Episode 39: Trammell Crow and Tony Keane of Earthx Discuss the Future of Sustainability

September 25 , 2019  |  By Matt Waller

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Trammell Crow is the founder of EarthX, the largest annual exposition and forum showcasing initiatives, research, innovations, policies and corporate practices serving the environment. Trammell also serves on the board of directors for ConservAmerica and is the co-founder of Texas Business for Clean Air and Texans for Clean Water. Tony Keane is the CEO at EarthX. Tony has international leadership in sustainable facility management and has developed environmental solutions that have greatly impacted the world. Tony became the CEO in November 2018 after eight years as the President and CEO of the International Facility Management Association.

Episode Transcript

00:09 Matt Waller: Hi. I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Welcome to Be Epic, the podcast where we explore excellence, professionalism, innovation and collegiality, and what those values mean in business, education and your life today. I have with me today, Trammell Crow and Tony Keane of Earth X. So tell me, Trammell, just a little bit about your vision and how you came about to form Earth X.

00:41 Trammell Crow: Thank you. It's a general question, and it's hard to answer sometimes, but this EarthX, which was first called Earth Day Dallas and then Earth Day Texas, started when I finally, in my dotage decided to really start getting involved in the environment. It always to me had been the most important issue there is in the world, and after a sequence of events I found myself at a decision of what to do next. And just because April 22 was five months away I thought, "This is an easy decision; let's just go ahead and throw together a little exhibit of environmental groups for a street fair on April 22, because that's what's bound to be happening in New York and Berlin and London." And it was 200 organizations, and the environmental groups of course.

01:35 Trammell Crow: But in Texas we wouldn't think twice about having corporations involved. Kimberley Clark here in Dallas doesn't cut down as many trees as they used to, so we'd like for them to tell that story to the public. So all of that telling of stories to the public, the public doesn't know much about environmental issues, they feel very, very helpless as to how to involve besides turning off the faucet when they brush their teeth, so we thought it'd be a steep learning curve. And that first year there were 38,000 people and 200 exhibitors, only to find afterwards that this is not done in Frankfurt and New York, there aren't public expos on Earth Day or any other day that amount to much at all. So ever since then we've been inventing it as we go along. And it's the biggest in Texas and the heartland.

02:30 Tony Keane: It's the biggest in the country and probably the world.

02:32 Trammell Crow: Yeah, yeah.

02:33 Matt Waller: Well, going through your website, you've got all kinds of resources from curriculum for K through 12 to galas. Tell me a little bit about the gala that you have?

02:49 Trammell Crow: We've had it off-campus for two years now. We have exhibitors who are sponsors, and other foundations and so forth. The gala's another way to involve people in the local community, in Dallas much more than in San Francisco. It's still, even after all these years, a challenge to get the business community, professional communities, involved.

03:12 Tony Keane: Well the gala is, like Trammell said, it's designed to be a fund raiser for EarthX. What we do is we get some big name celebrities there to attract attention and fund raising. We also have an auction as well. This year our headliner is LeAnn Rimes, so we're looking forward to another great event.

03:31 Matt Waller: How did you get interested in the environment? [chuckle]

03:35 Trammell Crow: That's just real easy. It's a simple story. My brother was in the 8th grade and I was in the 6th, and he taught me three words, the environment, politics, and population. Ever since that moment it was clear to me that the most important thing is the environment and all the problems that we're facing now. But that was in the '60s, and it was in the newspaper, it was in the press. Even for a kid, my brother... I always like to remind people that my brother forgot. He proceeded to forget the first and third words, [chuckle], isn't much of an environmentalist himself, but...

04:18 Tony Keane: He's coming around, he comes to our event now. [chuckle]

04:20 Trammell Crow: Yeah, he comes to the event, and that's a testimonial right there because he's a very busy guy. We have exhibits on built environment, developments, LEED buildings and so forth, so my brother Harlan in the real estate business comes for that purpose. But there are lots of different initiatives that we pursue. We just got these environmental groups, all of 'em, why not? So now after we started these conferences of ocean, built environment, startups and investment and clean tech and ocean tech, there's no other place that I've ever seen where you can go and do and learn from, and meet, in all those different areas. Tony will be expanding that, particularly in the built environment area, I think. His background is the International Facilities Management Association. The built environment is a place where Dallas could be particularly important because of the development headquarters.

05:19 Tony Keane: Yeah.

05:19 Trammell Crow: You could say, that are here.

05:22 Matt Waller: So Tony, you're the new CEO, right?

05:25 Tony Keane: Yes.

05:26 Matt Waller: How long have you been on the job?

05:27 Tony Keane: Just a little over four months, since November.

05:30 Matt Waller: And how did you get interested in this area?

05:35 Tony Keane: It started actually, for myself also, when I was a child. I was growing up in Southern California, and just the whole thing about trash on the beach just was something that impacted me personally. Then through my own career, both at the International Facilities Management Association, we dealt a lot with the energy management issues associated with buildings, with commercial buildings, as one of the largest users of energy. And so a lot of those building owners and operators are really dealing with a lot right now with those energy management systems to make them more efficient, so those organizations also have a lot of sustainability initiatives. And then while I was at the International Facility Management Association, we launched a new credential for facility management professionals called the Sustainability Facility Professional, the SFP. So then we saw it... I was at IFMA through the whole time period when a lot of the buildings were changing out their lighting systems to LED-type lighting systems, where the payback on that is so short, it was an easy decision for building owners to make. But here again, it really did a huge thing for the environment and sustainability.

