Fernandez: Shared understanding is key to successful business

Cargill's chief communicator urged counterparts to reach out to NGOs -- especially those that don't agree with them.

NEW YORK: Regardless of where a company operates geographically, the key to a successful business is to have a shared understanding and belief across the board, according to Cargill corporate VP of corporate affairs Mike Fernandez.

Fernandez spoke Tuesday morning at the PRWeek Conference in New York.

Cargill employs about 143,000 people in 67 countries, and about half of the company’s top 30 executives are based outside of the US. To ensure they are on the same page, they gather for a conference call twice a month, regardless of time or location.

Externally, Cargill consistently reaches out to NGOs and public policymakers in response to various issues and to gain a shared understanding. Further, when Fernandez joined the company in 2010, he made a point to visit the heads of NGOs Cargill doesn't see eye-to-eye with.

"In order for companies to progress, there needs to be two-way interaction," he explained. "When we have hit crises in the past as a company, rather than shrinking and saying, ‘No we aren’t going to get engaged,’ we have reached out to NGOs and public policy makers to gain a shared understanding about the problem."

He added that businesses cannot hide in today’s environment. Because of that, Cargill is committed to bringing the outside perspective in and letting NGOs challenge the company directly. Cargill then looks at the issue and figures out how to work through it.

"For instance, an NGO might have a different point of view about how you should go about sourcing palm oil or soy in the Amazon, and some of those times have been tension-packed," Fernandez said.

Last April, after a Greenpeace report linked the palm oil Cargill sold to Procter & Gamble to deforestation in Southeast Asia, Cargill sent a zero-deforestation commitment letter to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. It laid out a strategy that includes building a traceable supply chain for palm oil, no conversion of high carbon stock or high conservation value areas, including peatlands, and respecting the rights of local communities to reject plantation development.

A few NGOs contended that the letter did not constitute policy, nor did it supply a timeline.

"We have a lot of dialogue with NGOs on our actions in supply chains," Mark Murphy, global head for corporate responsibility and sustainability within Cargill’s corporate affairs practice, told PRWeek earlier this month. "We’re pretty transparent to critics in telling them what we’re doing, but they don’t always like to hear that we’re not going as far as they want us to."

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