WEC President & CEO Glenn Prickett spoke with Peter Schnurrenberger, Chief SHE Officer at Roche, on the eve of his retirement to discuss his work at Roche and his vision for the future. In the interview, Peter shares insights on how sustainability became a priority for Roche, how businesses can create impact, and the value WEC has for members.
Prickett: Hello everyone, I’m really thrilled to be here today with Peter Schnurrenberger, the Chief Safety, Health, and Environment Officer at Roche Group. Peter has been a leader at Roche and at the World Environment Center for many, many years. And we’re speaking to Peter today on the event of his retirement. So, we’re sad to lose an active colleague at WEC, but thrilled for Peter that he can enter this new chapter, and we look forward to continuing association with WEC. But we wanted to take this opportunity to ask Peter to share his reflections on his work and on the work of WEC as he makes this transition. So, thanks for doing this Peter; we’re doing it virtually because of the pandemic, but also because you’re sitting in Europe, and I’m sitting in North America. But it’s lovely to see you, as always. Thanks for doing this.
And if I might, I just wanted to lead off with a question: You’ve been the Chief SHE Officer at Roche; you’ve been driving sustainability for 37 years in the company; and Roche has developed to be one of the most respected and leading companies in sustainability, also thriving in the financial markets. So, you can certainly look back on your career as a success story. In fact, you’ve been hugely responsible for it as an individual. So, what has allowed you to have that impact? How have you been successful in making sustainability a strategic priority at Roche?
Schnurrenberger: So, first of all, thank you very much, giving me the opportunity to look back a little bit, and give maybe some advice of what I’ve learned over the time. There are several success factors which need to go hand-in-hand. First, Roche still has a family as a majority shareholder; this family wants their company to be a sustainable company. The speaker of the family André Hoffmann says, “We are not here to make money. We are here to serve society.” And be sure, this helps a lot to make a company more sustainable. So, they push us for even more sustainability. Second success factor, since long we have set short, mid, and long term goals. All parts of the organizations have been asked to develop their own action plans to support achievement of these goals, and this was a real driver of progress. Third, we have a decentralized organization, which means responsibility is with local management in all the countries around the world where we operate. They develop local plans for sustainability actions like country-specific access to medicines or zero greenhouse gas plans. Another success factor, we employ sustainability professionals who are embedded in the business, so it’s not just a side job; it’s embedded in the business. And many activities are developed bottom-up from these affiliates. And, we may not be the most brilliant in communicating about our sustainability successes; we’d rather use our resources to do what is needed instead of speaking about what would be needed.
Prickett: Thank you, Peter, a lot there that our other members can learn from for sure. And speaking of our members, I mentioned that you have been an active leader as a member of WEC for seventeen years, I think, certainly more than fifteen years. You’ve been a member; you’ve been on our global Board of Directors; you’ve been chair of our European Supervisory Board; and you’ve sponsored many of our important Roundtables over the years. So, if you would, just look back, and—Why have you put so much into WEC? What about this organization has been valuable to you and to Roche?
Schnurrenberger: There are several aspects. First, the thought leadership. These events and activities of WEC, they give us many new or additional insights in many sustainability topics. We can learn from others. On the other side, these events, the activities give us the opportunity to share our knowledge with others and thus, bring sustainability forward, beyond our own company. This is a big value, I believe. These events bring together not only business representatives but also academia and NGOs cooperating diverse views into the discussion, thus broadening the range of possible solutions. So, whenever I participated in such events, I came back with a rich bundle of new ideas, what we could do, and how we could do. I also value the on-the-ground projects of WEC which are helping many small and mid-sized companies in many countries to make progress in their efforts to become more sustainable, and with our membership, we can support such activities. Companies who have been supported by WEC can also become like a seed crystal for sustainability in a region, so there is a multiplying effect of such activities. And, last but not least, I have found good colleagues across a broad range of businesses from leisure to high-tech, whom I can contact and discuss controversial sustainability topics and learn from them.
Prickett: Wonderful. I’m thrilled that WEC has been a great resource for you. I especially love that image of the seed crystals, that the companies we support, the smaller companies we support can become catalysts for progress in their regions. So, thank you for that. So, you know, we’d love to get your insights on the field of corporate sustainability broadly. You know, you’ve been involved in the effort for over thirty years. You know, that’s about when this movement started at large international conferences, the Earth Summit in Rio and the other UN conferences around the world. Business began to take an interest, a strategic interest in the environment and sustainability. If you put yourself back at that time—How did you think we would look today? Would you have expected we would be at the place we are? Where on the one hand, the challenges remain and have not been addressed, but on the other, business is such a big part of the debate and offers such a big part of the solution. Would you have believed that Roche, for example, would have changed so much and become such a sustainability leader? So, just tell us about how you evaluate progress over your career, and—Where are we now? What’s ahead of us? And will business be able to play the role we want it to play?
