Peter Bakker, CEO of the European express delivery company TNT, traded in his Porsche and aims to inspire his company – and his employees – to tackle climate change.
Max Christern | September 2007 issue
That was a huge step for a confirmed auto aficionado: trading in his sleek Porsche for a Toyota Prius. But Peter Bakker did just that earlier this year without hesitation. The 46-year-old CEO of TNT, a firm that grew out of the Dutch postal service and is now the world’s fourth-largest express delivery company after FedEx, UPS and DHL, opted for the hybrid electric vehicle based on his convictions—and to set a good example. “I was looking for a way to demonstrate that we need to change our behaviour. The level of CO2 emissions in the world has never been so high. “A transport company like TNT, which is responsible for part of the problem, must also be a part of the solution,” Bakker explains as we sit at a café in Rotterdam’s tree-filled Kralingen neighbourhood not far from his house. He arrived for the interview by bicycle.
Many in the company have voluntarily joined him in this cause, but others had little choice: Since June 1, TNT staff members with company cars can only drive those that meet certain green requirements. “I realize not everyone takes such a step as quickly and easily as I did, but we’ve got to change our way of thinking,” says Bakker, who is not just referring to his own company. “Thinking also has to shift in the automobile sector, for example. Manufacturers like Toyota and BMW, which modify many models to meet green requirements, are joining this movement. But other major brands like Mercedes and Volvo still do nowhere near enough.”
The new policy on company cars is part of an ambitious program; TNT’s managers want to convince all 157,000 employees spread throughout 63 countries to join efforts to reduce CO2 emissions. TNT officially kicked off the program, called “Planet Me” [see box], at the end of August in the London Museum of Natural History. The company’s aim is to persuade all staff members to participate in making structural changes throughout the business that will drastically lower TNT’s contribution to climate change.
It won’t be long before everyone at the company will have to adhere fully to “Code Orange,” the company’s new series of rules on flying, driving, building and purchasing. Managers at the courier company not only want employees to be conscious about commercial energy use, but to scale back household consumption. TNT staff will be encouraged to save energy at home through a more informal program called “Choose Orange.” Booklets containing off-the-job conservation tips have already been distributed. The idea is to get people talking to each other at work about how they’re helping save the environment at home.
Bakker says it’s logical that the focal point of Planet Me is getting his employees to take individual responsibility. They will be inspired to implement simple pro-environment measures at home. “Of course I don’t get involved in our people’s private lives, but I do want them to see that it’s not so difficult to get something started,” Bakker says with a sober kind of passion.
Planet Me is innovative in various respects, according to Pier Vellinga, professor of environmental science at the Free University of Amsterdam. “The strength of the TNT plan is that the entire chain is included,” Vellinga says. “They examine how the business is run, and involve the employees. So this plan is much more than a little game devised by the management board. And that means it will take root better. Down the road, this plan will get a lot of other companies thinking.”
Bakker can remember the moment he was struck by the impact of climate change. It was during a long weekend in New York two years ago. He was asked to participate in the first meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative at the Sheraton Hotel. The objective of this innovative “think-and-act tank” of carefully selected business and political world leaders was to tackle global problems in concrete ways.
There, in one of the hotel’s meeting rooms, he listened to former U.S. vice-president Al Gore’s talk about the climate crisis, a year before the release of the film An Inconvenient Truth. It made a deep impression on Bakker. “A feeling of responsibility began to gnaw at me,” he remembers. “I’m fairly impressionable when it comes to that.”
At the time, Bakker had already served several years as CEO of TNT. He had quickly made a name for himself and was frequently portrayed in the media as an icon for a new generation of global business leaders. Bakker was a youthful man in his 40s who had turned a former state-owned company—the Dutch postal service—into a leading international courier and express-delivery business.
He had earned wide praise for his decision to change TNT’s sponsorship policy radically: The company that traditionally sponsored golf tournaments started putting their money, knowledge and ability into the UN World Food Programme because Bakker considered it unacceptable that his company was distributing packages all over the world but couldn’t help transport food to areas that really needed it. This gave rise to the alliance with the UN food program, which he spoke about in New York at the Clinton initiative meeting.
