An Interview with James Morgan: The Environment, the Economy, and Asia

From technology and industry to philanthropy and environmentalism, James C. Morgan has been a leader in developing successful and sustainable practices. After heading Applied Materials, Inc. and serving in councils under several presidents, Morgan is now focused on philanthropic efforts with organizations such as the Northern Sierra Partnership and his ownMorgan Family Foundation. With significant ties to Asia throughout his career, Morgan recently joined the Asia Society Northern California as a President's Circle member. ASNC's Neha Sakhuja got the chance to talk with him on his thoughts on the environment, the economy, and future U.S.-Asia relations.

How has your philosophy on sustainability influenced running operations during your tenure at Applied Materials and how do you continue to do so as Chairman Emeritus?

As far as sustainability goes- we are fortunate that our core technologies at Applied are thin films, fabrication of semiconductor chips and flat panel displays, which means we use less material to supply things. Most of our product line is focused on less energy- more efficiency and our services are to help our customers to become more sustainable while reducing their impact on the environment. Today our expertise is also being used in photovoltaic (PV) panels that turn sunlight into electricity and also growth in Light Emitting Diodes (LED) lighting and energy storage. 

We see this as an advantage because it helps us to optimize the relationship with the environment and also pursue economic development. We have provided programs like these for a decade and it is part of the DNA and culture of the company. People see it as a good idea to save money, save energy, save resources and as the chairman the question for me has always been how to be sustainable in an intelligent way. 

Tell us about the James C. Morgan Global Humanitarian Award? How do you go about selecting the honorees? 

The James C. Global Humanitarian Award honors individuals whose have been engaged in solving some of the impending humanitarian challenges. This award is part of the Tech awards presented by Applied. These awards are geared towards recognizing innovators who apply technology in creative and practical ways to benefit society in the field of health, education, environment and economic development.

In the inaugural year I was presented with this award and this year’s recipient is Al Gore who was selected for his worldwide work on awareness about climate change; prior to Gore, Muhammad Yunus, for his work on micro finance in Bangladesh. Other recipients include Bill Gates and Kristine Pearson. We continue to look for people who think about technology that encourages society. For me these awards have always been an inspiration for how technology and corporations can play a vital role in helping identify and extend benefits to those who need it most. 

What can we do to teach the next generation about serving the community, environment sustainability and investing in the future?

I think the current generation I am exposed to is sensitive to their environment and sustainability issues. So I just think we must continue to emphasize on the importance of the idea of how you can make a difference. There are many stories to support this. My son has started a non-profit fund called the Global Heritage Fund- they preserve cultural and heritage sites in developing countries. Publicity of Tech Awards also gives people ideas about what they can do to make a difference. 

How do you see the role of non-profits in this environment? 

NGOs are making a big difference in today’s world. I am on the Board of Directors with Nature Conservancy, a global nonprofit organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. They are sort of collaborative, problem solving based organization focused on science and knowledge. They partner with indigenous communities, businesses, multilateral institutions and governments. That’s very admirable! Their challenge is how do you do knowledge based activism. All these things require collaborative solutions and less confrontation, which is one of the indicators that the government has been kind of dysfunctional in certain areas and you need this separate sector to fill in the gaps. 

My wife, Becky and I recently co-founded the Northern Sierra Partnership, focusing our efforts on conserving bio-diverse land in the California Sierra Nevada Mountains. So there is plenty of scope to do meaningful work and continue to make a difference. 

Tell us about the Northern Sierra Partnership you set up. 

The Northern Sierra partnership was founded in 2007 with the idea of protecting the wetland lakes and streams and forests that provide 60 percent of water resources for the people of California and Nevada. This is an important watershed to protect not only for California but for the future of our grandkids. The 100,000 acres between south of Lake Tahoe and Lassen Volcanic National Park is planned under this project. One of the challenges to this project has been the consolidation of land ownership in this region. The Government in the 1860s granted every other square mile to railroad companies creating a checkerboard pattern of alternating public and private land that remains today. While much of the public land is now managed as national forest, ownership of the private land has changed hands. The organization has decided to consolidate fragmented lands into larger, contiguous blocks, and to encourage sustainable management practices across the region.

We have committed $10 million from our family foundation and the idea is to work with willing land sellers and public funds and buy about half of the 100,000 acres and transfer to the US forest service and state parks. The rest would be kept in private ownership and preserved through lease and other agreements under which timber companies can continue some logging.

Why support Asia Society?

I have known work of Asia Society since 1970s. I think it’s important in the US to focus on our relations with Asia. Knowledge about Asia has been a recent trend as new emerging markets are there and of course the Bay Area has a sizeable Asian community. Earlier not many people knew much about Japan, China and Korea. Asia is the future- so if you don’t have the language skills or knowledge about some aspect of Asia, you probably are out of the loop. 

In this scenario of economic downturn, how difficult or easy is it to maintain CSR’s for companies? 

We found in Applied that when times are tough, people were more generous. As a company- we are committed to being a responsible corporation in communities where we do our business, as the community is the most important constituent for us. During early 1980s, we set up a foundation at the corporation level, so that we can give a steady amount during times of good years. Our business is very cyclical – so when we have good years we put money above the decided amount into the foundation which helps keep the level same during the bad years. So that really works out well in retrospect. 

During the Employee Giving Program for 2008, employee gifts, plus matching funds from the Applied Materials Foundation, resulted in almost $2.5 million for schools and charities – at a time when needs are great. All this has been instrumental in pushing us to maintain our responsibilities. 

What can we learn from Asia and vice versa in the areas of sustainability? 

80 percent of Applied’s business is in Asia. Asia is important to us! I think in the US in particular and in Europe there has been quite a bit of publicity and communication about conservation and more recently on sustainable business practices. However, the ball is rolling in the Asian court.

China as well as India are moving aggressively into alternative energies. In our solar business- the first factory was set up in Delhi, India and then in Europe, Taiwan and then China followed. We are yet to have a factory in the US. The governments in these countries have far better incentives for a growing renewable energy industry. They understand that the clean tech is going to be the next global industry and is creating a massive domestic market for alternative energies. 

In the US the story is otherwise. It takes time to make a good policy in the US, which encourages certainty of price, regulation and connectivity on a national basis for something like solar energy.