Benne Hutson | The 3 Keys To Success

Posted by Mark Roman on May 5, 2020


In today’s episode of the Business of Environment podcast, we sit down with one of the most knowledgeable and experienced legal and environmental professionals I’ve ever had the privilege to work with… Benne Hutson!

Benne really knows his stuff when it comes to law, regulation, and technology, and whenever we’ve worked together, I’ve always felt more comfortable and confident when he was part of the team. You’re in for an information-packed episode, so get your notepads out!

We’ll chat with Benne about why he switched from private practice to general counsel at a large company, the biggest challenges he faced in his switch to general counsel, as well as…

  • Legacy properties and why they have a significant effect on a company
  • Understanding the past, managing the present, and planning for the future in the context of environmental matters
  • Why listening, early communication and managing expectations are the top 3 things to be successful
  • Knowing what your problem actually is so that you can deal with it accordingly 
  • And more

Listen now...

Mentioned in this episode:


Mark Roman: Welcome, everyone to the Business of Environment Podcast where we explore insights on the intersection of business, the environment and regulation. I'm your host, Mark Roman. I've been looking forward to today's podcast for some time now because today's guest is one of the most knowledgeable and experienced legal and environmental professionals I have ever had the privilege to work with. Our very special guest joining us today is Mr. Benne Hutson. 

Benne is the director, environmental and Deputy General Counsel for EnPro Industries, a global manufacturer of high performance engineered products used in the semiconductor aerospace, automotive and other industrial applications. In his role, Benne is responsible for investigations and cleanup of legacy environmental sites in environmental compliance at EnPro's many manufacturing plants. Benne also has lead responsibility for the company's global insurance program and manages major litigation. 

Prior to joining EnPro in 2016, Benne was in private practice for about 34 years where he developed the national environmental practice that included compliance, litigation and transactional matters. From 2012 to 2015, Benne was also a member of the North Carolina environmental management commission which has responsibility for adopting all of the state's environmental regulations, and actually was appointed by Governor Pat McCrory to chair the commission from 2013 to 2015. Benne is a graduate of Hillsdale College and Harvard Law School. 

I've known Benne for about 25 years and even after all that time, we still talk to each other. I met Benne when he was in private practice and we both worked for the same client on legacy property issues. Although we've been involved in some very challenging projects, I've always felt both more confident and more comfortable whenever Benne was part of the project team. You see, Benne really knows his stuff when it comes to law, regulation and technology. But of equal importance, in my opinion, is Benne's ability to read a room if you will. 

Listen, one can easily feel overwhelmed when it comes to addressing these challenging environmental matters. And Benne has an ability to put things into perspective so that we can all understand them, and to also shine a humorous light onto a situation to really remind everyone that we will get through whatever issues in front of us. As a result, I've never felt overwhelmed when addressing an environmental matter when Benne was sitting at the same table as me. So now that I've put enough pressure on him to be a great podcast guest, I want to welcome Benne to the Business of Environment Podcast.

Benne Hutson: Thank you, Mark. That was quite humbling, I'll say that much. I'll save the jokes for later. 

Mark: Okay. Benne, beyond the brief bio, can you let everyone know a little bit more about your background and really what led you to practicing law and why in the environmental field?

What Led Benne to Practicing Environmental Law?

Benne: Well, let's go to the practicing law. You know, back in the late 70s, I was in college. And I was a good student and said, Well, I could go to law school. There are no lawyers in the family. I was never one of those who made that decision when I was in second grade by watching Perry Mason and Matlock that that was my career path, but sounded interesting. So that's what I did and became the first lawyer in the family. 

The environmental law is just absolute happenstance. I started practicing and I spent the first three years I guess, in Columbus, Ohio. And in 82, I walked in and they just stacked your projects on your desk for the new associates. And everybody else had four or five little stacks of paper. I had four stacks of little paper. And then I had two big notebooks, which was the part B hazardous waste incinerator permit for the new rotary kiln incinerator to be built by WTI Industries in East Liverpool, Ohio. 

And on that day, I became the second environmental lawyer in the office which nobody would have guessed because I took one science class in college called baby chemistry and never took an environmental law course in my life. If somebody told me I'd be in a quote-unquote, scientific field after I graduated from law school, I would have laughed In your face. But here I am 38 years later.

Mark: What's really impressive is you stuck with it even after having to go through that part B permit application. I mean, that's reading.

Benne: I mean, it took me about nine months to figure out why parts 264 and 265 were identical because I had no idea what interim status was on the request. It's like, Why are these things the same? Made no sense, but we'll get it figured out. 

Mark: Yeah. Good deal. Can you tell us a little bit about EnPro Industries and some of the environmental issues you address as its director?

