Crafting Verizon’s Cultural Commitment To Sustainability with Jim Gowen

October 6, 2020

James Gowen is Vice President, Global Supply Chain Operations and Chief Sustainability Officer for Verizon. Since taking on these complementary roles in 2009, his team has enlisted more than 45,000 Verizon employees in 50 countries around the globe in helping to reduce the company’s environmental footprint while increasing the efficiency of a growing enterprise.

Gowen has been deeply involved in the advancement of innovative and sustainable technologies and spearheaded the launch of Verizon’s first ever green bond in the first quarter of 2019. This $1B bond highlights Verizon’s commitments to renewable energy, energy efficiency, water conservation and reforestation. Gowen also launched Verizon’s flagship $137M green energy initiative which enabled Verizon to eliminate 20,000 metric tons of CO2. Gowen also oversees other green initiatives being implemented across Verizon including the introduction of a carbon intensity metric, paper suppression, waste reduction and recycling, and management of end-of-life-cycle material recovery.

In his supply chain role, Gowen leads all inventory planning and logistics operations globally. Gowen is responsible for the planning of over $35B of inventory across all Verizon’s lines of business. Additionally, Gowen has responsibility for Verizon’s Global Manufacturing Operations, producing customer premises equipment deployed to Fios, Enterprise & VZConnect customers.

John Shegerian: This edition of the Impact! podcast is brought to you by ERI. ERI has a mission to protect people, the planet, and your privacy. It is the largest fully integrated IT and electronics asset disposition provider and cybersecurity-focused hardware destruction company in the United States, and maybe even the world. For more information on how ERI can help your business properly dispose of outdated electronic hardware devices, please visit eridirect.com.

John: Welcome to another edition of the Impact! podcast. I am so honored to have with us today Jim Gowen. He is the Vice President of Global Supply Chain and the Chief Sustainability Officer of Verizon. Welcome to the Impact! podcast, Jim.

Jim Gowen: John, thanks so much for having me and I am really looking forward to the conversation.

John: Well, having you- first of all, just for truth and advertising to our listeners out there, Jim is a longtime friend. He is a long time very, very impactful leader. This is only going to capture a snapshot of the great work that he and his colleagues at Verizon are doing. But before we go into all that important work, Jim, can you share a little bit of the backstory of how you even got to these positions, your biography, and how you even got to this position in your career?

Jim: Yes, very good. John, it is great to talk to you again. I really owe a great due of thanks to all the work that you have been doing. But really, in a nutshell, I am a long-term Verizon employee, just celebrated twenty five years. I started in the business on the operation side. I moved around from IT and some other areas back into the logistics side. For the last ten years, I have had the absolute honor of running our global supply chain, and also running our Sustainability Office; so, a Chief Sustainability Officer.

I must say on a personal note, that you were one of the first people I talked to just about ten years ago when we were talking about ‘Green is good.’ We had the opportunity to share some of your passion. When I had the opportunity to visit with you in person out there in Fresno to see your facilities, and you are really inspiring. Then for the last ten years, it has just been an absolute joy to represent Verizon and to watch us go through our absolute transformation. Slow start, as we got our feet wet just like the rest of the world, and then just a rapid pace that we have been on here and focusing on sustainability to where we are at now and we will get into that in a few more minutes. But, I am just excited to be part of this transformation and excited that I can bring my operational background, along with my sustainability passion, and all the folks of Verizon here to where we are today.

John: I am so glad you reminded me because I remember that day like it was yesterday. I cannot believe that ten years can pass that quickly. But I remember when you explained that you would become an essence, basically, Verizon’s first Chief Sustainability Officer before sustainability even became really part of our vernacular in America. We are always been a little bit behind Japan, South Korea, Europe, as we know, in terms of making it part of our culture. When you explained to me your role as VP of Global Supply Chain, and why it made so sense to then take over sustainability, that has stuck with me forever. So understanding the underpinnings of that and how they were all intertwined was totally inspiring to me, and a great lesson that I have never forgotten. So you have been a big inspiration in my life, personally, and my career. I owe you a lot.

