I’m reading the newspaper one Tuesday morning, and there on the obituary page I see a photo with a story about a local retired executive who had died of cancer. I stared. I could barely comprehend the words.
I wrote speeches for this man for four years, and I wrote some of the best speeches I’ve ever written. I loved working for him…
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(Several people have asked, so here is the article published on Aug. 4, 2005, by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.)
Hal Corbett Pushed Chemical Industry in Right Direction
(St. Louis Post-Dispatch Commentary Page – Aug. 4, 2005)
Harold J. Corbett, 78, died Tuesday of cancer. As his obituary in the Post-Dispatch noted, he had a distinguished career at Monsanto Company, retiring as Senior Vice President for Environment, Safety and Health.
I knew him as Hal. I met him in late 1987, when I was assigned the job of environmental communications at Monsanto. He had the right height for a typical Monsanto executive – he was tall – but he wasn’t typical. He was modest and quiet, almost unassuming, almost shy, the “nice guy,” which the corporate culture of that time tended to read as “non-assertive.” But Hal had come up through manufacturing, and he was tough. And he had the courage to do the right thing.
This quiet, unassuming, nice guy ignited a revolution in the chemical industry.
As 1987 gave way to 1988, concerns about the environment were growing everywhere. It wasn’t just what some NASA guy had said about some new thing called global warming, or the drought of 1988, or the medical syringes washing up on New Jersey beaches, or the ongoing coverage of toxic chemicals and Superfund sites. It was all of these things and more – not for nothing did Time Magazine choose an ailing “planet of the year” for 1988.
In the midst of all these concerns that year, a new law was going into effect in July 1. All manufacturers would have to report – publicly – their emissions of toxic chemicals. It didn’t matter that these emissions were legal and permitted by state and federal regulators. And the law didn’t require that manufacturers actually do anything about these emissions. Manufacturers would just have to be report them.
The problem for manufacturers was that the numbers were going to be huge – billions of pounds of toxic chemicals emitted or released into the environment every year. The chemical and mining industries would have the biggest numbers, but no manufacturer was exempt – even the Post-Dispatch had to report its toxic emissions (which it did).
Hal Corbett’s organization was responsible for measuring and reporting these emissions for Monsanto. He, and everyone else involved, and everyone else in the chemical industry, understood the implications of “simply reporting the numbers.” And while every major chemical company was scrambling to figure out what to do, Hal had a small team at Monsanto look at the issue in a non-traditional way: what if we release all of our emissions data ourselves, before the EPA does? What if we decide we have to take responsibility for these emissions, and accept public concerns as legitimate, even if we are the experts and even if we can prove that no harm is being done? What does accepting that responsibility actually mean?
The team met internal opposition at every step of the way, as Hal knew it would. But he kept helping it forward, figuring a way around that obstacle or how to deal with that particular pocket of opposition. The fact that he was so well liked and respected inside the company was an enormous asset.
In April of 1988, when Hal’s team was right in the thick of moving this rather startling strategy through the company, Hal gave a speech that ultimately cemented the new strategy into place. He wasn’t a great speaker, or an eloquent one. But his sincerity trumped great speaking ability and eloquence every time. He believed what he said, and believed in what he said, and every audience who heard him knew it.
The speech was to a group of 1,500 American and British chemical engineers, meeting in London. Hal told a story of two chemical industries – one that had transformed and improved every aspect of life imaginable, and one that had polluted the earth in the process. And he said that both chemical industries were real, and the one that had brought so much benefit to so many people was responsible for figuring out how to address and deal with the concerns and problems created by the other. And he said if people in the industry didn’t think we should take responsibility, we needed to look no further than the thousands of men, women and children who died in Bhopal, India, when a chemical plant leaked a toxic material.
The speech had an immediate and dramatic impact inside of Monsanto. Richard Mahoney, the company’s CEO at the time, announced an initiative to reduce toxic air emissions by 90 percent – in four years. Mahoney would follow that up with a series of seven commitments to environmental protection and additional waste reduction efforts. DuPont followed Monsanto’s lead. So did Dow. So did the industry’s trade association. Waste reduction and process improvement initiatives sprouted everywhere.
Hal’s speech became known as “the speech that refused to die.” Thousands of requests for copies poured in over the years. One of the last I remember came in 1995 – seven years later – from a BBC reporter in London, who had read the speech and was amazed that any industry executive would have said the things that Hal had said. From London to London, Hal’s speech had come full circle.
In his quiet, unassuming, nice-guy way, Hal Corbett made the world a better place. And all of us are better off because of it.
Following his initial stint at Monsanto and Solutia Inc.,a spin-off of Monsanto, Glynn Young served as Director of Executive Communications for St. Louis Public Schools. In 2004, he returned to Monsanto, where he is now director of Environmental Communications.