Benne: Yeah. EnPro was a spinoff of BF Goodrich in 19, in 2001, or 2002. Of all of their non-aerospace and non-aeronautics businesses. So that included at time businesses that made everything from gaskets to engines for large navy and coast guard ships. Plus, we can get into later, I know the legacy stuff. When a company does a spin-off, they get rid of the assets they don't want, and they get rid of every liability they can find. 

So, since that time, EnPro has continued some of the businesses that we got from Goodrich and as well as with a new CEO in the last nine months, we're moving into some newer areas that we haven't been into before. But ours is a highly technical, precise specification engineered products that we make, oftentimes in conjunction with customers looking for new ways of addressing problems with their parts of which ours are components. 

And a lot of the markets we're in, we are the longtime leaders in the field with either number one or number two. And in some cases, when you talk about a certain product in a market you don't refer to it as a gasket, you refer to it as a Garlock gasket. So, and some of our clients go back to the 1890s as well as some of the newer ventures we've gone into in the semiconductor business are plants that are maybe five or six years old, and the businesses are that old. So it's a diverse manufacturing company that I work for. 

Mark: Pretty cool. And  

Benne: It is pretty cool. 

Mark: Yeah, it was such a diversity, I'm sure your job never gets boring.

Benne: Oh, you know, I'm working on everything from wastewater pretreatment discharge permits to POTW's or MPDS permits, we're trying to make sure that are we exempt from the air regulations, hazardous waste compliance issues. I will say since I came on board three years ago, at the operational level, it has not been a lot of major compliance issues. 

The company has a good program management system in place before I came on board, a great staff of EHS professionals that are servicing the plants. So that has not been a big issue. But usually, when an issue comes up, it's a novel issue. As is often the case with companies who really know what they're doing. They're the ones who come up with the problem that nobody's ever thought about before. 

Mark: Right. I just want to back up a little bit. I'm interested to know, why did you switch from private practice to in house general counsel at a large company?

Benne: Well, You know, I have this saying, if you go looking for a new opportunity, you will never find it. If you're not looking for it, they'll just come smack you upside the head. And that's what happened here. I guess it was spring of 2016. I was not looking for a job. I was getting ready to try a first of the kind water rights case in North Carolina. 

I've been working on coal ash matters for Duke Energy and the general counsel of EnPro, who's a friend of mine, and his brother and I had been law partners for a number of years, called out of the blue. And the next thing I know I'm talking to him about the opportunity. They're interviewing me, I'm interviewing them and having been with the same law firm for 34 years, I was having all the angst about, do I make the switch? 

Don't I? And I learned one thing, I have four children, you need to listen to your children because when I described the opportunity to them and now obviously emotional because I've worked with these great partners of mine for three decades, I was expecting my kids to say, well, dad, wherever you decide, we'll support you. Nope. They all looked at me and said, Take the damn job. 

Okay. And so I think what I have realized since I came over, is that in big law firms today, and it's true and other big businesses, you learn something then that's all you do after a while. And because of that, you sometimes to great extent, get an autopilot in stop learning. And you then get stale, you get bored. It's just not a lot of fun. Now, I come over here, every day is something new to learn with all the things they have me doing, but also just learning how a business works. 

And a manufacturing business is so different from a law firm or an accounting firm or consulting firm. It's in a law firm, the lawyers are the focus of attention because they are the production units. In a business like I'm in and any other business with in house lawyers, the lawyers are important, but they are clearly not the focus of the business. The focus of the business is the customers and getting product out the door and having success that way. And that's been a nice change. 

Mark: Yeah, that's interesting because I had an opportunity to, when I first started my career, to work in industry. And I felt I didn't want to get pigeonholed. And so I went to consulting. So I have that variety in front of me just like you have with yourself. And that's what I love about consulting is there's not one day that's the same and, you know, you may think you have a similar problem, but there's always a nuance to it that just makes the job even more interesting.

Benne: When I started practicing law in 82, you didn't specialize in one area. I was a medical malpractice defense lawyer. I wrote a simple will and trust document. I did a merger and acquisition. I did a municipal bond issuance. We had a checklist of things that we had to do. Now kids coming out of law school, they immediately become a finance lawyer or a toxic tort litigator or a real estate lawyer. And they don't learn the whole set of skills that a lawyer needs which really came to benefit me when I got to environmental because I knew how to try a case, I had been in business deals. And then I learned how to work with the government.

Mark: All right. Now, the main question I'm sure that all of our listeners must-have for you is, do you still have to do timesheets?

Benne: No.

Mark: You know, that in itself is worth jumping out of private practice.

Benne: It is. The other thing is, the nice part of it is, forget not filling out a timesheet and everything. I'm given a problem and my job is to fix the problem or come up with solutions or work with the team to do that. And they really don't care how long it takes as long as you get it done by the deadline that they want it. 

