May 1, 2014 12:57 am

After 15 years at Starbucks, Ben Packard takes up protecting nature

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“The determination is unbelievable,” says Ben Packard. He is referring to one of the photographs decorating his Seattle office, home to The Nature Conservancy’s Washington State chapter. The image is of a salmon battling upstream to its birthplace, where it will spawn and die.

“I’ll never lose my sense of marvel and awe at that species and the journey it makes,” he says.

Mr Packard’s working day might not involve the immense physical struggle of the salmon, but he is on a steep uphill journey of his own – learning the workings of TNC, one of the world’s top conservation non-profit organisations, having recently left Seattle-based Starbucks, one of the world’s largest retail coffee chains.

After 15 years at Starbucks – starting in 1998 as environmental affairs manager and finally leading the company’s global responsibility strategy – Mr Packard has said goodbye to the corporate world.

Still, the break is not complete – as TNC’s director of corporate engagements, he will be developing relationships with companies to spread adoption of environmentally sustainable business practices.

In his new job, Mr Packard must adapt to the way TNC is structured – as a collection of chapters in different locations.

At Starbucks, he sat at a desk with his team surrounding him. Now, from his base in Seattle, he manages colleagues who are scattered across the globe.

“It demands a very fluid way of working virtually,” Mr Packard explains. “People meet me on the phone and we jump right into meaty conversations.”

Ben Packard with his dog

Ben Packard: ‘People meet me on the phone and we jump right into meaty conversations’

Yet while all this is new to Mr Packard, in some ways, his entire career has led him to a job focused on conserving nature.

As a teenager who spent summers amid the pristine mountains and lakes of New York’s Adirondacks, he recognised the importance of protecting the natural world.

So after graduating from college “with a passion for environmental issues but not really knowing how to apply myself”, he started working with an organisation in Seattle that helped graduates find environmental jobs.

However, it was his next move that really opened his eyes to the role the private sector can play in promoting environmental sustainability. The position was at a public-private commission in Seattle exploring how to create local markets for recycled materials.

The commission showed him the power of collaboration by bringing together law firms and government agencies, venture capitalists and local manufacturers.

“Something started to go off and I thought: ‘Wow, the private sector is the solution here.’”

As he warms to his topic, it becomes clear Mr Packard is also drawn to sustainable business because “it appeals to a pragmatic and execution-driven aspect of my personality, which is to connect the dots and make things happen”.

Later, at Starbucks, he would take over the company’s work to develop ways of recycling more of the 4bn cups it used for drinks every year.

Starbucks has often been on the receiving end of activist anger about everything from the amount of paper wasted in its cups to the genetically modified organisms in the feed of cows that produce its milk.

However, before the coffee chain appeared on Mr Packard’s horizon, he “needed to understand the language of business and figure out how to apply this in a strategic way in the mainstream”, as he puts it.

University of Washington offered a course that “looked at the environment as a strategic issue for business to manage, which in many ways was ahead of its time”, says Mr Packard.

Before graduating, he came across an opening at Starbucks for an environmental manager – at the time, it was one of just two with the word “environment” in the title.

But given Starbucks’ rapid expansion and a corporate culture that placed a strong emphasis on sustainability, Mr Packard saw the potential to shape the company’s activities.

“It felt there was so much room to grow and I had so many opportunities,” he says, adding: “I knew there was something incredibly appealing about the aspiration of the company.”

Over the years, Mr Packard watched as his department expanded almost as rapidly as Starbucks itself.

But by the summer of 2012, he had an “itch” to try something new. He left Starbucks to travel with his wife and three children before they grew up.

Back in Seattle he joined TNC, though his old employer is never far away. On his commute, Mr Packard often stops to pick up some coffee. And where does he buy it? At the store in Pike Place Market where in 1971 the very first Starbucks opened.


Career Clips

Who strongly influenced you?

Dave Olsen, one of the founders of Starbucks, once asked me: “Do you want to be right, or do you want to be effective?” I think about that a lot, because to be effective, you have to adopt different behaviours. To be right you just continue thinking what you think is right. The willingness to listen and the courage to see another perspective is central to effectiveness.

What advice would you give those wanting to work in your field?

Follow your instincts if you are passionate and curious about an issue. Gain experience and perspective, but take chances in multiple sectors to see where you fit in.

What was your most interesting business trip?

In 1999, I took a trip with a guy from Conservation International to Chiapas [Mexico], to the Sierra Madre. Being on the ground, understanding on a community level what our work really meant, was very emotional and intense. We took a hike on our last day and spent the night at a ranger cabin. It was unbelievably beautiful. And that appeals to another side of me; I also like to spend time in the wilderness.


On the Desk

Ben Packard knows his coffee and his coffee cups – and after a 15-year career at Starbucks, his choice of brew still comes from the Seattle chain.

It’s usually two cups before lunch: a cup of Kenya from a French press made at home with the chain’s coffee and then a bought-in split shot Doppio (two shots of espresso, one decaf) later in the morning, he explains.

In between, on his way to work at The Nature Conservancy, he stops at the Seattle store where the first Starbucks opened 43 years ago.

He drinks his coffee from a reusable cup. It is little wonder – at Starbucks, packaging was a dominant concern.

The company had hoped that it could increase the number of drinks it served in reusable cups to one in four, but had to lower that target drastically – to one in 20 – in the goals it set itself for 2015.

It was Mr Packard’s job to explain why.

Even though one in five customers stays at the shop, few of them opt for ceramic mugs. Promising discounts to those who bring their own cups appears to hold greater potential for the coffee chain.

Even so, ordinary customers seem to care about recycling more than reuse.

But judging from the cup on his desk, Mr Packard counts as no ordinary Starbucks customer.

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