But let us get into all the important stuff that you are doing, Jim, at Verizon, with your colleagues, because I know you have an army of great people working with you. Talk a little bit about the headlines recently of your global optimism with regards to your climate pledge in Amazon. I know you guys signed on to that pledge, share what that really means, though, to our listeners.

Jim: Sure. Absolutely. We are incredibly proud of that. I have to just take a little bit of a step back though, to lead up to why. So we have been on this journey for ten years and we have been making incremental progress across the board in setting big goals. But in the last twelve months, we have said, one of our largest goals and the biggest goals that we have, and that is by 2035, to be carbon neutral in our Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions. That is really an incredible goal. To be honest with you, it is a little scary at times. But when we made that announcement, and we really focused on how we are going to get there, and then the incremental milestones that are required to get us there, we started laying out our plan in even greater detail. To be honest, some of those technologies and things that we are going to be doing do not even exist yet. But we know they are there, and they are coming and we are going to get there.

I was approached by Amazon and Kara Hurst, the Chief Sustainability Officer. I have known Kara, and she told me about what Amazon was doing with global optimism and their climate pledge. It was just an absolute fit for me from the opening conversation. The joke we say is, “She had me at hello.” It was absolutely true. Going after net-zero across the business by 2040, well, it just fit into what we were already doing with our carbon neutral by 2035. So the climate pledge really focuses us even in a greater way on decarbonization, and how quickly we can do that, whether it is low carbon products or services, or helping the communities where we work and live. It is that whole holistic view of what we have to do, and this is another step forward in that direction. So, we are incredibly proud to be part of it and we are incredibly proud to be one of the first signatures up there. We are now bringing more folks into it and encouraging more people to join.

John: It is so funny you said that. I had the extraordinary pleasure meeting Kara when she just got hired over at Amazon. I will tell you what, I think any person that meets her, I think she has them at hello, besides you, Jim. I think I am on board on because she is just one of those infectious and wonderful people that when she lays it out, it is just impossible to say anything else than to follow along. She is doing great work over there, as well.

I am fascinated with this Green Bond. I have read a lot about it. I got to be frank with you, I do not think I really fully understand it. Can you share with our listeners what you have done with regards to creating the first-ever green bond back in 2019 at Verizon, and what that really means for the environment and climate change?

Jim: Sure. I love your comments earlier, John, where the US has been playing a little bit of catch up with other parts of the world who seemed to be a little bit more forward-thinking about that. Well, I got to tell you, it was late 2018 when the conversation started with our finance department and they really, really embraced the conversation. We were getting ready to think about how we finance these things differently. Because let us face it, green solutions are out there. Specifically, in the renewable energy space, they are out there. Sometimes, they are not as cost-effective as we would like and sometimes, people get punished by places like Wall Street when they make investments that do not have an ROI or return on investment as quick as some would like to see it. We have become so focused on the near term in many financial markets that sometimes we forget about the long term.

Sustainability is a long term play. So fast forward, how did we think about this from a financing structure? How do we get those solutions? The Green Bond was a great, great opportunity for us to look at fast-forwarding our environmental commitments. Verizon, we run the best wireless and wireline networks around the world. That is our focus, that is our core. We bring solutions to people, we enable people. COVID-19 is a perfect example of all that we have done there.

But then you think about, okay, what is our biggest cause of emissions? Well, it is the energy to run our networks. So when we thought about how do we power our networks as responsibly as possible, how do we bring more renewable energy, well, you are starting to talk about some pretty serious money. So that investment, we were looking for how do you do that.