And so you're allowed to sit back and think without saying, Wow, I've just thought about this for an hour. For a private practice, what is a creative way I could come up with to describe this on a timesheet so the client would pay for it? I don't have that problem now. I just have my job and get it done and it's very well appreciated when it is.

Mark: Excellent. But what was the biggest challenge in your successful switch from private practice to in house general counsel?

Becoming the Decision Maker

Benne: The biggest challenge was all of a sudden I was the decision-maker. I was no longer giving advice to clients where you could do A or you could do B, or C. I'd recommend B but I don't know your business situation. You know, I'm the decision-maker now. And that came home, I had to renegotiate a big consent order with EPA for one of our legacy sites. And all of a sudden, I realized I had to sign it. 

I was like, dang. I never had to do that before. But you know, it's, that has been the biggest thing. And also, I think developing a philosophy of how we approach problems because I'm now the leader of a team, whether it's a litigation matter and I'm working with outside counsel, or it's a cleanup and I'm working with a consultant, it really is developing the team and how we're going to work together in what is going to be our story or approach. 

And that's not the biggest challenge but it's just fun. I'm having so much fun doing that because it's just something new. And you really are responsible. Now when I look at my budgets for the year and how much I'm spending, I still can't believe they give me that much confidence to say, Oh, yeah, here's 20 or $30 million, go spend it. And I used to get worried when I tell a client, my bill was $5,000. So it's been different there. But that's been the biggest challenge but it's also been the biggest reward in making the switch.

Mark: You mentioned legacy properties. And let's talk a little bit about that. When I talk to a client about a legacy property, a lot of times they have a blank look on their face, like, you know, what are you talking about? And, you know, these properties are a significant issue for many companies. Can you elaborate a little for our listeners on what exactly is a legacy property and why they can have a significant effect on a company?

Benne: A legacy property is an environmental problem and a site that you didn't create but you somehow have legal responsibility for. And it really can come up in a couple of ways. One of which is somebody merges with another company or acquires another company by buying their stock so they take on all their liabilities. 

So they have taken on not only liabilities at sites that are currently operating but sites that might have been closed 5, 10, 20, 30 years ago. There's another way you can get them which is the way we got it, which was BF Gregory trying to get rid of their legacy liabilities. So they gave them all to this great new company EnPro. And so in the former case where it's a merger or acquisition, you can investigate those, you can put a value on what you think it's going to cost. 

You can look at ways of trying to manage that liability as part of the acquisition, whether it's a change in sale price, or it's some sort of insurance product, some sort of escrow that might be set up, you name it. In our situation, we had no control. They said, here's this wonderful gift we're giving you and it's a gift the really does keep on giving over the years.

Mark: What's the best way to insulate or protect the company from a legacy property?

Benne: Obviously, if you're doing the acquisition, good due diligence on the front end is the key and that is more than what you think of as a phase one phase two type of thing, which really only goes to existing properties. It's doing some research on the background of the company, figuring out what they own before. In the diligence, you're always asking questions. Have you retained liabilities from any sale of assets in the past? Did you acquire any liabilities for businesses that are no longer operating? 

There's no one magic bullet question. It's just good detective work to determine what might be out there. But I will tell you you do it, be ready for a surprise. I'll give you an example. Goodrich gave us all the environmental liabilities they knew about. And then there was one nobody knew about. We have responsibility right now for investigating and remediating eight abandoned surface uranium mines from the 19th, from ninth, they were operated from making 54 to 56 on the Navajo Nation in northern Arizona. We are somehow the successor to that company. 

And I can tell you, if you put the corporate history into, you would crash the website. It goes to pages of big paper. It's remarkable. But all of a sudden we're on the hook and we get a letter from EPA and you can imagine the reaction at the company was what? And sure enough, that's what we have responsibility for. So you can do all your homework but be ready for a surprise too.

Mark: Yeah, what I'm finding in doing transactions for clients is a lot of companies are just saying, Hey, here's the price, you know, as is, this is what you're agreeing to. And it's an attractive price, you know, but there's all these hidden things that are out there. And when you don't have in a situation like that you don't really have an opportunity for good due diligence period because that entity is being marketed to sell quickly. 

And it's reflective in that price. Or when you do have an opportunity for due diligence and you don't look at that company's history. You know, you're going to find a surprise and unfortunately that surprise maybe 5, 10, 15 years down the road when you get a notification in the mail. Probably similar what happened to you with the uranium mines and it's, you just have to understand what you're doing. And like you said, detective work and the more you dig into it, the better off you are.

