north of neutral dialog

June 1, 2012

by anne lueneburger

Peter Bakker, President, World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD)

February 2012. As I try to eat the delicious ‘egg of the day’ in a heirloom corn meal (which, I’m informed, is injected with truffles) in one of the finest all-organic joints in NYC and I just can’t manage to keep my silver steady on the steeply sloped plate, Peter Bakker can’t help but burst out laughing. This spontaneous, refreshing expression of human interaction is one of many examples that Peter Bakker is the real deal: successful business leader, sought after speaker at the World Economic Forum and, as his humor at my clumsiness illustrates, also approachable and fun.

2012 has started off well for Peter Bakker as he has assumed his new role as President of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD). The previous year had been one of major transitions for him, both professionally and personally. After 10 years as CEO with global logistics leader TNT (a company with over 150,000 employees and €660m in profit), he stepped down after splitting his company into two publicly listed entities. Complementing this, on the personal side there were some equally key milestones: Bakker turned 50, he lost 20 pounds in a detox on all raw foods, and he is in love: “I feel great,” he declares as he savors a roasted beet.

The Role

The WBCSD offers a unique platform for the leaders of 200 member companies (who between them cover all business sectors, all continents, and account for a combined revenue of over $7 trillion), to share best practices on sustainable development and to create innovative tools to bring about positive, lasting change.

The management of the organization is the responsibility of the Executive Committee, which currently includes senior leaders such as the CEO of Unilever, the Chairmen of both Toyota and Bank of America. In turn, a network of 60 national and regional business councils and partner organizations, many of which are located in developing nations, support the General Council in its mission.

Peter Bakker, as the President of the WBCSD, carries the responsibility for both the WBCSD’s mission as it brings together a global business community for a sustainable future, and the day-to-day management of WBCSD affairs in which he is assisted by a staff secretariat.

A pioneer in Corporate Responsibility, Bakker has received the Clinton Global Citizen Award in 2009, the SAM Sustainability Leadership Award in 2010, and the UN’s WFP Ambassador Against Hunger in 2011.

Success: 15% IQ, 25% luck … and 60% putting in the hours

Born in Dieren, the eastern part of the Netherlands, Bakker is the oldest of three and his parents’ only son.  He grew up in a typical Dutch middle class settings. After a stint in the army, Peter Bakker studied and earned a Bachelors in Business Administration from the HTS Alkmaar, and a masters degree in Business Economics from the Erasmus University Rotterdam.

At the age of 30, in 1991, he joined Royal TPG Post – at the time a large bureaucratic operation: “I was one of these young guys that wanted change. When my two months trial period was over, I locked myself up in a room and thought for about two hours whether I wanted to leave or to stay.” Walking out of his hideaway, he eventually told his boss: “I’ve decided to stay.” This was somewhat unusual for this environment: not only was it normally the supervisor who decided whether a trial period should be taken forward into an extended contract, but it was also assumed that no one would ever even contemplate turning down a full time position with the Post. For Bakker, it was over these two hours that he decided that he “wanted to change everything in that organization, and that nothing was going to stay the same.”

Bakker is a believer in hard work: “I think success is the result of 15% IQ, 25% luck, and the rest putting in the hours.” His now legendary 18-hour days started to pay off soon. Only two years later he was appointed financial director of TPG Post’s parcels business unit.

In 1996 the CEO of TPG Post called the 35-year-old into his office to offer him the job of financial control director: “I told him I wasn’t interested. I wanted to be the head of e-shopping, not finance.” This was another defining moment for Bakker, “I took another time out, sat down and thought about whether I wanted to stay and accept the promotion or leave.” Again, the answer was affirmative: “After much thought, I believed that it was in this organization that I knew so well that I could have the greatest impact, that I could move the needle and make a difference. “  However, in addition to seeing a window of opportunity to lead with impact and to fundamentally change the organization, it was also in line with his character: “I don’t have it in me to give up, it’s not in my genes,” he laughs.

One of his first negotiations as CFO resulted in the acquisition of TNT, a surprising outcome as at first TNT had set out to take over TPG Post. His success catapulted him to becoming a member of the Board of Management in 1997.  However, this success didn’t occur without any moments of failure and learning: “One of my biggest mistakes was neglecting my intuition. I experienced this when it came to making important people choices. I had a key member of my team who was not performing. For quite a while I remained passive and it took me a year to finally sit down and let him know that we had to part ways. All along, however, my intuition had told me to have this conversation.” He adds: “Now I have these conversations much earlier – it allows to limit negative impact for everyone involved, and to explore good matches in house that allows talent to play to their strengths rather than force them into a role that depletes their energy and will never allow them to grow and be the best they can be.”

The merged companies needed a new leader for TNT NV, the Netherlands based holding company of TNT Express and Royal TNT Post (formerly TPG Post). Bakker was ready for the challenge and he was presented with the opportunity: “I knew I wanted to be CEO. I was only 40 at the time, and in the midst of all these scandals and firms breaking up like ENRON, I wanted to have the opportunity to find ways to make business good, not evil.”