The Green Bond was a perfect opportunity to do that. We initiated our first one in 2019. I got to tell you, I did not sleep the night before. [crosstalk] you know, is it going to be received well? We had some pre-calls with a lot of shareholders around the world and I got to say, the questions vary by region. Whether it was Europe, they were tough questions; the US, not as tough. They were just coming up to speed on what it meant.

But the bottom line, in typical Verizon fashion, we did all of our homework. We had a full second party opinion done that was issued when we released the bond, so that we already talked about our use of proceeds, which are very, very heavily invested in renewable energies. Then, we issued the bonds. By the way, we did have reforestation and we did have clean energy buildings and things like that. All of that was part of it. But then, we announced the bond. Well, I got to tell you, we announced it at about eight o’clock in the morning, and we had more orders than we could handle. I cannot get us all the specifics, but let us just say, we shut off order-taking around two o’clock that afternoon. It was well-oversold and then, we went through the process.

John: So in six short hours, you oversold that first Green Bond, and you were the first telecommunications company to launch a Green Bond, is that correct?

Jim: In the United States? Yes, we were the first one. We were the second one, globally. We lost out by about six days to someone in Europe.

John: Oh, wow!

Jim: But really, John, the interesting thing is it enabled us to fast forward. It enabled us to go from just me fighting for capital every year and doing another wind project, doing another solar project, trying to get alternative fuels into our fleet. It was a fast forward that we could now, what we are doing a lot of is virtual power purchase agreements. So we are committing out ten-, fifteen-year agreements, and that was our focus. I am even more proud of it because if we take that fast forward, we took that first bond, and we fully allocated the proceeds within eighteen months.

John: Wow!

Jim: Spent it all. You know, so the checkbook was empty.

John: Wow!

Jim: So that is why, what do you do when that happens? You get really lucky and you issue a second one. That is what we just did several weeks ago here. In September 2020, we announced our second one, and thank God, the results were the exact same from a reception perspective.

Let me give you a little insider. If anyone is wondering how this goes over in the finance office, it actually opens up your investor base. For a large corporation, we have our traditional investors, but then this opens it up to a whole new set of ESG investors, a whole new set of smaller investors, and that is when you get that CFO, you know, to smile a little bit. Not a lot, [inaudible].

John: Now, Jim, everything you are saying is just fascinating. This sounds like these wins all around. First of all, the over wins to the environment, to making the world a better place, to Verizon’s mission. But then, as you said, opening up the investor base, getting all the ESG in the circular economy investors around the world where that money is now renewed. So there is so much money since the day I met you in the last ten years that have come out in renewables in ESG. So you are saying, the intended consequences are being met here, but also these wonderful unintended consequences that have benefited Verizon and going to continue to do so and benefit the environment at large.

Jim: Absolutely, and I just could not be more excited. The one thing that really what I love about what we did is we have also done it without changing who we are. So as I said, we did the second party opinion to make sure that we are validated in the industry with a very recognized- Sustainalytics, a very recognized name. Then, we also put it right into our corporate auditing process. So every time we are announcing on an annual basis what the use of proceeds has done, and we are having them audited by our external auditors, it is just who we are. It is how we run our business, that makes me happy.

Then the one other thing I will say to you, if you look at the millennial base and you look at the workforce of the future, they are not just asking for it, they are demanding it. Guess what? They are working in investment houses. They are working on Wall Street. They are the ones that are dictating where people’s 401K funds are going and things like that. They are looking for these types of investments. So it really is a win-win all the way around.

John: But let us step back and go to some. Every time I have seen you during the last ten years, the one thing you always pull me aside in, and it is so inspiring to hear this directly from you. I get to work with so many of your colleagues on a regular basis, and culturally, from the top down, you, but even as you have shared with me offline, this is your culture from Hans Vestberg, to you, to everybody else. Culturally, from the top down, this is Verizon’s culture. It is not just to be another green company. We know other companies engaged in that kind of behavior. You guys all dig it. Everyone who is involved with your organization, everyone that has ever touched me, and everyone that I have ever got to interact with, they all love this. This is part of who they are and who you are. You always mentioned to me how Hans is the coolest to work for because he is always giving you the green light to keep moving all the initiatives forward.