Benne: When you touched on the current thing, the marketplace now for transactions and we'll have to see how it is after COVID crisis is over and valuations have changed and how much private equity money is still available and the like, but I have never seen a market like this in my career where the sellers have the leverage because there is enough money and capital out there to say I'm selling this, there will be no escrow, there will be no indemnity. Your recourse is to go out and buy what they call representation and warranty insurance. And after this deal is done, I'm walking away. I'm done. 

And it's not the traditional structures you saw in the past of, Okay, here's a basket we're setting up. The indemnity is four years for non-environmental and six years for environmental. That doesn't exist. Do you want to buy a business now? You're going to buy it and you're probably going to take on every work that they've got and you need to account for that in the pricing and structure of the deal and in using mechanisms like rep and warranty insurance or some other protection like that. Because there's more buyers than there are sellers. At least there was before COVID hit. 

Mark: Yeah, yeah. It's, yeah, it's gonna be interesting to see how it all shakes out over the next couple months. I really find your role at EnPro an interesting and quite challenging one. From what I see, you need to understand EnPro's history for your legacy work, and you need to manage the present while planning the future for your compliance work. What are some of the keys to understanding the past, managing the present and planning for the future relative to environmental matters?

Shut Up and Listen

Benne: Well, prayer, lots of prayer. Yeah, that's, I am still doing what I did in private practice, but for a different reason of monitoring what the new developments are out there. Every time we look at an acquisition, especially recently when we got more into the semiconductor range, I had to do research on what those businesses, what that industry sector was like from an environmental standpoint. So the biggest thing that I've learned to do is sit in meetings, and I'm not just in meeting with the legal department, I'm in meetings with the chief accounting officer, the chief financial officer, the internal audit people, the m&a people. 

The biggest thing that I've learned to do is to shut up and listen and see what is motivating. Are the people in those various areas, what their concerns are. What, and then address those concerns. You know, the historic stuff is just going to be there and what they're most worried about that, especially in the legacy sites, is when can we get them to a stable ONM stage? 

Because that becomes much easier to project what it's going to cost as opposed to, well, we've got, we're not at the remedy yet. We're going to have capital costs. We may have a lawsuit going on. Those are the uncertainties. Really trying to bring certainty to the greatest extent possible to the various things I'm working on is what I find that our senior management is looking for. That and no surprises. My general counsel, who I'm the oldest rat in the barn and legal department. 

But he has been a master of teaching me, Okay, let's start telling our C suite in the board this is coming because when it hits in nine months, we can say to them, as we told you, this was coming and they're not wondering why all of a sudden do we have a $10 million charge to this matter, or, or a $5 million charge here. They knew it was coming. So that's a little bit rambling, but I think it is listening and early communication and managing expectations are the three things that I think about it are probably the big things that we all do on our job at EnPro to be successful.

Mark: You touched on something interesting when you said you did some, your homework on a semiconductor business. We, you know, to understand the business in order to understand, well, what's our risk and liabilities here. And we often stress to clients the importance of really knowing what your facility does and how it does it in order to manage your facility's environmental health and safety issues. 

In fact, facility knowledge is one of the core four requirements we recommend to clients that need to be in place in order for you to have success managing your issues. What steps did you take to gain an understanding of what EnPro's very diverse facilities do? Did you actually look at each business segment and, you know, study that to fully understand it?

Benne: Yeah, when I started in September of 16, over the next year, I went to our major manufacturing plants. Now I will say I did this very judiciously because at the time one was in Beloit, Wisconsin, and the other was in Palmyra, New York outside of Rochester. And one of the terms of my employment was I didn't have to go there between October and in April of the year. So having grown up in Michigan, that was a key there. But, you know, it was not really sitting down with those businesses beforehand, and I was reading stuff and the like. 

I had resources within the office. You can't learn any better way than to have the EHS person at a plant walk you around and show you stuff. And having done this like you, Mark, for a lot of years, you know, I look over there and I can see something and I can ask questions and those types of things. That's the best way to learn from an environmental compliance standpoint is to actually see it and get a sense of what's the housekeeping like. 

How do they store things? When you ask basic questions of their, of the compliance staff, do they know the answers to them? Asking them what's keeping them awake at night and their biggest challenges. That's how I learned for the businesses. For ones that we're buying, our m&a group internally, corporate development, as we call them, and that's when you start looking at outside resources. 

And one of the major acquisitions we just made as a company headquartered out of Taiwan that cleans the nodes on semiconductors and has a proprietary way of doing it that increases the etchable surface, which means you can make the semiconductor even more powerful when we send it back to the customer. Well, it's a cleaning operation. We're not manufacturing everything. But obviously I was like, what do we use to clean it? 

