sense.

John: One of the reasons that I love having you and your colleagues on the show was because of your Vision Statement and I am just going to read this out loud. Best Buy’s Vision Statement is to positively impact the world. Enrich people’s lives through technology and contribute to the common good.

John: I had never been to Minneapolis before I started working with you guys in 2006. Not only had I never been to Minneapolis, obviously, I have never been to your headquarters, but what I have learned over fourteen years, is it you truly not only talk the talk, you guys walk the walk, and the impacts that you make are just so far reaching in every community that you serve, and you really do go to making the U.S and the United States on every level a better country to live in. Matt, one of the things, one of the many trends that we see coming out of this Covid-19 crisis is people working from home, and that seems like a trend that is going to be here. It is going to be permanent. Many companies have said that people could stay at home forever if they want, they never have to come back to the office, and others are offering some sort of hybrid approach. How has that affected how your sales of new electronics goes and how you serve your clients in a new and better way potentially?

Matt: In the days immediately following the crisis hitting, so there was a period in early March where we all recognize we were in for something. None of us had ever seen businesses begin to shutdown, people began to work from home. We made the decision at that moment that we could keep our stores open. We were permitted to because we were considered essential by governors and mayors around the country. We made the decision in every case to close our stores to customer traffic and only serve people by curbside. So we would obviously bestbuy.com, we would sell you things, but if you wanted to pick up a product that day, we would deliver to your car curbside. So we essentially went for retail with roughly a thousand stores too, and e-commerce player and higher explicitly. We publicly reported only several weeks after that that we were retaining but eighty percent of our business. I mean shut a thousand stores. That was tested with two things, one how well we execute under a new business model, but the second one was the extreme demand for the things we sell. The reason for that was simple, we have people working from home, and learning from home, and frankly trying to entertain themselves at home, and cook from home, and store food from home, and all the things that the pandemic have brought for all of us. Those kinds of trends continue to one degree or another because people are still entertaining themselves from home, cooking at home, and working from home.

Matt: So without being able to forecast the future, none of us know when that trend days slow down when the demand may end or increase. We do know as an employer that working from home exclusively or in part is clearly something part of our plan. We do not know when the pandemic will be over, but we have already told our employees that when it is, they will have far more options to work flexibly than they ever did before.

John: That is so interesting. Well, that is really to your testimony. You guys are resilient brand, you are flexible, and you make adjustments as times change, and that is why you are not only surviving, but you are thriving, and that is just one of the great reasons we had you on today.

John: For our listeners out there, to learn more about Best Buy and all the great things they are doing in their communities, in their stores, you can go to bestbuy.com, click on the word corporate, it is all there for you. I am on it right now and it is as more stories than Matt and I have time to go through today, but Matt, I am always grateful for your time. I am grateful for all the leadership that you and your colleagues have been doing in Best Buy for all these years, you definitely positively impact the world and make it a better place. Thank you for being a guest today on the Impact Podcast.

Matt: It is our honor, thank you for having me.