Jim: The problem with Hans is keeping up with Hans. He is an amazing, amazing CEO. He is an amazing champion, even a more amazing person.

John: That is so great.

Jim: Every time I am with him, I am incredibly inspired. He has worked with the UN Foundation. His work that he did, he was on the team that helped create the UN SDGs, the seventeen of them. Like he is, he lives it, breathes it, and he has put me, you know, we went from a marathon to we are sprinting now, on a daily basis. It is just awesome.

But then you talk about the Verizon employees, we have over a hundred and thirty thousand or so employees all around the world. And I would go back to when I talked with you ten years ago, we talked about this idea of creating green teams. We are at forty six thousand green team members in over fifty countries now. It is remarkable and it is not slowing down. Then, that is the C-suite all the way down to the folks who are supporting our customers day in, day out, in and out of their homes or on the phone with them, and that gives me a lot of pride.

John: Jim, switching over to where we are now. I know you are talking to me from one side of the country, I am on the other side of the country. Before we went on the air today, we were both talking about these strange and crazy times we live in. Can you give us a little bit of a snapshot into your world and what COVID-19 and how COVID-19 has impacted Verizon in its supply chain and sustainability programs?

Jim: Sure. As we talked about unprecedented times and like the rest of the world, everyone stayed home, batten down the hatches, and got to work. Well, forty thousand of Verizon employees did not go home and work from home, because we were out there every day servicing our customers or servicing our network. I could not be more proud of them in what they have done every day. But at the same time, Verizon Corporation, we also announced we did not lay people off, we kept people employed, we retooled people. If our retail stores were closed, we put them on tele sales. If we were not going through the HR functions that we were doing traditionally, we move them on to supporting areas of the business where we had people out sick or where we had vendors that could not support us. So, incredibly proud of that way.

But when you think about my day-to-day job, and it is a global supply chain, that is where I can tell you in my twenty five years, I have never experienced what we have gone through. A simple example, hand sanitizer, we all know what we deal with in our homes, and what the stores were like, and trying to get it. Well, that is no different than what a large corporation like Verizon, who, by the way, had the forty thousand people out there working. I had a responsibility to get that out there. One simple example, we wound up not able to get it, we made our own. We are now making our own hand sanitizer in the United States for delivery here within all of our operations, whether it is retail or operations, field operations. So that is just an example. Masks, had the same situation, could not get them. Having a lot of trouble importing them, what do we do? We are now making our own masks here in the United States.

Why did we do that? Because we were controlling our own destiny and we got to evolve. Do we still have tremendous partners that we work with every day? Absolutely. Are we still fighting to get things through customs quicker or get them out of certain countries? Are we worried about yield off production lines? Absolutely. These are unprecedented times. But I am so proud of how we have responded, how Verizon has stepped up, and how we protected our employees.

John: That is so great. I mean, so really, like you said, there are no books on how to lead through this kind of pandemic. You and I have never seen in our lifetimes and as you said to me before we went on the air, hopefully, our children never have to live through something like this. So the leadership is, you just filled the gaps as you saw gaps that happened in the supply chain, gaps that were unexpected and created on the spot. Verizon filled those gaps and made it happen themselves.

Jim: Yes, we were very, very lucky and blessed to be supported by a board of directors, the Chairman, all the way through our organization with tremendous, tremendous support, and more importantly, tremendous communication.

By the way, I do not know, John, if you have heard, but Verizon is rolling out 5G. We have been in real big commitment through our 5G. By the way, we were not going to slow down on that. So my team is also responsible for the 5G radios and the infrastructure and the build and the fiber that is going to go that does the backhaul. All of that had to continue. Then finding out how we do that: A.) Keeping our employees safe. B.) Continuing to roll out that technology, which by the way, is an incredibly sustainable technology and will enable so many solutions for the world at large, that we just could not afford to let a pandemic slow us down, and we did not.

