Committing to Energy Savings with Unilever's Neal Saiz

This episode originally aired on November 5, 2014 on Green is Good Radio.

Today on GreenIsGood: Unilever North America has adopted energy conservation as part of its DNA and company culture.

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we’re so thankful and excited to have Neal Saiz with us today. He’s the Director of Safety, Health, and Environment for Unilever North America. Welcome to Green is Good, Neal.

NEAL SAIZ: John, I really appreciate it. Thanks for having me on the show.

JOHN SHEGERIAN: We’re so happy you’re here. It’s your first turn on Green is Good, and bringing with you your great brand, Unilever. We’re so excited. Since it’s your first time on Green is Good, Neal, I’d love you to share with our listeners first the Neal Saiz journey leading up to your position at Unilever, and also how you even got here.

NEAL SAIZ: Good. So, I’m relatively new to Unilever and to the East Coast. I spent the last 20-25 years in the automotive industry, so it’s kind of refreshing. I had to make cars, and now I’m learning how to make food and tea and ice cream, so it’s a very exciting change for me.

JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s so interesting. Were you involved with any of the greening of the car industry when you were in the car industry?

NEAL SAIZ: Well, I was predominantly safety and environmental, running the manufacturing sites, so day-to-day operations. Not really on the side of the design side of the vehicles.

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Gotcha. OK. And so talk a little bit about your role at Unilever now. What is actually now your day-to-day in your new position at Unilever?

NEAL SAIZ: Well, it’s been kind of interesting. I’ve really been on a road tour, trying to visit all of our factories, really understand our business, so I’m kind of still in that learning phase, getting ready to make that next shift into kind of the big picture and strategy phase, so I’ve been on the road for the past eight to nine months. I’ve visited almost every facility in North America, and I’ve also visited some of our sites globally. So, it’s been pretty exciting. I’m a little worn out. It’s good to be in Jersey and spending a little bit more time with my family.

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Since you’ve now had this time to travel and roll up your sleeves and get familiarized with the new industry you’re in, can you speak of some differences that you’re seeing between your new industry that you’re in and the automotive industry, which you just came out of?

NEAL SAIZ: Absolutely. I’ve been involved, like I said, in environmental and safety for almost 25 years, but in the last 10 years, I’ve seen a big shift into sustainability. It’s kind of exciting because you’re seeing the change from traditional compliance with our sheet professionals, to really thinking bigger green, recycling, and renewable energy, some of the more exciting things. But I tell you, the difference between automotive is amazing. Our stakes are much smaller. The sites I dealt with in the automotive industry had 3,000-4,000 people under one roof, and now we have sites with anywhere from 200-600 people, and they run completely different, much more personable, a lot more direct interaction with the people.

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Interesting. So, now that you’ve got familiarized, what’s the next step in terms of your evolution at Unilever in terms of driving change and evolving change with regards to sustainability, energy, and the whole green revolution?

NEAL SAIZ: Well, it’s really two things. It’s really communication and standardization. So, what I’ve seen, John, is we’ve got a lot of facilities out there that run independently, and we’re trying to pull them all together, share information a little bit more, not try to reinvent the wheel, and get everybody kind of working on the same page. I think we’re getting close in a very, very short period of time.

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Gotcha. So, what new trends do you see that you could implement at Unilever that they have not leveraged yet, but are going to be highly valuable to Unilever in the years to come?

NEAL SAIZ: Well, I tell you what. I want to share with you we introduced this recent partnership with NRG, and it’s really huge. So, NRG is one of the country’s largest energy providers. You might say, “Why would you partner up with them? They’re predominantly coal.” But it’s interesting because their CEO and our North American President got together and said, “Hey, how can we do something really, really big? Forget about incremental change. Let’s talk about transformation here.” They threw out 100% renewable energy by 2020. Of course, it scared the heck out of me because that’s quite a bit to accomplish, but we’re thinking big, we’re going big, and it’s moving very, very quickly. What it’s going to do is, we currently buy Green RECs. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s renewable energy certificates for 100% of our electricity in the U.S. So, we may not generate it on site, but we’re going to buy it from companies that do generate it, so it’s kind of a credit or an offset. So, we’re going to move into generating a lot of this energy on our own, either on site, off site, and what’s really exciting is we may eventually sell power to the community. We may sell power to other business partners, and possibly even our competitors. So very, very cutting edge. We’re learning as we’re going. In fact, I’m missing a meeting right now with our team. We’re moving very, very fast in a very short period of time.

JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners that just joined, we’ve got Neal Saiz on with us today. He’s the Director of Safety, Health, and Environment for Unilever North America. To follow along while you listen to this show or to learn more about Unilever after you hear this show, you can go to unileverusa.com. I’m on your site right now, Neal, and it’s just amazing. You have not only a very visually beautiful site, but it’s full of great information with regards to sustainable living. I’m on your sustainable living plan right now. It’s all about green and sustainability, so this is something that Unilever has adopted and is part of their and your DNA and culture.

