College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

A Mile in His Shoes


For a guy who knows how things work, Mike McBreen had a less than promising start on the family farm outside of Spirit Lake, Iowa.

“I didn’t have the skills to go into farming,” McBreen admits. “I was the youngest of nine kids, and in reality, even if I’d had the desire, I lacked the mechanical aptitude.”

So McBreen’s parents breathed a sigh of relief when, in 1983, Mike left to study chemical engineering at Iowa State—and farming’s loss was engineering’s gain.

So how is it that, 26 years later, on a crisp fall morning, McBreen is visiting the Iowa State College of Business, counseling students on supply chain, sustainability, and corporate social responsibility?

An engineer hits his stride—in business

Actually, the president of global operations for Wolverine World Wide, a leading footwear manufacturer, was in town at the invitation of engineering associate dean Diane Rover to keynote the International Engineering Education Colloquium, where he discussed society’s need to cultivate entrepreneurs in educational programs.

Still, McBreen is a long-time champion and supporter of business education in general, and the MBA program at Iowa State in particular. If you read “Engineering to the Next Degree” in March’s INNOVATEonline, McBreen’s trajectory from lab to executive suite will sound familiar.

Identified early as leadership material at Exxon Chemical, McBreen assisted with plant start-ups and operations in Scotland, Japan, Thailand, and Saudi Arabia while working on his MBA. In 1992, he completed the first of several career transitions when he joined the management consulting services group at Price Waterhouse.

“There was something going on then,” McBreen recalls. “Business was becoming much more integrated from an information technology perspective. It was embracing re-engineering and driving efficiency and technology integration through enterprise resource planning.”

Excited by these developments, McBreen jumped at the opportunity, in his words, to “lead change as a profit center versus a cost center.” He was assigned to a series of consulting engagements at global firms, including Anheuser-BuschSouth African Breweries, and IBM, experiences that both called on his engineering education and exposed him to the management side of the enterprise.

More than an image makeover

McBreen’s second career transition followed a series of project assignments at Nike Inc. in Beaverton, Oregon. The athletic footwear and apparel giant had taken numerous hits over the years—everything from the canard that costly Air Jordans spurred poor kids to theft and violence to questions regarding working conditions at Nike suppliers overseas.

Undaunted, McBreen signed on and dove headfirst into the fray.

“The experience I gained at Nike was a unique combination of supply chain, apparel, footwear, and corporate social responsibility,” McBreen recalls. “One job I was tasked with was to integrate corporate social responsibility into a business strategy for growth.”

McBreen worked with contacts at Iowa State and other schools to tackle the challenge. With the support of Nike’s leadership, he expanded the company’s vision to develop new approaches, not only to supply chain challenges such as sourcing, transportation, and logistics, but also to what he calls “people development” and sustainability issues—in short, an unapologetic embrace of corporate social responsibility, or “CSR.”

CSR, in McBreen’s view, has too often been reduced to a public relations ploy by companies seeking to “greenwash” or otherwise gloss over questionable environmental and personnel practices. Only by implementing practices and principles that are sustainable over the long term, he feels, can corporations truly act in a socially responsible manner to both their shareholders and the larger society.

And he doesn’t ignore the bottom line: a company that doesn’t return profits to its shareholders, McBreen insists, is not a sustainable operation.

Collapse of the old way

Significantly, for McBreen, environmental and economic sustainability go hand in hand in the supply chain of a genuinely responsible corporation. However, he says, considered as a whole, the global economy currently enjoys neither.

McBreen points to two critical factors for this situation. “First,” he says, “we have a global economic recession. At the same time, we have both China and India growing anywhere from 8 to 10%. These are huge populations that are becoming consumer societies at an accelerating pace.

“So how long can you maintain an unsustainable supply chain in a global world?” he continues. “We’ve lived the last 20 years with North American and European consumers buying Asian factory goods and China funding the debt of the U.S. September 2008 taught us that model doesn’t work,” he adds, citing the onset of the current global economic crisis.

While enlightened government policies and international agreements might help to encourage socially responsible behavior, McBreen notes, businesses must operate within the inconsistent regulatory structures of international markets. Accordingly, he says, the education of business leaders in sustainable operations is what will ultimately determine if the global economy will meet the challenge of nine billion consumers by 2050—or instead collapse under the weight of its own economic and environmental excesses.

“We are reaching a point where we will not be able to sustain the level of consumption with that population,” McBreen states emphatically, “particularly as a large chunk of that population moves into an economic stratum where their consumption rates increase dramatically.”

Restructuring the economy

That, McBreen adds, means society must inevitably reconsider the sustainability of a global economy based on the assumption of an infinite supply of cheap energy to move consumer goods from areas of mass production in China and Southeast Asia to areas of mass consumption in North America and Europe—together with the unsustainable trade imbalances that model creates, which today threaten to topple the international economic order.

This approach, says McBreen, has led to what he calls the “de-manufacturing” of America, in which the nation’s industrial base has been gutted and outsourced to cheaper labor and materials. That model, he asserts, is not sustainable and in fact began its collapse with the financial implosion of 2008, which bids to restructure the American economy over the long term. As a result, responsible executives must now scramble to develop a new economic model—or even revive the old.

“I’ve talked with a lot of colleagues in the consumer and medical products industries, and they’re moving production back to the United States,” McBreen observes. “However, the biggest problem is that we don’t have the infrastructure to do it.”

Or the political will, one might argue. Still, in practice as well as precept, McBreen does his part to spread the CSR gospel to American industry. And he’ll concede it’s not an overnight project: an international corporation as large as Nike with its vast, global supply chain must continually monitor its policies, practices, and partnerships in order to be responsive to social and environmental concerns—and will never satisfy its harshest critics.

Leading into the future

McBreen would readily acknowledge that walking the CSR talk was a somewhat greater challenge wearing Nike’s shoes than in his current position as president of global operations for Wolverine World Wide—the third major transition in his career.

”The most efficient supply chain model is local manufacturing for local markets,” he says. “You take the transit out, you reduce the carbon footprint, and you achieve greater speed to market—indeed, you’re much more nimble.”

And, for all his emphasis on its global aspects, corporate social responsibility for Mike McBreen is, at the end of his career path, a preeminently local affair as well.

“I look at my job very simply,” McBreen says. “There are 2,951 people on my team, so every day I wake up with the responsibility for 2,951 families whose livelihoods depend on the work we do.”