John: That is awesome. For our listeners who have just joined us, we have got Jim Gowen with us today. He is the Vice President of Global Supply Chain and the Chief Sustainability Officer at Verizon. You can find all the great work that Jim and his colleagues around the world do at verizon.com. There are tons and tons of information on the website with regards to ESG responsibility, sustainability, and actually, even cybersecurity, very other important topic.

Jim, I just want to go back now to energy. You have made energy efficiency goals, that by 2025, Verizon is going to be at fifty percent renewable energy. What does that really mean for people out there that are just getting caught up with the vernacular with regards to climate change and renewable energy?

Jim: Sure. So from a renewable energy perspective, we really have three facets to how we look at renewable energy. So again, when we are running the largest and best wireless network and one of the largest wireline networks globally, it takes a lot of energy and a lot of computing power. So we have made several different commitments to get to that fifty percent.

We have announced first that we are going to, what we said is double down or put another 24 megawatts of green energy onsite. That means in the simplest terms, we are enabling large campus facilities with solar or fuel cell technology at the facility. So think about covered parking, think about solar arrays outside of building’s fields, we are putting over 24 megawatts of that. We have some great examples in New Jersey, in Piscataway. Just did one, doing a very large one in Lake Mary, Florida right now.

By the way, John, just to take it full circle, we have also enabled EV charging stations under those solar arrays. So now our employees can drive their EV to work, they can charge it right from a renewable source, solar, and plug in right while they are at work during the day. It is a little thing, but that helps build it into the DNA. It helps people know that we have a slogan, “Work Green, Live Green.” We are trying to bring that holistic approach, bring it to your backyard barbecue, and then bring what you learned from your backyard barbecue back to us because we do not have all the answers.

But the other two phases, I want to just hit on real quick. The other one is what we call near loading, where we are creating renewable energy contracts, long-term renewable energy contracts, that would be close to, not to our property, but close to where our employees work, where we have facilities, and that can be anything from fuel cell to solar, to turbines, any type of renewable energy source.

Then the third one, which is much larger scale which is not as close to our facilities, is where you buy into a larger grid project. This is where you can invest in the grid and you purchase certain amount of renewable energy that you will get, again, over ten, fifteen, or twenty years. Then this way, we are committing to building the infrastructure, not just for us, but for everyone in that geography. So that is how we are getting to our fifty percent.

John: How does that interrelate with your 2035 goals of becoming carbon neutral?

Jim: So that is just one phase in how we get there, because then from 2025 to 2035, we are going to have to continue that drumbeat, continue that message, continue that buildout. The good part is, as you and I know, technology is changing so fast, what renewable energy is coming next? How much better are the solar arrays going to get? How much better are the turbines going to get? I am still very optimistic on geothermal. I think we are going to crack the code there as well. So, a lot more to come.

John: Jim, you do not just manage the United States, but you are a worldwide leader at Verizon, and you mentioned earlier about your tens of thousands of green team leaders in what about, forty nine different countries. Can you share a little bit on leadership styles? How do you communicate? I mean, every time I come to your campus, I am inspired again, because not only is the campus itself inspiring, but everyone is so culturally bought in, that it is wonderful. Now, inspiring one campus in New Jersey is one thing, but how do you get by in forty nine different countries? How do you communicate that to create a common culture and common goals?

Jim: Yes. It is a great challenge to hell, I will put it that way. So as I mentioned, our green team members, what we have installed is what we call Green Team Champions. So in the very beginning you said, I had all these employees, I got to tell you, here is a little secret, we run the entire Verizon Sustainability Program with six people.

John: Oh my gosh!