06:51 Tony Keane: So I've been around a lot of that and before that I was with NACE international and focused in the energy sector where you have oil and gas pipelines. So that's a whole other aspect in terms of impact on the environment. And one thing I will never forget is we were meeting with the, actually, the ambassador from Nigeria, and he was just always amazed because when he came around the United States, he knew that there were these oil and gas pipelines running through and there's farms on top.

07:17 Matt Waller: Yeah, right.

07:18 Tony Keane: Whereas in Nigeria, nothing grows for a mile on either side because of all the issues associated with the pipelines there, and people tapping into them illegally and causing huge environmental issues. So then when this opportunity came up, it was something... I really enjoyed the platform, being a safe neutral platform, where people from all different opinions can come together and talk about pragmatic solutions, because that's what I believe in. And I think all of us are tired of the far right, the far left, and the polarization of our country because those people usually are so ingratiated into those positions, they really don't want practical solutions to move forward.

08:00 Matt Waller: Yeah. Well, I think Walmart has done a great job in that regard. They are very pragmatic. They've been having a huge... An extremely positive impact on the environment through their approach. And a lot of people don't realize it, but everyone knows they're very efficient, in terms of transportation and distribution. But that's directly correlated to sustainability and environmental carbon footprint.

08:34 Tony Keane: Right. So many companies of all different sizes can come together to tell their own green stories. And unless...

08:43 Matt Waller: Oh, so they do that?

08:44 Tony Keane: They can, yeah. That's what we encourage them to do in the booths. If they've got a consumer-based product, why not tell the green story behind it and encourage people to buy their products because they do have that green story. You've got other companies that truly do have environmental products themselves, that are just specifically focused on the environmental sector, but majority of the companies, as we live our everyday lives, we have to be able to take care of the earth. We're all interconnected and if one side goes out of kilter, then it has ramifications.

09:22 Matt Waller: What's your vision for the future in terms of EarthX? Where do you want it to be, in say, 10 years from now?

09:29 Tony Keane: Oh my god.

09:29 Matt Waller: Or five years from now? [laughter]

09:33 Trammell Crow: I'll take it.

09:34 Trammell Crow: Go for it kid. First of all...

09:35 Tony Keane: I can take that.

09:35 Trammell Crow: First of all, you can tell already in this interview that this has been done by an amateur, which is one of the reasons why it's wound up to be so unique and powerful. Going where other people hadn't gone before and not knowing that things shouldn't be done. We've turned it a conference... Film festival is really, I would say, the most important green film festival in America. But we haven't worked on this national audience, expo, public speakers, hackathon, other things. And so, one of the areas for the future is to find out how to make it more relevant to a national audience. We have national audience for the professionals coming in for conferences, but when did anybody say, "Let's, next year for our summer vacation, go to an environmental festival instead of going to a concert or a show in New York in the fall, like we always do. Let's go to an expo of sustainability and environment." So that's one, that's a very ambitious future. It might take 10 years but America needs it and this is gonna keep on going. Other people aren't doing it. This heartland... I'm not telling Dallas, this thing could go anywhere, so it's a temporary event, but it needs to stay in the heartland.

11:18 Trammell Crow: Another thing is, are these conferences, because we're bringing in real decision makers, and of late, policy makers and legislators. So we need to say, "Okay, these dozen or so conferences, some of them are in areas that are well attended and do a lot of good, but the impact might not be as great. We need to go back to basics." And personally, I would think that it's food, water and energy.

11:45 Tony Keane: Trammel said the keyword, impact. And what we have to look at is, is there's the impact of us having this event and how we can then improve on that to attract a bigger audience and to make it even more impactful than what it already is. But we also have an opportunity here because we are engaging with so many stakeholders. We're expecting 150,000 attendees for this year's conference. How do we engage with them on a year-round basis? How do we engage with a national audience, on a year-round basis, through multiple different ways? We've already expanded a little bit on the film festival side, we also show a monthly film feature that's throughout the year, not just at our film festival. And...

12:24 Matt Waller: Where do you show it?

12:25 Tony Keane: Different theaters around Dallas.

12:27 Matt Waller: Okay.

12:28 Tony Keane: At this point... But were also getting ready to launch the EarthX League, which is what I call a combination between an action platform and a community platform, where we can reach out and actually measure impact of information that's getting shared, connections that can continue to be enhanced, as well as provide opportunities for learning and information. So it's a centralized platform that will create an electronic virtual community of EarthX throughout the year. We're also encouraging other non-profits to plug into this, to use this to help share information, so our constituents and our people who are involved with EarthX can even learn more information just beyond what we actually have at EarthX. And the same thing for our exhibitors and our sponsors, if they've got information that they wanna share that's relevant, then they can share that through this network. And we can also then show them what kind of an impact they had, in terms of the reach that they had. So I think it's an exciting time to be able to take this and then scale it up for a much larger audience, nationwide.


13:42 Matt Waller: Thanks for listening to today's episode of the Be EPIC podcast from the Walton College. You can find us on Google, SoundCloud, iTunes or look for us wherever you find your podcasts. Be sure to subscribe and rate us. You can find current and past episodes by searching Be EPIC podcast, one word. That's BE EPIC podcast and now, Be EPIC.