Doing well, doing good

 ‘Positive Change’ was Peter Bakker’s theme, and it now also took a concrete shape in the form of corporate responsibility. Under the leadership of Peter Bakker TNT moved away from its sports sponsorship focus and launched a ground-breaking partnership with the UN World Food Program. Much like U2’s lead singer Bono, with whom Bakker has joined forces in his fight against hunger, Bakker pushed forward in using TNT’s core competence in the name of doing well and doing good: “If we claim we are the best logistics company in the world, why can’t we help bring our expertise to those who need it?” Support to the WFP did not only come in logistic contributions and cash from the organization. The power of CEO contagion extended to TNT’s employees, who raised $22 million for ‘school feeding’ through bake sales, sponsored events and other fundraising activities.

Bakker also established, together with his team, ambitious CO2 reduction targets as part of TNT’s ‘Planet Me’ initiative, which resulted in leadership of the Dow Jones Sustainability Index: “Engraining these values deeply into our organization not only made a difference to people less fortunate in this world. We also saw it positively affect bottom line, as people were more engaged at work, and we were becoming a talent magnet in the market.” Walking the talk, Bakker replaced his big company car with a Toyota Prius.

When it came to expanding TNT’s mail operation, Bakker successfully pursued an aggressive growth strategy, often using his gut instinct: “When it comes to making decisions, I make it a point to listen to different stakeholders and also to look at the evidence. But there comes a point when I have learned to trust my own intuition and to just go for what I think is right.” After much internal push back, it was under his leadership that TNT made China its new home market with the largest number of employees outside the Netherlands.

After Bakker’s many successes and 10 years as CEO, TNT NV was split into two separately listed companies in 2011: TNT Express NV and PostNL NV. Bakker led the demerger of TNT and, after its completion, stepped down and left the TNT group in June that same year.

Something old, something new

Moving on Bakker maintained his active involvement in the World Food Program. As East Africa experienced its worst drought in 60 years, with more than 11 million people starving, Bakker travelled to Somalia as the ‘epicenter of the famine’ to assess the situation first hand. As an Ambassador to the WFP he was working the phones and calling up senior leaders of transportation and food companies and persuading them to help the U.N. resolve the crisis.

Bakker remains loyal to his conviction that it is companies that represent the core catalyst for positive change in the sustainability challenge. It was consequently no surprise that he accepted a move to Switzerland to take over the leadership of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development with its powerful member organizations.

This new challenge put fresh wind in his sails. As he was building his team he called the ‘young talent’ at the organization in for a personal meeting in his office, something not done by his predecessor who had led the WBSCD for close to 17 years. It is a small organization of 60 people and Bakker wants to have a deep reach and hear the voices of all involved: “I’ve started inviting everyone in the firm over to my home for dinner. About six people at a time. There’s nothing like getting to know people over a good and informal conversation.”

So far he’s enjoying the journey: “This new role is like a seamless jacket, it is a perfect fit and there are no irritating hems or uncomfortable pockets.” Traveling for the first time to New York in his new role, Bakker reflects that, “When I got into the cab at the airport, I had a sigh of relief. This is the first time I’ve come to New York with none of the road shows I had previously as CEO of TNT.”  He chuckles as he adds: “This time it’s only to save the world.”

Moving forward, Bakker intends to make ‘corporate sustainable responsibility’ mainstream, and push the idea that publicly traded companies adopt a more measured view of growth, including a comprehensive reporting system on their performance on the sustainability front, “Short term profits need to be seen in the light of long term sustainability and value needs to be offered to all stakeholders. We need to look very much at non-financial performance targets and carefully assess the cost of decisions to society as a whole. Over time we will see the emergence of a new competitive model. “Bakker has started conversations with top business schools such as Harvard, INSEAD and CEIBS in China to create a Masters in Sustainability, first of its kind.

Bakker’s definition of sustainability extends beyond the environmental aspects and includes the social component. His vision is that, as a result of his work and that of committed leading organizations around the world, by 2050 (when the world’s population is predicted to reach 9 billion), overall consumption will use no more resources than are available today.

Bakker is in it for the long haul – as his 10-year contract with the WBCSD testifies. He feels like he has found the sweet spot of doing what he does best and what he loves doing most: making a difference.

Success, and the hard and long hours that are behind it, can come at a price though, and Bakker’s marriage did not survive this journey. He continues to be very close to his three children who live in the Netherlands with their mother and, as we talk about regrets, he reflects that, “I am still working long hours. But now both my partner Merel and I try to travel together whenever we can, and we make sure that we make time for the relationship.”

And it is with that in mind that Peter Bakker proposed to Merel, and they plan to get married this summer in a Buddhist monastery nestled in the mountains of Geneva, their new home. So an enlightened next chapter awaits Peter Bakker and, most likely, a more informed and conscientious business community too.

As we step out of the restaurant, the bitter cold greets us and Bakker wraps himself into a coat and scarf.  We say our goodbyes, and he walks north in West Village, a man of remarkable achievements in his past and aspirations in his future blending into the crowd of New Yorkers hurrying home.

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