Karla Robertson currently serves as executive vice president, general counsel, secretary and chief social responsibility officer of Pentair. In this role, she oversees all aspects of legal, compliance, privacy and insurance matters as well as leading the Company’s social responsibility strategy.
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John: Welcome to another edition of the Impact podcast. I’m John Shegerian and we’re so honored to have with us today, Karla Robertson. She’s the executive vice president, general counsel secretary, and chief social responsibility officer of Pentair. Welcome, Karla, to the Impact podcast.
Karla Robertson: Well, thank you so much, John. Thanks for having me.
John: It is just an honor to have you. You’re doing very impactful and important work at Pentair. But before we go into all the interesting things you’re doing a Pentair with your colleagues, can you share a little bit about your background? Where did you grow up and where did you go to school and how did you even get here, Karla?
Karla: Sure. I’m coming to you from Golden Valley Minneapolis. It’s just suburb of Minneapolis. And I happened to be from Minnesota, right? I was born in Minneapolis, not so far from where the Pentair US management offices are. I was born and raised in and around the Twin Cities, and then I headed to… I graduated from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities as well. And then I headed to law school in Denver, Colorado. I went to law school in Denver and then started making my way back to the Midwest. One of the things about Minnesota is it has a great pull. If you’re from here, a lot of people tend to come back here. That’s my story. I started to make my way back to Minnesota by way of Iowa. After law school, I clerked for a federal judge in Iowa and did that for a couple years and then came back up north and started my law career at a law firm called Favor and Benson, which is now Figree Drinker Biddle and Wreath. And I did private law practice for 5 years. Went from there to Target and after Target, I… A bit known fact about me is that I stayed home for a year with my first child, my daughter, and then decided to go back into the workforce and went to Super Value Distribution Company doing food distribution, which is now UNFI. It was purchased actually by UNFI.
Karla: And then from there, I ended up at Pentair and came to be the general counsel here at Pentair. And I’ve been here almost 5 years. So, that’s a little bit of my career journey that brought me here today.
John: That’s fascinating. When you were at Target and at Super Value, were you a general counsel there or assistant general counsel at those great organizations as well?
Karla: Yes, they’re all great organizations. Figree’s as well. I started actually in the law being an employment lawyer.
John: Oh, okay.
Karla: I started employment law and then I sort of went into litigation more generally. I was an employment lawyer at Target, started out employment laws at Super Value, and then did become general counsel and was general counsel for about 4 years while I was at Super Value. And then I came over to Pentair as their GC. I’ve started in a different place than I am now, that’s for sure.
John: You joined Pentair in about 2017, right?
John: As a general counsel, when did you also take on the extra role of secretary and chief social responsibility officer?
Karla: I’ve always been the secretary. That’s really a big part of governance. Being a general counsel and a secretary’s sort of a package deal in my case.
Karla: Yes, it’s a package deal. And then 2 years ago, I had the additional role of chief social responsibility officer.
John: Was that a call to action of the company and you raised your hand and put your name in the hat? Or did they anoint you? How did that even happen? Because that’s a fascinating… I get to interview a lot of wonderful folks over the last 15 years in these… Chief impact officers or CSRs or chief social responsibility officers and even chief sustainability officers. Your background’s fascinating leading up to that. How did that actually come about?
Karla: To me, it seems to fit quite beautifully actually because I think corporate social responsibility, as you may call it, or sustainability or ESG, pick whatever term. I think there are variations on the theme. They’re really a mix in my view of business strategy, governance compliance, regulatory and really at the heart is really creating long-term value for the company, long-term shareholder value and long-term value for stakeholders. And so, I think as a general counsel, as a lawyer, and as a key business partner, because I also really think that being a lawyer and being a good one is to be a key business partner to the operations in the business, really is uniquely positioned to combine all of those. I can talk a little bit about who and what Pentair is a little bit more but Pentair is a leading provider of smart sustainable solutions that really addresses water needs. And it has a long history, a great rich history, of being a sustainable products and solutions provider. We’ve done that in a variety of ways, again, which I’ll talk about in a minute. That history was there with Pentair and when they appointed me to be the chief social responsibility officer, it was really around, I think, elevating and sort of taking what they’d already been doing to another level and formalizing that work into service centralized program, working throughout the businesses, appointing me as a leader, and they thought I was uniquely positioned to lead the efforts forward based upon my background and also interest and position at the company. It just was a unique opportunity to take, again, the good works and to propel it forward. I’m really proud of the work that we’ve been able to do there.
John: That’s great. And for our listeners and viewers out there, to find Karla and her colleagues at Pentair, you can go to www.pentair.com. Talk a little bit about Pentair first. Let’s first set the table for how big is Pentair? Your headquarters are over in Minneapolis, the beautiful city of Minneapolis, as you and I were discussing a little bit off the air before we started taping. How big is Pentair in terms of employee size and geography?
