GSOM’s O’Brien greens businesses from Worcester to Vietnam

Will O’Brien may have the campus’s best answer to the age-old question: How did you spend your summer vacation?

O’Brien, visiting lecturer at the Clark University, Graduate School of Management, devoted two weeks in June to lecture about sustainability practices to 40 M.B.A. students at Vietnam National University in Hanoi. The overseas trip also afforded O’Brien the opportunity to further spread the green message by conducting a seminar for local business owners about the types of initiatives that will save them money and reduce their impact on the environment. Vietnam was something of a natural fit for O’Brien, who served as a U.S. Naval officer in Da Nang in 1967 and 1968. “I came to know and love Vietnam, and always wanted to go back there,” he says. Last summer, O’Brien got his chance. This time, he was visiting Vietnam after having accrued 40 years in the computer industry as an executive and consultant, and then, after retirement, moving on to a teaching career at Bentley University and Clark University, where he spearheaded the development of Clark’s M.B.A. in sustainability. His goal was to form partnerships with Vietnamese companies and establish a Sustainable Business Leader Program™ (SBLP) to help them adopt environment-friendly practices.

'My motivation is to help these businesses survive and succeed long term. And the piece about wanting to leave the planet a better place — well, I have seven grandchildren, and I’m quite serious about that.'

~ Will O'Brien

He notes that the Vietnamese government is acutely aware of sustainability issues, especially with regards to water conservation (“Water is their oil,” says O’Brien), and a number of private company owners show an entrepreneurial drive when it comes to incorporating environmentally savvy initiatives into their business models. He cites the Hanoi-based Duc Viet Environmental Technology Co., Ltd., which designs and builds water treatment plans and assists large industrial operations to recycle and reprocess water, as well as Bach Khoa Investment & Development of Solar Energy (BK-IDSE) in Ho Chi Minh City. This June, O’Brien worked through Benedictine University’s Asian Institute to bring his sustainability program to Vietnam National University, where he instructed M.B.A. students on the wisdom of incorporating sustainability strategies into their businesses. He also held a sustainability seminar, sponsored by Duc Viet, for 45 Vietnamese business owners. O’Brien welcomed the assistance of Clark University economics major Bui (Minnie) Ngoc ’13, who translated the first half of the seminar and then delivered the second half. Another key contributor to Clark’s “greening Vietnam” program was Chelsea Wang, a Clark University master of finance student, who worked as an intern during the summer for BK-IDSE, helping to build a green team, adapt the Sustainable Business Leader Program to Vietnam’s situation and increase sustainability awareness. O’Brien focused the seminar on practical approaches that can be implemented at no or low cost in areas such as energy efficiency, water conservation, purchasing and waste management. He emphasized using proven techniques, including communication and change management for the staff, employing metrics to gauge progress and rewarding individual and team performance in areas of sustainability. While Vietnam was certainly an exotic locale, O’Brien’s message was grounded in the initiatives he promotes as the director of the nonprofit Worcester Sustainable Business Leader Program. His involvement with program springs from his commitment to sustainability “as a great business strategy.” A green business, he reasons, not only reduces its environmental impact and its operating costs but differentiates itself as well. The SBLP covers energy and water conservation, waste reduction, green technology, transportation, local procurement and local food, pollution prevention and sustainability management — addressing sustainability from all angles. Through the program, each company receives a sustainability action plan tailored to the business and develops a “green team” within the management and staff to enact changes and uphold sustainability as part of company culture. “When done right, implementation of these plans increases profit and companies do the right thing for the planet,” O'Brien says. The Worcester program functions in collaboration with the Sustainable Business Network of Massachusetts, where O’Brien serves as a board member. As with the Boston network, a Worcester-based company must complete 80 percent of the recommended initiatives within its plan before earning certification. Since its inception in March 2011, ten Worcester area businesses have been certified as Sustainable Business Leaders (adding in the Boston program, about 110 businesses in central and eastern Massachusetts have earned the designation). The Boston and Worcester programs work with all business sectors and with companies ranging in size from 700 to 100,000 square feet and one to 200-plus employees. The hands-on nature of the program allows SBLP coordinators to tailor their recommendations, resources, and support to the specific needs and priorities of each participating business. O’Brien stresses that substantial savings can be quickly realized simply by addressing the “low-hanging fruit.”  Installation of more efficient lighting, for instance, reduces a company’s electric bill by 10 to 15 percent, he says. Purchasing energy-efficient windows, increasing the rate of recycling, and simply turning off computers and lights at the end of the day are small measures that add up, he adds.

O’Brien says his green efforts have been buttressed by ongoing encouragement and backing from Clark University. “I have received extraordinary support since I’ve been here,” he says. “My main mission at Clark is to help develop future leaders as environmental stewards.” He notes that Clark students have created an estimated 25 sustainability action plans for companies throughout the state. On July 20, O’Brien joined Mayor Joseph Petty at Worcester City Hall to award Sustainable Business Leader certification to the owners of four Worcester businesses: Abbott Bioresearch Center, C.C. Lowell, Wooberry Frozen Yogurt and East Coast Autowerks. The ceremony, which included the obligatory handshakes and photos, was brief, but the positive outcomes of the companies’ greening will endure far longer.