And there were some potent chemicals that we used. Some potent acids. So that's when you start thinking, Okay, there's where a risk is. And you start asking the questions, how do they store this? How does it move from the storage area to the actual process area? Is there waste from it? Where does that go? Those types of things. So there is no, if you expect to just do a Google search and say, oh, tell me about the semiconductor industry, you won't learn a doggone thing. You really just have to go talk to people and figure out and learn from them because they know the business best. 

Mark: Another one of our core four is communications. What role does communications play in your responsibilities at EnPro?

Benne: Right. It's a critical part of everyday operation. But EnPro is a company that does a lot of training on how to work. And it was training I've never got in 34 years of practicing law. But the, I would look at it in terms of communication. There are two elements. One is communicating ideas, but more importantly, is the receipt of communication. And we do a lot of training on how to listen. 

Active listening, making sure we understand what people are saying, making sure people are comfortable with the way we are repeating their ideas. And that is, I've learned more on how to work than I ever in the last three years than I did in 34 years before that. Making sure that it is a psychologically safe environment for people, that they don't feel they're going to be belittled or made fun of. And there are ways to communicate so that you avoid that type of atmosphere and you end up with a much better product as a team. And as I said before, early communication, accurate communication and truthful communication. 

I remember I was in a board meeting going over our environmental matters with our board of directors, and we're a public company, and one of our directors said, well, haven't things gotten better with the new Trump administration? And at that point, Wheeler was the head of EPA, and aren't things getting better and easier to work with? And everything I looked at, I said no. And went into why, because it only applies to highly politicized sites to get attention by the administration. But the answer was no. It's still the same government bureaucracy you're working with. 

And he told me later said, that was great. I was expecting an answer, well, yeah, things could get better and you just looked at me and said no. That answered the question. The other thing is, you never guess you just say, I don't know. I'll check and I'll get back to you. But communication is a key. It's also communicating on the sites I'm working on with stakeholders on the uranium sites here in the Navajo Nation, which is a sovereign nation so we don't deal with Arizona EPA, we deal with Navajo EPA and EPA Region nine. 

And it's a very different culture. And so I have, we've made a real commitment of our team of to learn and be respectful of the Navajo culture. And there are other PRPs there's like 500 mines in the area that have not done that. And I'm not sure they're getting as, I'm not sure they have, I know they don't have as good a working relationship with the Navajo as we did. But communication is out of listening and out of respect is where it's most important.

Mark: Listening is a missing art form these days, especially with our technology and smartphones. It's, you know, just think about when you talk with your kids, I mean, you know, kids, they're gonna ignore their parents anyway, but, you know, you try to have a discussion with them with their faces in the smartphone or something. So, it's, I agree with you, I mean, listening is so important. And the other thing is we did a conference session with facility managers late last year. 

And during a roundtable, this is with EHS personnel in manufacturing facilities during the roundtable the one question that they asked me was, you know, what's a good question to ask to get a better understanding of a situation and I said, it's really not a question you should ask. It's a statement you should make and that statement is I don't know, you know? Three magical words. 

And don't be afraid to say I don't know and seek assistance, seek help. Because that's the way we grow. That's the way we get better educated. That's how our skill sets improve is, you know, admitting you need help and, you need, you're going to need to do some research or some additional training. It's okay.

Try Not Arguing and See What Happens

Benne: Let me give you an example. And I won't name the site and I've got a very good outside consultant, younger fella who's going to be a real success in the field. But we were going out to do a site visit with EPA. And I sat down with the team beforehand and said, Okay, here's how we're going to do this. We're going to ask questions and we're going to listen but we are not going to engage with them on any point we might disagree with. 

We're just going to go out there, walk around, and that's what we're going to do. Well, a natural human tendency is when there is silence somebody wants to fill the void. And so we did that for an entire day, and the next morning at breakfast with this consultant, and he said that was the hardest working day I've ever had but I learned more from that meeting than I ever would have been if I'd gotten into an argument with the agency about this point or that point, because the agency people just kept talking. 

We just sat there and went, yeah, I understand. I understand. And they just kept saying stuff and we learned more than we ever could have if we had said, I hear what you're saying, but you're wrong. They would have shut down like that and we wouldn't have gotten a quarter of the information that we ended up getting.

Mark: That's a great lesson for everyone to learn there. It doesn't even matter with, if it's a regulator, you know, just understand and you see where that group, you know, that person is coming from and what they're stating. And it's true, if that, the other side of that table as they're talking and you're just absorbing what they're saying. they feel the need to talk even more and disclose even more to you.

Benne: I mean, it's an old deposition trick when I used to try cases. You asked the question in a deposition, the person would answer, and you just sit there and stare at them. And you're like, well, I guess I should say something more going. And you find out stuff you never knew you're gonna find out. So it was very instructive.

Mark: What do you believe makes some successful in navigating the complex regulatory environment while others involved struggle with it?