Karla: Another interesting fact about Pentair, I mentioned we’re headquartered here. We have our US operations and management offices here, but we’re actually incorporated in Ireland. We’re an Irish PLC and we’re also domiciled in the UK with our US management offices here in Golden Valley. It’s a very global company.
Karla: It poses a lot of interesting issues and things to address being global. We have over 11,000 employees that are across the globe, about 11,250. And we do serve customers in, I think, about 150 countries globally. And so, it’s a very global company with, again, operations, also plants and manufacturing operations throughout the globe.
John: Wow. Now, you get this new role 5 years ago as general counsel and secretary. Now, that’s something you’re really good at anyway. You were already trained to be a lawyer, educated to be a lawyer, and already had a lot of practice at that. But 2 years ago, chief social responsibility officer, right in the middle of the pandemic. Now, you have a global company with 11,000 employees. Where do you start? What’s the starting point and what’s your point of reference on where to even begin?
Karla: Again, going back to Pentair’s great history of really being committed to and having a proven track record of having products and solutions that really drive sustainability. We’ve been a leader and we provide products and solutions for enjoying water, and we have products and solutions on the pool pad. So, if you have a pool, there’s a great chance that you might have a Pentair filter, pump, maybe some lights. Pentair’s had a great track record, as I said, of providing energy efficient and energy saving resources products in various areas.
Karla: So, we have that to build on. We also had and have an amazing board of directors who are great. They’re a committed body of people who are very committed to, again, driving long-term value for the company and very astute and interested in leading also through ESG. You have a great track record in our products and solutions, you have incredible board who’s strategic and has a vision, and you have a great CEO. And our CEO, John Stout, who also understood that we have the opportunity to really elevate our leadership position in ESG and being a leader in the manufacturing space for sustainable products and solutions. So, that was a great starting place.
Karla: It wasn’t like we were starting from zero. We had that as a great foundation and then from there, with the board support and John and our CEO support, and already a great record, we then went out and knew that we wanted to really formalize the program. And we thought we sort of were on the right track already with some of the things that we’re doing but we wanted to make sure what we were going to do going forward matched what our stakeholders cared about, right? So, we went out and did an assessment and got lots of input and lots of feedback from our shared feedback, from our shareholders, our customers, our employees, different groups. And we collected it all and invalidated a lot of what we’re doing and then crystallized the other areas that we were going to focus on going forward. We simulated that all and took some time to understand it to sort of assimilate it and then craft our strategy and then at the same time, built the team under the program and then just went off and went from there with all the types of things you would imagine launching and implementing your strategy.
John: I come from a family of lawyers. My daughter who’s above my shoulder here, she’s an employment lawyer. My brother’s an employment lawyer. My son’s a lawyer. In your legal team, with your legal hat on, how big is your legal team about approximately?
Karla: Give or take, rough and tough, 50 people.
John: Okay. So now, for your chief social responsibility officer team, which is now only 2 years in the making, how big is that team? You’ve explained that you gathered the evidence and the information from all the stakeholders, but now, building a team and you’re going to set ambitious and achievable goals. Explain how many team members you have to get to begin this journey and then talk a little bit about some of the ambitious and achievable goals that you set off to achieve.
Karla: The team that I have now, I think we’re a mighty team of 5 and that’s including myself. We’re so small but mighty. I think of it as that’s a centralized team. But when I really think about the power of Pentair over 11,000 strong, I think we have a potential team of over 11,000 people. And so, I really think of it as ESG, social responsibility, comes alive through and by our employees. It is around engaging our employees. And there’s all different levels of those. The executive team and management, leadership, and everywhere from that level all the way down to the folks in our plants. This is just really a call to action around things that matter, gets engagement up. And so, I think of the team as the centralized effort to really work across the enterprise to really drive the initiatives because that’s actually critical to the success. I think of that in a couple ways. And then to the second part of your question around these ambitious but achievable targets, absolutely. Once we did what we would call an ESG materiality assessment, what I just described of getting all that in, we then took it as simulated. Again, talked about it, the results, with our leadership team and the board and then set out. We then launched 5 strategic target areas that had 5 strategic targets included in them. We did that and launched and communicated those just in 2021. Not that long ago.
Karla: And again, we are very deliberate and thoughtful about what those would be aligned to the Pentair business, aligned to the Pentair strategy, and aligned to how we want to be a leader going forward.