NEAL SAIZ: Yeah, and it’s even more than that, John. We don’t have a separate environmental or sustainability business plan. This is our business plan. Our CEO, Paul Polman, he’s the real deal. He’s recognized globally for his cutting edge view on this. He sees this as something that’s very important to the future of our business. This is really what’s going to set us apart from our competitors. Our USLP aims to double the size of the business while reducing our environmental footprint, and we’re doing it. Again, a lofty goal, but let me throw some statistics out there. Just in the last five to six years in North America, we have reduced our carbon dioxide per ton of product produced by almost 75%. That’s amazing. These are things that I was trying to accomplish in my previous career, very, very difficult because I didn’t have that type of leadership behind me. Water, I’m sure all your listeners have been reading the stories about Lake Mead recently. I mean, we’re a couple of years away from starting to shut the water off to parts of Nevada and California. So, it’s kind of scary stuff. We’ve reduced our water per ton, again in North America, by 56%. Quite amazing, considering a lot of our products have water in them. NRG, 20% less. We do have some very energy-intensive processes. We have to keep that ice cream cool, obviously, in some of our food products, and then probably our biggest accomplishment, North America was the first cluster in Unilever to become zero-waste landfill for non-haz waste in all of our manufacturing operations.

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow, that’s incredible.

NEAL SAIZ: It is. It’s quite incredible because, like I said, I tried to do this in the past, very, very difficult if you think about it. Where I come from in Michigan, there’s a landfill 5-10 miles away from just about every operation I had. Huge, huge culture shift.

JOHN SHEGERIAN: When you went to all the different locations, Neal, is part of your goal, as you say, in terms of standardization, getting everyone to not only message the same and get the culture the same at all of them with regards to sustainability, but also to share and trade best practices among all of them, both nationally and internationally?

NEAL SAIZ: Yes. We do work globally. All the cluster directors, similar to myself, we communicate quite a bit. We have regular meetings, but absolutely. Trying to make sure that we’re all kind of doing the same sort of things and learning from best practices. But I will say, all the sites are living to the spirit of the USLP. All new projects are living to the spirit of the USLP. Again, we’re taking this very, very serious because a lot of times, people are being very shortsighted, they’re not thinking long-term. We are thinking long-term. We’ve also challenged the traditional one-to-three ROI return on investment for capital. We’re saying, “Hey, OK, let’s look at the entire life cycle of this process, and see what really makes sense.” This is helping to fund some of these bigger sustainability projects.

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Because of your new position, you get to have a lot of visibility into some of the biggest trends that are on our horizon. When you see trends with regards to renewable energy, what are some of the bigger trends that you can share with our listeners? What’s coming our way? Is it going to continue to be solar and wind, or do you see other things as well?

NEAL SAIZ: Well, wind is incredible. You can throw up some huge wind farms and supply a lot of electricity to people, but that’s something you can actually do onsite. Solar is changing every day, but the real big thing here, John, is we can’t wait. You can’t wait for the next greatest, best technology. We have to move forward now. It’s getting better all the time, but I mean, there’s a lot of things. CHP, combined heat and power, solar, wind. But the other thing that you forget about is we really are focusing on efficiencies, so we’re trying to reduce what we’re actually consuming, whether it be waste, raw materials, or the energy consumption on our sites. That’s probably the biggest thing that we’re focusing on right now.

JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners who just joined, we’ve got Neal Saiz on. He’s the SHE Director of North America for Unilever. You know, Neal, after your name comes the initial CSP and CHMM. Can you share with our listeners, and with me, by the way, what those initials stand for?

NEAL SAIZ: Those are a couple of credentials that are recognized in our industry. The Certified Safety Professional says you come from an accredited university, you’ve got at least a minimum amount of time in the industry, and you’re good at taking tests. More importantly, consulting, but again, it’s something that’s very big in automotive in our larger assembly plants. We expected a person to be a CSP. CHMM, Certified Hazardous Material Manager, so really getting into managing waste, recycling, and those sort of things. Again, same type of criteria. More important in consulting, but I got it, so I put it after my name. It looks good.

JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s great. And what is SHE mean? That just stands for Safety, Health, and Environmental Director of North America, SHE?

NEAL SAIZ: Yeah, and every company is a little different, so I’ve just gotten used to the SHE. Sometimes it’s EHS, HSE, but we’re SHE, Safety, Health, and Environmental.

JOHN SHEGERIAN: I love it. To learn more about what Unilever is doing, the great work that they’re doing in sustainability, it’s www.unileverusa.com. Neal, one of the common themes you’ve brought up a couple times today is the issue of leadership and how companies really get sustainable in terms of their culture and DNA comes from the top down. You’ve drawn some differences between Unilever, where you are at now, and the automotive industry. Can you share some more thoughts and some more background on how you came up with that, and why you see that continuing to be the right way to go in terms of a trend, in terms of how we’re going to change the world together as big business goes, and also as the nonprofits go? It’s from the top down.