Benne: I think if I work with people who have been successful, IT specialists talk about dealing with a government agency. One is, they show respect for the person on the other side of the table. A lot of folks come in and just think that the government agency is the devil incarnate. What they're doing is have absolutely no value to society. And, or they, this, they think it's a competition, and I have to beat them. That is not a respectful attitude to bring in. What I've always tried to doing I was taught by my mentors, is find out where the other side wants to get to. 

Say it's a government agency and they want to get to x point. Well, you may be able to say, Okay, I can get the x point, but I can get there in a different way than what you're proposing. And they're usually willing to consider that. That the second is, I think in terms of success is not letting your ego getting away, and ego means that you're using your mouth more than your ears. I remember when I started at EnPro, my predecessor, we had a series of telephone calls with lawyers and consultants working on projects.

And he introduced me much like you introduced me today, Mark. And I had a couple consultants, they would say, let me explain the groundwater regime at a site to you. And they basically started was it rains, it percolates down and stuff like that. And they clearly hadn't heard they were talking to somebody with 30 plus years of experience in the environmental field and so I'd have to ask questions. I said that's very interesting. 

What is the hydraulic conductivity at the site and are we talking about a confined or semi-confined aquifer? And all sudden you'd hear this just Oh, blink silence on the other end of Oh, this guy actually knows what he's talking about. I mean it's remarkable when people think they know it all and won't shut up. That is exactly a problem. And also you gotta identify what is a reasonable, where do you want to get to and what's the reasonable endpoint? And now being in house a appreciate much more. 

That's a business issue, not a personal issue. We don't care if we win or lose an argument if we get to the point we want to get to from a business standpoint. That's a perfect result, which is what a lawyer in 1982 when I started practicing asked me the question, he said, What is a perfect piece of legal work when you're working on an acquisition agreement? I said, Well, you know, it's set up appropriately, it's got all the business points in there. He goes, nope. The perfect piece of legal work is whatever the client thinks is perfect. 

Mark: Sound Advice. 

Benne: If the client thinks it's perfect, by God, it's a perfect piece of work. 

Mark: Yeah. Yep. Yeah, it that, you gave me that advice a number of years ago where, you know, it was, there's so many consultants spend so much time trying to perfect that report or that letter, you know? All the spacing's right, there's no, all the typos are addressed. Well, you know, so on and so forth. Everything spelled correctly. 

Really, what you should be driving for is what your client wants, you know, what's the favorable resolution for them. And there you go. You know, everybody, you know, your work product is going to look fine. But, you know, don't spend so much time trying to perfect it. Spend the time and getting the solution that your client wants.

Benne: And it's something I've forgotten is write in understandable common English. I used to teach a class on how to write a report. And I remember one in the intro it said on this date, there was a stormwater event. And I asked the consultant, I said, Do you mean it rained?  He goes, Yeah. I said, Well, that's what we're gonna say. Well, that's not the technical term. I said, I don't care. We're gonna say it rained, okay? 

Or I sat with consultants and they're talking to a client saying you've got so many parts per million of this in the groundwater and this in the soil and all this stuff and the clients glazed over and I'll look at him and I'll say, what they're saying is, is that you've got a blank load of contamination in here, but we can deal with it. Well, they understand what a blank load of contamination is. And they get a much greater comfort level. So, you know, speaking in English is key. 

Mark: Yes, absolutely. Well, what's also interesting to me is your former role with the North Carolina Environmental Management Commission where you had the responsibility for adopting all the state's environmental regulations. How did that experience help you with your current role at EnPro?

Benne: Well, I will tell you that it was a, there's a variety of things. One is, I had worked with that state agency for, you know, 30 years before I took that role or close to it. And I knew it was a good agency, but I don't think until I got into that I realized the quality of people who work in state agencies, the technical quality. There's some that aren't good, but that's true of any organization. 

But these are people who really are working in government because they view it as a valuable service. And they were our support for the commission. And I learned to rely on them, not only for their experience, but for expertise of issues I knew nothing about. And so one was just raising that level of respect. The second, it was just fascinating. And I think people need to realize there might be a political element to anything you're dealing with when you're dealing with a government agency. And I started to see how the sausage is made in the political arena. 

And some of that process is a beautiful work of art and others is going into a meatpacking facility from Upton Sinclair's 1930s novels. It's not fun to look at. And the policy aspects that go into it, and I had the, I guess, unique, when I got appointed, North Carolina still had a Democratic governor and Republican legislature for the first time. And when I became chairman, I was chairman and the republicans had taken over the governor's office and the legislature was supermajorities for the first time since 1864. So it was an entirely new political element. 