Schnurrenberger: Now I would say, thirty years ago, even the size of the problem was not clear. So that was not seen at that time, although there were some people speaking out about it, but the real size of the problem was really not clear; and even more, it was not clear how to solve these problems at that time. So many thought they are unsurmountable which then also for some meant they did not act. If you feel you can’t do anything about it, then you don’t act. But we realized that there are problems, big problems; and so, therefore, instead of trying to find out exactly what the size of the problem is, we started to implement improvements in the sense of the precautionary principle. We felt we can do something—let’s start instead of discussing it into all the details. I believe that in the meantime, in particular many big businesses, have made significant progress and are on a good path towards a much more sustainable future. On the other hand, many small and mid-size businesses do not have or they think they don’t have the necessary expertise and financial means to become more sustainable. There is sort of a role for WEC to support them in that sense. And there are still many businesses that believe that “the business of business is business,” and with this, only mean making as much money as possible, disregarding the indirect costs they cause for society. That’s still the case for many companies. Unfortunately, these companies also actively lobby to hinder fast development towards more sustainable businesses, because they believe they would earn less money with doing so, which definitely is wrong if you look at our company and how this went hand-in-hand.
Over the years, also governments have started to take their responsibility and have introduced legislation and programs to improve sustainability. Unfortunately, there are many countries who are lacking massively in this respect. And unfortunately, the legislation in many cases is overly-bureaucratic and thus, not efficient at all. The resources are used up for bureaucracy instead for really improving the situation. And also the private households did not make a lot of progress, but they would be a very important player. Or with other words, there is still a lot to do, as a global society, we are behind the path we should be on. Just have a look at greenhouse emissions by societies was able to slow down growth—it’s still the growth, and we should be on the downward path since long. So we are really not where we would need to be. This means also that the necessary efforts to avoid a catastrophic outcome, this is becoming bigger every year; so, the effort is bigger every year, the longer we wait with action. So, businesses and organizations like the World Environment Center can play an important role in this change process. Many businesses are becoming part of the solution rather than just being the problem. So they have learned that they can really contribute things as a business which will improve the situation. And we will not achieve the goals without such businesses
Prickett: Thank you. I was particularly struck, your vision for WEC that we can play a role with what we’re calling the next tier of companies beyond the big global companies that have understood and acted on sustainability. There are many, many who aren’t of that scale, who are new to the issue. And that is certainly a call we are hearing and heeding, and we’re committed to developing that next tier of members. So, thank you for that vision.
I have a follow-up question, if I may. You mentioned earlier that one of the reasons you and Roche have been successful is the family ownership, that you have a shareholder who understood the priority, and you just mentioned that some companies still believe “the business of business is business,” and they don’t see sustainability being good for their bottom line. From what you’ve learned in your time at Roche, from what you’ve seen, if we could put this interview in front of some of the shareholders of those kinds of companies—What would you say to them? Why should they think differently about sustainability?
Schnurrenberger: Sustainability, as the word says, is the discipline to make sure that the business will sustain, that it will still be here in ten years, in fifty years, in a hundred years, and that must be the goal. Sustainability is made up of three elements—first, the economic part; second, the environmental part; and third, the social part. And if they are not well-balanced, the company will not succeed; the company will not survive; so, it will not sustain their business. And this is why we should really balance these three things. This means that economic part is also part of sustainability and of the whole strategy, but it must be balanced with the other two, environmental and social. Otherwise, it will not survive as a company and maybe also not as a society.
Prickett: Very good. Well said. We’ll do our best to get that answer in front of as many people as we can in the business community. So Peter, I have one last question for you, and that’s, What’s next for Peter Schnurrenberger? You’re retiring from Roche. Will you be filling your days with bicycle rides on the beautiful banks of the River Rhine? Or will you be traveling the world? What do you have to look forward to? And what will we be seeing from you?
Schnurrenberger: I used to be a big cyclist as a young man, but not so much anymore. But I much more look forward to having more time for mountain climbing in the Swiss Alps. There are still some thousands of peaks I did not climb yet, so I still have a lot to do in that sense. And I look forward to having more time for my dearest hobby: playing music and playing music with my wife, Sylvia.
Prickett: What’s your instrument, Peter?
Schnurrenberger: I’m playing two instruments. One is the french horn and the other is the piano. So, I hope I can do more of that together also with family music we have, and I really look forward to that.
Prickett: Wonderful. And how about Sylvia, what does she play?
Schnurrenberger: She’s playing the mandolin.
Prickett: Ah, beautiful. Well, Peter, I hope one day soon we can be together and I have an opportunity to hear you both play together. Maybe I can add a little percussion to it . . .
Schnurrenberger: Oh, great!
Prickett: We can have a WEC band. But, I wish you well on your mountain climbing. You’ve climbed a lot of peaks professionally at Roche and with WEC, and so I hope you climb many more in the real world.
Schnurrenberger: I hope so, and I would like to thank the small but very effective WEC team for your engagement for the good. Please go on with this good and valuable work. Thank you very much.
Prickett: Yeah, thank you, Peter. Thank you for everything you’ve done, and we’re energized by your leadership. Thank you.
Schnurrenberger: Thank you.