NEAL SAIZ: Absolutely, and automotive is doing great things. It’s more focused on their vehicles, and probably less focused on their manufacturing sites, but I think they’re getting there. Obviously, we went through some tough times. I’ve been through the bankruptcy, I’ve been through the plant closures, very, very lean times. Now they’re getting to the point where they can focus on those sort of things. But leadership, I mean, it’s key. Our zero-waste to landfill would have never happened without the support of our Senior VP for the Americas, Harold Emburger, who’s one of my line managers. Never would have happened, we would have never got to this point this quickly without his leadership. Same thing with our CEO. I mean, it sure does make my cause a whole lot easier when our CEO of our company is pushing the USLP.

JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, the leadership does make a difference, and then the accountability on the back side on achieving the leader’s goals is the other side of the coin.

NEAL SAIZ: Absolutely. It makes it much easier for me. I’m just delighted to be here because people think about it, all facets of the business, whether it’s the supply chain, logistics, our customer development, our sales force, they are all living the spirit of the USLP.

JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s just wonderful, and it’s so great to hear that Unilever has gone zero waste to landfill. You know, we’re down to the last five minutes or so, Neal, and one of the things we like to share with our listeners and we like to have our great thought leaders and our business leaders share with our listeners is solutions. Can you take the last five minutes to share some of your thoughts on what our listeners can do out there, whether they’re in business, nonprofit, whether they’re students, or whether they’re just great people living in their home and they want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem anymore? Can you share some of the changes that they can make, or the things they can do, to help make the world a better place?

NEAL SAIZ: I tell you what. Don’t hesitate to contact me. Believe it or not, I’m not the expert. I’m just kind of steering the ship with some of these activities. I’m surrounded by people who are way smarter than I am. I can link you up with some really, really good people. The main thing is recycling, even at home. I personally wasn’t recycling 5-6 years ago. I can’t throw a plastic bottle in the garbage without my six-year-old daughter giving me a dirty look and pulling it out of the garbage, so really our future is our children. We’re starting to partner now with our customers and our vendors in sharing this information, so again, if anybody is interested, please contact me. I can link you up with the right people. There’s a lot of easy things you can do to really get started.

JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is just great. What does the future hold now? Now that you’re there and you’ve toured the locations nationally and internationally and you’re going to catch your breath a little bit and then go out again, what’s your goals in the next three to five years at Unilever in terms of driving sustainability forward and being always on the cutting edge?

NEAL SAIZ: I think the main thing, John, would probably be we want to be part of the business. I think we’re getting close, but to continue to integrate with our operations, being involved with projects on the drawing table versus when the show up at the factories, that’s key, making sure our designs are proper, but really becoming part of the business, and not just the police force enforcing regulations on the side. So, I think that’s probably the most important part in the next 3-5 years, and really just continue to drive the message home. I mean, there’s pockets of resistance. Everybody has their own agenda, but for the most part, I think we’re all on the same page.

JOHN SHEGERIAN: When I was preparing for this show, Neal, I read a great story about things that you’re doing there. Can you share one of my favorite stories with regards to the amount of soap that you guys donated to the Clean World Foundation, and what that means, and how that makes a better world with regards to the great work that you’re doing just on the soap issue?

NEAL SAIZ: John, you definitely need to get in touch with the Clean the World co-founder and CEO, Shawn Seipler. This guy is amazing. I had a chance to meet him. He started this business in his garage because one day he was at a hotel and he says, “What happens to all this soap?” He’s like, “Hey, it’s going to the landfill, but how can I help and reduce millions of deaths due to poor hygiene out there?” Unilever personally has donated over a million pounds of soap that may have been off-spec, we couldn’t sell to the consumer for any number of reasons, but there’s really nothing wrong with it. They’ve taken the soap and they’ve distributed it to basically all over the world. 17 million bars of soap in 96 countries Clean the World has covered, so we’re really excited to be part of that group. This is all product that wouldn’t have ended up in a landfill, but would probably have gone to waste energy for us. So, a win-win for both sides.

JOHN SHEGERIAN: We’re down to the last minute or so, Neal. You mentioned your daughter, and I’ve got two children also, and I consider guys like us, we’re the sustainability immigrants, but our children are going to be the sustainability natives that are going to take this whole revolution to another level, of course. What’s your thoughts for our young listeners out there in the United States, and we have listeners of course around the world, what’s your thoughts and pearls of wisdom for them to get involved in terms of just changing the world, being part of the sustainability movement, and also maybe being the next Neal Saiz?

NEAL SAIZ: Well, they get it, so I think as they mature, they’re going to be teaching us, and they’re going to be taking us to the next level. It’s funny because different industry, I mean, people are much younger here in Unilever than they are compared to where I come from, so I’m learning from these folks every day.

JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s so nice. That is just so nice. Thank you for coming on the show. We’re going to want to have you back on to continue to share the ongoing sustainability narrative at Unilever, and the continued success that you’re having there. Neal Saiz from Unilever USA, go to www.unileverusa.com to learn more about all the great things Unilever is doing in sustainability. Neal, thank you for your inspiring leadership in sustainability. You are truly living proof that green is good.

NEAL SAIZ: Thank you, John.