And I was chair for three weeks and the legislature fired everybody on commission because they wanted to have their own all republican appointments. I get reappointed. But imagine being the chairman of a commission that no longer included anybody from the environmental group, anybody from the municipality, anybody from the democratic side of the aisle, and I made a conscious effort to reach out to those people who felt they had been now disenfranchised, to really listen to them and make it clear that there was a place they could talk to. 

And that is something that I have continued to do is make sure I reach out to people throughout all the projects I worked in. And it was a great time. If somebody told me though, that I would spend nine months defining what gravel is and enjoyed it, I would have laughed. But you also understand, I'm going to sound a little bit cynical here, but politics anymore, good policy is no longer good politics. Politics is now defined by partisanship and who can maintain power and unfortunately, good policy has gotten pushed to the wayside, which is an unfortunate development.

Mark: I'm going to put you on the spot here, okay? What's your number one piece of advice for businesses dealing with potential environmental challenges?

Benne: Number one piece of advice is, wow, you didn't put that on the list, Roman.

Mark: Hey, I told you, I forewarned you I'm putting you on the spot.


Know What Your Problem Is, If There Even Is One

Benne: The number one piece of advice is, is to figure out what the problem is. Once you figure out the problem, you can figure out a solution. But I have seen way too many times and I was guilty of it much more in my younger days, that I was proposing solutions before I knew what the problem was. In fact, sometimes now I look at things, we don't even have a problem. 

But you have to figure out what your problem is if you're going to figure out how to resolve your problem. And that is the key. You know, and that would be on a compliance issue. You also have to figure out, and this is much more so in litigation probably then compliance issues is, what is your story going to be? And I use it in the litigation context because when I handle litigation with the team, I put together an outside counsel, What's the story? 

Because everything has to relate back to that story. And that means you're not going to be running down rabbit holes that not only are a waste of time, but may turn up something for the other side that they didn't know about and is to the benefit of their case. It manages costs better and it is consistent and people start hearing it. On our Navajo matters, which is a compliance matter, we have three basic principles. And it's funny now we go to meetings with the agencies and the agencies want to start out with, not through our pushing them. 

Alright, let's review, what are EnPro's three basic principles for handling these sites? And if you get that basis at the beginning, you'll get to an endpoint and you'll get to an endpoint much more efficiently than if you just say, Oh, God, I got contamination. Let's start throwing money at it to see how we clean it up. That's going to be frustrating. It's going to be, you're going to waste a lot of money and you're not going to get to the point you need to get to very quickly. 

Mark: Excellent advice. What do you see as the prominent environmental challenge facing us down the road, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic?

Benne: I'm going to talk about two issues. One is much more technical and more in the traditional line of what we think of emerging environmental problems and that's currently the PFOs and PFOAs. EnPro itself doesn't have that much of an issue but that is going to be the big regulatory issue over the next five years. I think there is a broader issue to deal with and this is really coming from the financial community, the investment community, which is this movement called ESG, Environmental Sustainability and Governance. 

Larry, I think is the person who's Larry Fink, who's the head of BlackRock and other big investment firms like Vanguard and the like are now saying when we look at investing in companies, we're not going to be solely looking at what's their return. We want to know what they're doing on issues with regard to climate change, diversity in their workforce, sustainability programs and the like, so that broader needs of the world are being addressed. Because I'll get with some of my friends that, they're friends but I don't agree with them on things. There's climate change. It's not a big issue and it's not going to be regulated. 

And I tell him, it's being regulated. It's being regulated by the private sector. And if you want access to capital markets in the future, you are going to have to show that you are a good steward of the environment, of your people. In other communities. And that is not something that has been traditionally taught in professional schools, and it is an outwork on how do you value a business that is entirely different from what we've ever seen before. And then I think is the biggest issue coming.

Mark: That's an interesting problem, to say the least. It's not good enough just to be a good employer anymore and it's not good enough to have a, just to have a good bottom line. It extends well beyond that now. And that's going to be interesting to see how that pans out.

Benne: You know, EnPro's unique because we are a dual bottom line company. We have a financial bottom line, but we also have a personal development bottom line. So every year when I do my business plan for the year, I have the traditional business goals, we're gonna work on this and going to try and get to this point. 

But I also have to have a personal development goals section. And that can range from, we have people in our plant saying I want to pursue a college degree or I want to get expertise in this area. Some people who been quite open and honest stay, I really need to deal with this aspect of my personality. I'm not a good listener, I'm too self-centered, those types of things, which, that's not the traditional approach with business. 

Mark: No, not at all. 

Benne: It's going to become, I think, much more of a traditional approach over the next 50 years.

Mark: And I'm sure because of, you know, EnPro's philosophy, you probably have some long-term employees, you know, in your organization.

