2020 is Hindsight: A Conversation with Steve Edwards, CEO | Black & Veatch

2020 is Hindsight: A Conversation with Steve Edwards, CEO

Brian Sifton, BV’s Sustainability Program Manager sat down with Steve Edwards, CEO, about one of the most challenging years for people and businesses, tough decisions BV made and the path forward to a more sustainable future.

Our Commitment to a Sustainable Future

steve edwards

Brian Sifton, BV’s Sustainability Program Manager sat down with Steve Edwards, CEO, about one of the most challenging years for people and businesses, the tough decisions BV made as an organization and how this will help create a cleaner and more sustainable future.

2020 was a year to remember. More importantly, it was a year to listen, learn and improve. What do you think were the biggest achievements for Black & Veatch?

It was truly an extraordinary year and journey for Black & Veatch. We signed three United Nations pledges, conducted our first materiality assessment, formalized a new Sustainability Program and corresponding Commitments, and made tough and positive decisions that will guide our future and our efforts to fulfill our mission of Building a world of difference through innovation in sustainable infrastructure.

What in the lead up to 2020 convinced you to breathe new life and urgency into our sustainability efforts?

I was hearing a strong message for improving our sustainability efforts from our people. At the end of 2019, we had just celebrated our 20th anniversary of employee-ownership. We had put a lot of thought into our future and conducted several exercises in the months preceding this, listening carefully to our employee-owners about the future – our strategy, our brand as well as our mission, vision and values. A common thread that we kept hearing was the importance of sustainability – its connection to our professionals emotionally, its manifestation in the work we do, and its increasing importance to our clients.

In many respects, sustainability was already central to a lot of what we did but perhaps we hadn’t articulated it specifically in such terms before. Adapting our Mission statement, embracing sustainability as a corporate strategy and taking on the new commitments in 2020 were all met with overwhelming positivity.

Our people like to solve complex problems; they are naturally curious about new technology and exploring new ways to make systems more effective and efficient; they are driven with a clear client-service mindset and values that want to give back and make a difference in the communities where we live and work. I think our commitments speak to their passion to make an impact through the work we do and our harnesses the potential of every single one of our employee owners.

Do you think this appetite to transform our efforts is connected to what is happening around us: the megatrends you have spoken before about that are changing our world and our future path?

I believe we are living in a profound moment. Megatrends like climate change and the race to reduce carbon emissions are revolutionizing our global energy systems from the electrification of transport and the emergence of decentralized power generation, to the exploration and adoption of alternative fuels such as hydrogen. Data is proliferating through all facets of life, transforming how we live, work, interact and do business: and that doesn’t even begin to touch on the impact of COVID-19 and the pandemic.

Aside from the experts, no one could have anticipated how COVID-19 would change the world in 2020. What struck you as you saw the pandemic impact many different groups in many different ways across the globe?

I am so proud of our people’s resilience and how quickly they adapted, from new ways of working in their kitchens or living rooms, to keeping project sites safe and schedules on track for our clients. There was a bravery demonstrated by so many to keep our clients’ critical infrastructure working: the faucets flowing, the lights on and the communications networks behind the video calls to our loved ones.

We truly saw also our Safety culture in action throughout the world across our own professionals and how our behaviors extending further to project teams as a whole. Craft workers. Subcontractors. Clients. We should be proud of our collective effort and we can draw from many lessons that will continue to improve these standards and behaviors further.

I think we can be proud of how we innovated, too. From adapting new ways of work and technology through to industry partnerships and adapting our Ignite program, there are so many examples of innovation at play throughout the organization.

I agree and I see how we are shaping up to be one of the industry’s most innovative engineering and construction companies. The COVID-19 solutions set we developed was a completely new avenue for the company but demonstrated how we could innovate laterally and quickly support communities and businesses in their response to the pandemic.

As you mentioned, by March, we were already responding and planning the reconfiguration of our IgniteX program to refocus from cleantech to solutions that would safeguard communities against COVID-19. We took the initiative to share our safety knowledge with our competitors and peers through the NEXT Coalition, too, and our work in hydrogen, for example, shows how we continue to make great progress exploring new decarbonization solutions with our clients.

2020 has recalibrated everyone’s thinking about resilient communities, global interconnectivity, and underlined the social aspects of sustainable development. One reflection I have is that by embracing sustainability we have discovered gains we may not have expected. Would you agree?

I absolutely agree. I think the hardest decision—but the right one—was to stop our participation in any future coal-based power plant design and construction. This significantly impacts our near-term revenues and means stepping away from upcoming projects with long-standing clients while we also critically re-train our workforce in some locations. What we’ve gained from this however, is a positive and sustainable investment where we can focus on creating solutions to transform the industry, including helping clients reduce their dependence on coal-powered assets.

How would you characterize the recent response to the strong positions we’re taking around the social aspect of our strategy, specifically relating to diversity, equity and inclusion?

The racial injustices that spread civil unrest across our cities shed an urgent and fresh light on issues we must face as a community. We must keep listening and addressing these issues honestly, together. Our commitment to building a world of difference is also a commitment to making sure we live in a world free of discrimination, bigotry and divisiveness. Our people are our strength after all.

Any final thoughts? How do you see making a real impact creating a more sustainable future?

My final thought is that we know that sustainability is a priority for more than 80 percent of our clients, and this will only grow. We are fortunate to work in critical human infrastructure because it’s such a big lever for helping clients and communities achieve sustainability. And what’s also true is that focusing on sustainability is a virtuous circle for us: helping our clients meet their goals will increasingly contribute to our company’s long-term financial stability.

Our program – Accelerate Zero – is about managing and demonstrating our own progress while supporting our clients meet their targets; it is through our day-to-day operations and our project work where I believe we can make the greatest impact in shaping and creating a sustainable future for all.  

Meet Black & Veatch

We seek partners in innovation. Let's start the conversation.