As change has become a mantra in the business world, executive responsibilities and job titles are evolving quickly. An occasional series this summer will ask Canadians about how their roles are changing.
New Title: Vice-president of corporate strategy and business sustainability
Who: Tyler Elm, vice-president of corporate strategy and business sustainability at Canadian Tire Corp. since 2008
What’s your role?
I lead corporate and competitive strategy for the business. For us, business sustainability isn’t an environmental initiative, it’s a business strategy that generates enhanced environmental outcomes.
In the broadest sense, sustainability is about meeting the needs of current generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. We’ve taken that general concept and tailored [it] to a for-profit mandate.
I tell my colleagues often: ‘because it’s the right things to do, yes [that’s a good reason], but if that’s your only rationale for embarking on sustainability then you’re either a non-profit or soon to become one. If sustainability is approached as an environmental initiative it’s usually short-lived. If it’s not connected to the core business, then it’s always going to be an afterthought.
One of the first [sustainability projects I worked on] was [to make changes to] the way a socket set was packed. We had done some research [and knew] if there’s too much packaging, this is something consumers don’t like. We had this 14-piece socket set that was packaged in a plastic case. That package was not disposable, it actually had a function [as a storage box], but it was far too large a container. We worked with the vendor to shrink the amount of packaging.
It protected the product and it was a more effective storage medium, but ... we [also] reduced the amount of plastic in that packaging by 55 per cent, [and] we reduced the amount of [space] that package took up by almost 70 per cent. It took 2.7 fewer ocean containers to ship that product, [and] as a result it saved us over $20,000 in shipping costs. It reduced the product’s shipping cost by 15 per cent and it generated about 10 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions avoidance.
Where did your title come from?
In 2008, I was hired on as the vice-president of business sustainability and I reported to the chief strategy officer. Proving the concept that sustainability and strategy are one and the same, the company decided to merge the two [roles].
What makes your role different from any other corporate social responsibility role?
First and foremost it’s that we view [sustainability] as a strategy. Secondly, ... we develop innovation that works around various functions like transportation, packaging, strategic sourcing, and real estate.
I think traditionally companies are focused on a responsibility mindset ... and as such they frame things as increased cost. What we’ve done is framed it as a business issue ... We see it as a source of strategic value, in terms of how to compete, [drive] efficiency, [find] new revenue sources, as well as helping to frame questions about what businesses to enter and why, as well as what businesses to exit and why.
How did your background prepare you for a role like this?
I used to work as a conservation biologist and my work was applying ecological principles in production forest environments [where there is logging and other forest products being harvested].
The forest industry ... used to go through cycles every four years, and the idea [was] that when the [forest] economy was poor, the environmental legislation would be rolled back. Regulation increased costs, and so every time the economy is poor, that regulation is reduced so the industry can compete.
I went back and did an MBA thinking ‘there’s got to be a better way.’ [I wondered] ‘how could you incorporate sustainability objectives into business strategy so that regardless of the economy you could pursue it?’
Why should other companies consider adding a role similar to yours?
Our cumulative annual benefits from our sustainability strategy [since] 2008 are about $25-million in cost avoidance, and we’re forecasting some revenue opportunities ... of over $1-million a year as well.
Since 2008 our [environmental] foot print in terms of our operations has gone down significantly even though we’ve scaled in size. So it’s an opportunity to really reduce costs, look for new sources of revenue and innovate in terms of the organizational structure.
What’s your typical day like?
In general I’m working with senior leaders throughout the business. [The sustainability team is] almost like an internal consulting team. Much of the work is in working horizontally across the business to facilitate the implementation of strategy and trace the benefits. We try to help the business set a vision for where [it] wants to be 3, 5, 10 years out. [Senior leaders] generally have an idea from a business perspective, so we try to link that to environmental objectives as well.
There are meetings, there are e-mails. I try to set aside an hour or two minimum every day for critical thinking. I could spend my morning working with the product and packing team, [then] I could have a conference call with the transportation team and then after lunch work with the buildings group.
What have you learned so far?
For environmental issues to be relevant to business they have to be framed as business issues.
One of the most important skills [I’ve developed] is to be able to influence without necessarily having authority. I don’t own the profit and loss, so I don’t have the authority to tell people what to do, and that’s actually not the best way of achieving [results]. My job is to facilitate collaboration and demonstrate some value [to sustainability].
What’s your most-loved Canadian Tire toy?
It’s a toss up between my canoe and my bicycle.