Benne: Well, we've only been around for 18 years. So we do have some long-term employees. But we're also finding that this approach is very attractive to, and I'll probably get the classifications wrong, the millennial generation, the Generation X, Y, whatever that is, but it's that younger part of the workforce that is looking for something more out of their job than just a paycheck or moving up the promotional ranks. They're looking for meaning, and I don't mean that in a derogatory sense, but they're looking for their work to be meaningful. And I found it, that doesn't mean that they say, Well, I'm not going to do that because I find it boring. 

But if they have an understanding of how does this relate to a bigger mission that the company is doing, then you get the commitment to it. And we have, we were doing a review with one of our big outside legal providers and the chairman came down and we explained this dual bottom line and what we do to foster a community within the workforce and waiting over folks he says, I bet you're getting more millennials working for you than others are and that we sustain. And we went back and looked, and he was right. So

Mark: That's a great point because the, one of the biggest things I hear from plant managers, facility managers, facility engineers, you know, it's aww these young kids, they don't want to learn. They don't want to listen to me and they don't want to, you know, understand how to do things the right way and they jump ship right away. 

And, you know, and if you look out there, there is a dire, you know, a lot of facility managers are older generation, they're getting ready to retire and there's a void there, you know, to replace them. And it's always been, oh, they don't want to listen, that generation, but I think you have a great point there that, you know, what else is there? You know, and it's fascinating that you guys are successful with that.

Benne: When you say that that older manager doesn't, says they don't want to listen well guess what, he's proving the old adage that when you point the finger at somebody, three fingers are pointing back at you. What we have in part of our management approach in training, is that when a team leader comes into a meeting with his team to discuss a problem, the team leader does not put forward a potential solution to the problem until the rest of the team has had an opportunity to discuss and propose solutions. 

Because when that team leader comes in and said, here's the problem, I think we ought to do it this way, everybody else in the team shuts up because they don't want to disagree with the boss. And, quite frankly, it may be the case that on that team, the person with the best idea is the person who got out of college six months ago and just started with the company. But oftentimes, they're never given the opportunity to talk.

Mark: How many exposures and liability issues have we come across over the years together simply because we heard the old adage, well, that's the way we always did it, right? And to get that fresh input, you know, input from somebody is excellent. Just because you're doing it that way all this time, doesn't mean it's right.

Benne: Yeah. The question that we find that senior managers are most threatened by from a younger person, after they say, Well, this is how we do this. The question that threatens them the most is why? And the answer is, well, that's the way we've always done it. Why? It's not a threatening question. It's not, but it's like, Don't ask me to change. I've done it this way for 30 years. And when I took over the insurance program, I don't think our insurers or insurance companies we dealt with were expecting somebody to read the policies. 

And you got a lawyer here and I'm like, Okay, I get to share will read the policies, I got questions. And a lot of the insurance companies were very good and they negotiated changes. But there was one insurance company who was basically patting me on the head and saying, Oh, isn't that cute? He's got questions. Well, this is our policy for 35 years. And this is the way we interpret it. Oh, well, why? I interpret it this way. Oh, that's cute. Okay, move on. So, yeah, it's, asking why is a very threatening, it's perceived as a threatening question when it shouldn't be. 

Mark: Yeah. asking why and the other old adage don't assume anything, confirm it.

Benne: Yeah, we don't have to go beyond that mark. We know the rest of the assumed adage. 

Mark: Yes. Well, Benne, can you share with our audience an interest or hobby that you enjoy doing with your free time?

Benne: Yeah, I love to cook. I'm not a baker but I'm also not just limited to a griller. I am the weekend cook. I started doing it when I was in private practice. It was a great release point and everything, but I love to cook. That can range from doing a simple roast chicken on the weekend to one of my favorites is an apple cider marinated short ribs recipe. That's one of the things I like to do.

Mark: I don't know if you heard that but my stomach's starting to growl. Thanks, Benne.

Benne: And I got a little raised garden out there. I get some, I get enough cherry tomatoes to keep my wife happy in the summer and I finally successfully grew two stocks of broccoli this year. It only took me four years to figure it out. So I think those two stocks of broccoli cost me about $110 every four years, but boy, it was good broccoli. 

Mark: It better be. Well Benne, thanks very much for taking the time to join us today. If people want to get in touch with you, how would they do that?

Benne: Probably through email at Benne BENNE dot Hutson HUTSON at

Mark: Excellent. Thanks again, Benne for joining us. You provided a lot of valuable insight and information for our listeners and I truly appreciate that.

Benne: No problem. Wonderful, and thank you for being so nice to me Mark. It was a real change of pace.

Mark: Well, that'll change as soon as we finish with the podcast.

Benne: I'm sure it will. Thanks, Mark.

Mark: Thanks. And thank you everyone for listening to today's show. Until we share some time together again, stay safe and be well. 


Topics: Podcast