John: I got you. Now, I love the idea of Pentair people because you’re right. They become your ambassadors, your evangelists. Your communication then with your mighty team of 5, which you’re one of the five, obviously then communicating to the 11,000 what you’re doing to get them to buy in to become ambassadors and evangelists of everything you’re up to is important. How does that communication look like on a regular basis?
Karla: That’s a full-time commitment and job of the team. I think you might be able to say we may possibly have a full-time of 5 and a half because we have another member of our team. And I say this for a reason, who is actually dotted line into our team, but he works in our technology team. He happens to be a water engineer, really driving water conservation projects. That’s just an example of we draw from various places in the organization as we drive the strategy and move forward the project plan. The team is engaged in exactly what you say, reaching out to people across the enterprise, having ongoing meetings, sharing the milestones that we set out to achieve.
One of the things that I’ll talk about a bit is we have a target around product design for sustainability. And that target is also comprised of engineers throughout all of our business units. It’s a working team, right? We have a leader from my team who’s ensuring that the milestones are met and we’re driving forward in progress. But the work, the ideas, really, the motion of forward progress is really made by this working team and of people across the enterprise.
John: Karla, you’re early in this so I don’t want to ask any unfair questions. You’re 2 years into this with your team, but also one year into the launch because the first year was gathering all the information from the stakeholders to be able to formulate the right plan and vision. You bring up a very important point. Talk about tracking the goals and out of the 5 goals that you have, do all of them have different target dates in terms of your vision, in terms of accomplishing them. And go back to design for sustainability because design for sustainability, Karla, has become a very huge deal with all the big OEMs around the world. It sounds like that’s where the world is moving now. People want to make their products more sustainable because the constituent base that’s voting with their pocketbooks is very interested in more sustainable products.
Karla: Yes, that’s absolutely a trend. We might call a mega trend and you, a day-to-day trend. Absolutely. We have, as I mentioned, 5 targets and they reflect who we are and what we care about and what our business strategy is. Two of these targets are really focused on how we can sort of minimize our impact on the environment as we operate in our manufacturing facilities and in our own operations. And that is reducing our carbon footprint. It’s a greenhouse gas reduction target. And that is to reduce our greenhouse gas scope one and scope 2 emissions by 50% by 2030. That’s one of our targets. The second is…
Karla: Yes, it’s a great target. We talked about the progress we’ve made there. The second is to reduce our water withdrawal, that we save water usage. We want to target a 30% reduction of our overall water withdrawal, again, by 2030. And that’s by the baseline that we’ve set. So, those are about how we’re operating.
Karla: The next target in the environmental space is exactly what you said. It’s all about our products and solutions.
Karla: And what we’re providing for our customers and how we’re designing with sustainability in mind. That has a couple components to it. The general theme being innovating with sustainability in mind, and we’re doing that through a product sustainability scorecard that we created, which is quite unique and innovative. We incorporated that product scorecard into our design process. And so going forward, 100% of our new products are being assessed against the scorecard. And then we have additional things that we’re trying to achieve into the future on that. And then the remaining 2 targets are all about our supply chain. As you kind of alluded to, it’s not just us but it’s what’s happening in our supply chain. And really building a more socially responsible supply chain is another one of our targets, and then diversity and inclusion is very important to us at Pentair. That’s part of the S of ESG and being a more diverse and inclusive workplace and increasing the diversity at the company rounds out our targets.
John: I got it. As you track the progress, are they reported in corporate responsibility reports? Is that how it goes?
Karla: Yes, thanks for that. We have an entire mechanism for tracking. Tracking is extremely important. It’s becoming even more important if you’ve ever were following the SEC proposed rules, right? The integrity of data and tracking is really at the core of the compliance aspect of how we operate. And so, we’ve got various technology solutions and mechanisms for tracking. And then we have reported out for a corporate responsibility report that we issue annually, our progress to targets.
John: I got it. When you talk about innovating with sustainability in mind, is that the design for sustainability? Is that that element of the 5 goals?
Karla: It is. That has been so fun. All of this is fun for me, right? It’s been fun. That’s been an incredibly fun component of what we’re focused on. Again, it just builds on the history and legacy of Pentair, and it’s exactly what we hear. It’s what we hear from our customers. It’s what we hear from our partners. Having more sustainable products, having products that really consider sustainability throughout the design process is at the core of what we’re focused on.
John: And you get to work with engineers and hear about how they think. It’s a whole different methodology of thinking that. That actually gets to be, I’m sure, for you, fun or at least different.
Karla: Well, it’s both of those and it’s just ingenious and genius. I hear about the various ideas, just also thinking about the work that we’re doing on water conservation on our inner operations and the things that our engineers and our lead engineers working on these projects come up with as solutions. It’s it’s amazing.