Jim: And I never want us to get larger. I never wanted to get larger than that and very simply, because if it becomes thirty or forty people, it becomes Jim Gowen’s Program, and that is not what it is. This is Verizon’s Sustainability Program and we are building it in to who we are as a company into our DNA.

So we have these green team champions all over the planet. We have them in Ireland, in the UK, we have them in India, we have them in Shanghai. What those green team champions are in the simplest form, they are local folks who have a passion. They really put their passion to practice, they go above and beyond their job. So they will volunteer to host events, they will volunteer to host recycling, they will volunteer to host green challenges, they will organize local park pickups. We had a great one in India with a bring-your-daughter-to-work day and plant a tree. I mean, things that we had not done before, and they are all organized locally.

Because I am not about to put my team on planes and fly them all over, that would kind of defeat the purpose, right? So we have to enable the people who are on the ground, and by the way, it certainly helps with building that passion because they are people who know the local geography, and they know the local pain points. A really great one in Dublin where we cleaned up the Liffey. There was a Saturday event where we had the team go out and they worked on the main river there that goes right through Dublin.

You know, is it going to solve everything? Absolutely not. But it is all about forward momentum, it is all about getting people involved, it is all about building that into our DNA, and into the community where we work and live.

John: I love it. Jim, when you were taking over in becoming the Chief Sustainability Officer on top of your role of VP of Global Supply Chain, you share with me your goal of planting ten million trees by 2030. Where are you now in that process and why is reforestation such a big focus at Verizon?

Jim: So, personal note, I love trees. I got a real passion for them myself. But I will tell you also, from a climate perspective, there is no better way to work on the climate than to truly reforest. We have great partners with the Arbor Day Foundation and Eden Reforestation, and we have done so much with them, and we are so proud to be partners with them. So very recently, right in 2020, we have just crossed three million trees planted. Just in the last thirteen months or so, we have done over a million of those trees just there. We have really picked up the pace. The goal is ten million right now. I might want to do a few more than that. I might want to keep upping the ante. I love that people have been talking about a trillion trees. But we are well on our way to achieve our ten million before 2030. But I really think it also is another one of those things that send the right message. It is something you can get involved with colleagues at work, you can get involved with families or friends or loved ones. It is that whole mindset change and there is nothing better for the environment than planting a good tree.

John: Jim, you have said it all, your time is very precious, and I do not want to take more of your time today. But I want you to have the last word before we have to say goodbye to our listeners for this episode.

Jim: John, my first word is thank you. I very appreciate people like yourself with the passion and you bring your passion to work every day. I love to hear what you are saying. I love to see what you are reading and read what you are writing out there. So thank you very much to you and all your colleagues out there that do that on a day in, day out basis.

And then the second thing I would say is I could not be more proud of the work that Verizon is doing. I could not be more proud of all the work that people are doing around the world. Verizon currently chairs [inaudible] globally, sustainability-based out of Brussels with sixty of really like-minded companies and institutions. So I am really positive, I am a glass-half-full guy, I really see that the future is bright. We are going through challenging times, we will get through them, we are resilient.

And the last thing is, once we are through them and we are resilient, we are going to be a whole way transparent about what we are doing after our focus at Verizon. Let us say what we are going to do, let us do it, and then let us put it in writing, audit it, and bring it out there so everyone else can learn. It is not a competitive sport here.

John: I love it.

Jim: You know, I want to do this all together.

John: Thank you, Jim, and thank you to all your colleagues at Verizon. For our listeners out there that want to find Jim, his colleagues, and all the great work that Verizon does to work green and live green, you could go to verizon.com, www.verizon.com.

Jim Gowen, I love your energy. I love your passion. For me, personally, you have been a visionary leader that has inspired me and inspired everybody you touch because I know, because I get to meet all the great chief sustainability officers and supply chain people in different industries, and everyone talks about you all the time. For me, personally, I just want to say thank you. Thank you for the impacts you have made and thank you for making the world a better and greener place.

Jim: Thanks, John.