Dean Morton, Silicon Valley Hero to Nonprofits and Sustainable Business

April 4, 2014 - 11:31pm -- Bruce Paton

My wife took me to the Center for Excellence in Nonprofits 20th anniversary celebration tonight.  At the end of a great evening, I got to meet CEN's founder, Dean Morton.  

Dean was a hero when I was at HP.  As the COO at HP, he oversaw all of the environmental efforts.  When I joined the Corporate Environmental Health and Safety group at HP, I heard a wonderful story about him from several years before.  When the Toxics Release Inventory first started, all companies were required by law for the first time to report on the amounts of toxic substances released into air, water and waste streams.  After the first round of data was reported, the San Jose Mercury News ran a front page story indicating that HP was the largest emitter of toxics in the Bay Area.  At the same time, the Boise newspaper reported that HP was the biggest emitter in the whole state of Idaho.

According to the story, at a meeting of all the general managers at HP, Dean held up copies of the Mercury News and the Boise paper to show the group.  He pointed out that HP was the largest emitter in both places.  According to the version I heard, he then said in his calm, understated manner, "That won't happen again.  Any questions?"  HP was one of the first companies to make dramatic reductions in toxic emissions.  My colleagues credited Dean with getting the general managers of all the divisions to take the issue very seriously.  People credited him with creating the atmosphere that led HP to get rid of CFCs ahead of legal requirements, and ahead of the internal goals.

Characteristically, when I asked Dean about that story tonight at the reception, he deflected the credit.  He said, "That came from Bill and Dave [HP's founders].  They always insisted that we do the right thing.  That's just good business."  But we all know there's a big gap between what CEOs intend and what actually happens.  It takes executives and operational people in the middle to make sure that the right things actually happen.

Dean Morton was a champion of sustainable business more than 20 years before we began to use that phrase.  It's wonderful to see him flourishing more than 20 years after he retired from HP.  (And of course, he's also a hero to the Nonprofit community for creating the Center for Excellence in Nonprofits.  It has been a real gift to nonprofit leaders like my wife.)

It's delightful to see an understated hero like Dean Morton flourishing in his post HP career.  We need more executives with genuine vision like Dean.