John: This is the Impact podcast and I love your website. Again, for our listeners and viewers, to find Karla and her colleagues and all the important work they’re doing, you could go to www.pentair.com. I’m on your website now, and I’m on your impact page, which I love. Can you talk a little bit about it? And I see here your corporate responsibility report, your strategic targets. So much information. Share a little bit about your vision for this impact page and why is it so clear? Why is it so darn important to your vision, your CEO’s vision, and how you’re driving the future of Pentair and getting 11,000 plus people to evangelize all this great important work you’re doing?
Karla: I think Pentair is an exciting company with an exciting mission vision purpose. And really, at the heart of that is our commitment to our leadership on sustainability. And we’ve really seen that come alive through our website and our impact page and our presence on social media. We’ve tracked our interests or hits and visits and how long people stay in pages. And I have to tell you, since we launched our program and established it, we’ve seen more and more interest on all of our various forums out there. And our impact page is one of them. People come and they want to visit. And when I say people, it’s a variety of people. It’s customers, it’s shareholders and it’s prospective employees. I will tell you, as I mentioned, we have such an amazing group of employees at Pentair. And what we hear from prospective employees is people really are interested in the Pentair story. They’re really interested in our commitment, our leadership on ESG. And people come to our website and they want to check it out and they see it in action, right? They see our corporate responsibility report. They see our metrics and how we’re tracking them. We seek to be transparent with publishing our progress to targets. And it really comes alive for people who want to know about us and who also want to be affiliated with a leader in this space like us.
John: Talk about the industry as a whole. I’m not familiar with your industry but how do you benchmark against- Do you benchmark against your competitors and where is your industry overall headed right now, Karla, from your perspective?
Karla: Just as you mentioned, it’s becoming more and more important to focus on it no matter what industry you’re in, right? To be focused on sustainability and ESG. If people weren’t focused on it before, they’re going to be focused on it now based upon the attention from the SEC in this Administration. So, I think you’re seeing companies across the board focusing on it. But I do think that particularly since we’re so focused on water, and we’re providing products and solutions to move and improve and enjoy water, that that’s at the core of really what we do. And so, we’ll look around other companies that provide products and solutions in the water space, absolutely. And we benchmark with other similarly situated companies. We offer a variety of products and solutions. So, it’s in, perhaps, various sectors that we’ll look and see what others are doing. Absolutely. We also look at just some of the leaders generally in ESG and more broadly. And as we advance on the maturity curve, we look to who we think are real leaders more generally even though they may not be exactly in the same space as we are.
John: You’ve been doing this for 2 years. You’ve made tremendous progress. I’m so impressed by this, not just by the progress you’ve made and the goals that you’ve set, but just how you report them in such a transparent way on your website, on the impact side of your website. What are your opportunities and goals and priorities for the next 2 years and beyond, Karla?
Karla: Well, certainly, at the top of the list is to continue to work towards enabling the Pentair business strategy because we see, obviously, sustainability part and parcel to what we’re doing as a company. And so, being really integrated with the business and working together to drive value for Pentair stakeholders. So that’s always something that we’re focused on first and foremost. And that’s what our strategies are built on. We then also, of course, in doing so, want to make progress towards our targets. We think as we make progress towards our targets, it’s going to continue to help drive that long-term value. We are going to continue over the next 2 years and more to do what we can to continue our great momentum. And we also have a long-term strategy that we have, that’s looking out 5 to 10 years. And that certainly will continue to evolve. We’ll change it as we need to. But it’s to continue to innovate. Product innovation is a real big focus. And continuing to, I would say, be an employer of choice. That’s the key part of all this. And to be a destination of choice for prospective employers, to have our employers just continue to want to love being here and engage with our ESG initiatives.
John: Well, Karla, thank you so much for spending time with us on the Impact podcast. It’s hard for anybody who listened to this episode not to be Pentair proud. I’m Pentair proud after listening to your mission and to your vision. For our listeners and viewers out there, to find Karla and her great 11,000 colleagues and all the important work they’re doing in corporate social responsibility and in ESG work, go to www.pentair.com. Look up their impact page. It’s amazing. All the information we just discussed today is there and Karla Robertson, you’re always welcome back on the Impact podcast. Thank you for making truly an impact and making the world a better place.
Karla: Thank you so much, John. It was great to spend time with you. Thank you so much.
John: This episode of the Impact podcast is brought to you by Closed-loop Partners. Closed-loop Partners is a leading circular economy investor in the United States with an extensive network of fortune 500 corporate investors, family offices, institutional investors, industry experts, and impact partners. Closed-loop’s platform spans the arc of capital from venture capital to private equity bridging gaps and fostering synergies to scale the circular economy. To find Closed-loop Partners, please go to www.closedlooppartners.com.