Jim Hackett and Steelcase: Sustaining Philanthropy

April 22, 2010

When students, staff, and faculty members at the Ford School take a seat, it's Jim Hackett (BGS '77) they should thank.

A general studies major who played center on the football team under Bo Schembechler, Hackett never took a class on public policy. However, his philanthropy to the Ford School—both personally and through his employer, the Grand Rapids—based office furniture manufacturer Steelcase-has been indelible.

When U-M began planning a new home for the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy in 2002, Jim Hackett, who had become good friends with the Fords after their return to private life, personally took up the torch. As CEO of Steelcase, Hackett arranged to help outfit the Ford School's new building, Joan and Sanford Weill Hall, in style. Just about every desk, chair, file cabinet, and lamp throughout the building is manufactured by Steelcase.

In addition to Steelcase's generous assistance, Jim has served on the Ford School Committee since 2006 and, with his wife Kathy, has supported Ford School students through two sustaining endowments—the Lee C. Bollinger Award for second-year students and the James and Kathy Hackett Family Fellowship Fund.

Why do you contribute to the Ford School, both personally and through Steelcase?

My wife, Kathy, and I want to make sure others have a chance to go to school here. In 2000, I got to have a front row seat in the University's Supreme Court case arguing to allow diversity to continue to play a role in college recruitment. I helped enlist over 100 companies who employed U-M graduates to put together one of the two defining amicus briefs in the case because I wanted to see that the diversity of ideals always has a place at U-M. President Ford felt strongly enough about the case to write an op-ed piece for the New York Times titled "Inclusive America, Under Attack." The Ford School honors President Ford's faith in democracy while paying homage to diverse world ideals. This defines what college is for me.

As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan in the 70s, you played football for Bo Schembechler. What did you learn from Bo?

Bo taught me that you didn't have to be a star player to be valuable. I didn't play much, but he made me feel the importance of my contribution to the team. His love for his players was unconditional and lifelong—most of his purpose in life was to care for others. As Steelcase CEO, I've come to realize that I can use the bully pulpit to help others.

What kinds of office furniture does Steelcase make?

In 1912, when Steelcase was founded, it manufactured metal wastebaskets to reduce the risk of fires started by smoldering cigars. Today, Steelcase creates tools that solve problems for contemporary workers in smoke-free environments, whether they're in traditional offices, healthcare settings, classrooms, coffee shops, or hotels. Our fastest growing product right now is a porcelain white board for displaying web images. A cool Bluetooth-enabled pen allows presenters to make notes directly on the display.

Many businesses are beginning to talk about sustainability, but this is something that Steelcase has been investing in for a long time. Why?

Steelcase was fortunate enough to have a number of founding family members who believed that the environment should be left the way humans found it. Today, the company believes that the only way to provide the best products in the world is to ensure that they're the best products for the world.

How does Steelcase support sustainability?

Through design, manufacture, delivery, and product lifecycle we consider the impact of our work on people and on the environment to uncover opportunities to make things better. We do this by focusing our efforts in three specific areas: materials chemistry, product lifecycle, and recycling/recyclability. In materials chemistry, for example, we examine the chemical makeup of our products, production, and packaging—down to the molecular level—against 19 human and environmental health criteria. When we find materials or chemicals that cause problems, we work to eliminate them.

Has Steelcase been successful in reducing its environmental impact?

We try to be as transparent as possible about where we are on our journey. To date, Steelcase has reduced company-wide greenhouse gas emissions by 49 percent, Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) emissions by 95 percent, water consumption by 64 percent, and waste by 71 percent. More recently, we purchased enough Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) to name a Texas wind farm that can generate 35 million kilowatt hours of electricity each year—enough to power 2,925 homes. We've got a live feed on our website that shows real-time wind farm data. Already this year, the farm has generated more than 22 million kilowatt hours of electricity. We hope that we're part of a trend. We don't see a downside to the growth of clean energy.

In purchasing power from the wind farm, Steelcase was given an opportunity to name it. You named it the Wege Wind Farm instead of capitalizing on the corporate branding potential you'd get from the Steelcase name. Why?

Frankly, we never considered naming it anything else. We didn't do it to market the company, we did it because we believed in it and we wanted to honor Peter Wege whose father was one of three founders of the company in 1912. Peter's commitment to the environment inspired much of Steelcase's early interest in sustainability and continues to permeate the organization today. He just hit 90 years old this year and is still actively supporting sustainable projects.

Why should corporations and policymakers care about sustainability?

It wasn't the practice when I went to school to give this much of a thought. Those who did, like Mr. Wege, were considered on the fringe. Today leaders have to be aware of their responsibility to the environment because customers and voters are so much smarter about what it means. Thankfully, they're holding us all accountable.


Below is a formatted version of this article from State & Hill, the magazine of the Ford School. View the entire Spring 2010 State & Hill here.