He received lots of applause from a number of famous figures, from leading economist Jeffrey Sachs to actors Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, who sat listening with rapt attention at the edge of the podium as he spoke. “That, too, inspired me,” Bakker says, laughing.
Once home in the Netherlands, he became engrossed in the subject of climate change. He wanted to know what was really going on. What were the facts? He asked two renowned scientific experts, Pier Vellinga and Frans Berkhout, both with the Free University, to educate him thoroughly. And he encouraged the people around him to start questioning: What could they do differently? Where was the company wasting energy and natural resources?
He took the topic of climate change on the road, speaking to his key managers. He put together a team of 250 and assigned its members to prepare a presentation for the annual meeting of senior management held early this year in Istanbul. In the magical setting of an old Turkish church, lit up with the colour orange, Gore spoke to the managers via satellite. It was a successful warm-up session for Bakker’s presentation the following morning. He explained his new plan to tackle global climate change and asked for the managers’ support.
And he got it, although a great many of them hesitated when the new company-car policy was pushed through by a thin majority as the first symbolic gesture. That was when everyone knew Bakker was serious.
“We deliver packages and mail everywhere in the world,” Bakker says, explaining why this issue is so important to the company. “We’re one of the biggest beneficiaries of globalization; we need to think about taking responsibility too.”
A case in point: TNT has two new Boeing 747s. These freight planes make nine roundtrips a week between Leuven, Belgium, and Shanghai, China. When the planes leave Belgium, they are rarely filled to capacity, but when they take off from China, they’re full of iPods and PCs. Bakker notes, “Those Boeings double the total CO2 emissions of TNT. I discussed the issue with our flight experts and they said, ‘Of course we need to keep using those planes. After all, it’s our business. But we really do need to do something about this.’”
The questions is, What can be done? In the long term, TNT plans to use a vegetable-based fuel for the planes in line with the idea launched last year by Virgin Atlantic’s CEO Richard Branson. In the short term, TNT has discovered a new landing method—whereby planes begin their descent much sooner than is customary—which uses about 20 percent less fuel, producing lower CO2 emissions. “The strength of Planet Me,” Bakker says, “lies in similar visible initial steps across a broad front of all business activities.”
TNT’s way of involving staff in environmental issues is innovative. “It’s extremely important to involve employees at their core,” Bakker reasons, “and that base is at home. That’s where people notice how they can make a difference by being more conscious about their energy use.”
The drive to cut energy use will lead to the construction of a new head office near Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport. Bakker fondly calls it “the office of the future,” pointing out that it will be “CO2 positive.” He explains, “That means we’ll work in a CO2-neutral fashion while constructing the building and once we move in. We’ll help make it CO2 positive by giving energy back, for example by putting a small windmill on the roof or installing solar panels.”
TNT also wants to do its part to slash commuter traffic. “I want to curtail our staff’s contribution to traffic jams. Our philosophy will be that you work at the closest office to your home and if a meeting needs to be held or you want to see your colleagues, that’s fine, but only between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. That too will have a positive effect on their home lives.”
Meanwhile, TNT continues to do busIness “as usual” and faces the “usual” business issues. A couple of months ago, company executives announced another reorganization in the postal division, which will cost thousands of people their jobs. How do they feel about the fact that they’re losing their positions while their employer pumps millions into sustainability projects and food aid programs?
“I’ll be talking with angry, redundant postal workers,” Bakker says. “I understand they’re upset. But in the end, I always ask them this question: Do you consider [losing your job] a comparable problem? Clearly, global hunger and climate change are the really big problems.”
Bakker points out that every five seconds a child dies from hunger somewhere in the world and says we are heading toward an uncontrolled situation if CO2 emissions are not cut by 80 percent over the next 40 years. “That means we’re in a hurry,” he concludes.
A couple of minutes later, he jumps back on his bike. “Planet MPB,” is mounted on the frame—the initials of the man who is determined to do his part to improve the planet. His planet.