Consensus builder

Treacy seeks common ground among many stakeholders

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Dennis Treacy is no stranger at the Virginia State Capitol. Photo by Mark Rhodes

Dennis Treacy, an executive at Smithfield Foods for 15 years, has a lot on his plate these days. His busy schedule, however, has nothing to do with making bacon and ham.

Treacy chairs the board of directors at the Virginia Chamber of Commerce and the water-quality advocacy group Virginiaforever.  He also is rector of the board of visitors at Virginia Tech, his alma mater. While he has retired from most of his duties at Smithfield Foods where he was executive vice president and chief sustainability officer, Treacy remains president of the company’s philanthropic arm, the Smithfield Foundation.

“I didn’t plan to have all of them hit on the same year, it just worked out like that,” Treacy says of his many leadership roles. “But I enjoy it, and if you enjoy something, it makes it easier.”

Treacy also is a member of the Virginia Business Higher Education Council and avid supporter of the Growth4VA campaign, which was launched in September to promote reform and reinvestment in Virginia’s higher education system.

The range of concerns represented by these organizations — the economy, education, the environment and philanthropy — say a lot about Treacy’s versatility and ability to build consensus.

“Dennis is well known among Virginia’s business leaders for his reputation for getting results by finding areas of common ground among many stakeholders,” says Barry DuVal, president and CEO of the Virginia Chamber. ”His personal integrity and leadership skills have been invaluable to the Virginia Chamber this year as we work toward our two top goals of assembling a bold plan for long-term economic growth with Blueprint Virginia 2025 and strengthening Virginia’s reputation as a top state for business.”

Treacy surprised many people when he joined Smithfield Foods in 2002 to lead its sustainability program. He had been an assistant attorney general in the natural resources section of the Virginia Attorney General’s office and director of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.

In 1997, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fined Smithfield $12.7 million for illegal discharges into the Pagan River, at the time the largest fine imposed under the federal Clean Water Act.  Treacy actually had sued the company — the case is titled Treacy v. Smithfield Foods — while heading the Virginia DEQ.

But when he joined Smithfield, “I didn’t see a company full of polluters,” Treacy says. “What I saw was a company full of top-flight executives and top-flight employees who just missed this environmental issue. They didn’t understand how important it was.

“They invited me to give my best advice over the years. I must say that they took that advice,” he adds. Smithfield allowed employees to develop “environmental solutions for things that they ran into in their everyday jobs. It saved the company millions of dollars.”

C. Larry Pope, Smithfield Foods’ CEO until the end of 2015, said Treacy’s efforts “enabled Smithfield to set the standard for sustainability in our industry.”

Treacy’s leadership also has contributed to the success of Virginiaforever, a nonpartisan group formed 10 years ago that advocates for increased funding for water quality improvements and land preservation in the commonwealth.  Half of the group’s members are large companies, and the other half are environmental organizations. 

“There is great power regardless of where you show up, whether that be the governor’s office or the General Assembly ... if a significant member of the business community is standing there with a significant member of the environmental community asking for the same thing,” Treacy says. “We have had a great reception from everybody in the General Assembly. We’ve never been turned away.”

Treacy and his wife, Donna, who have two grown children, live on a 17-acre farm in Hanover County where they have eight cows, 11 chickens and a dog.  “The cows aren’t ours, I must admit,” Treacy says. “They are owned by a farmer down the road. But as part of the deal, we get some meat at the end of the year and the enjoyment of tending to them.”

The Treacys like to fly fish in Virginia and Montana. “We get a lot of enjoyment out of that,” he says. “My wife is better than I am — way better.”
Virginia Business interviewed Treacy at the Virginia Chamber of Commerce’s offices in Richmond in late July. The following is an edited transcript.

Virginia Business: What are the main objectives for the Chamber this year?
Treacy: There are two big issues that we are working on. The first one is [Blueprint Virginia 2025]. Virginia is blessed to have a wonderful business climate. The fact that we have politicians from both parties who care about business is very important to us. It’s incumbent on the business community to make sure that we develop a plan that is not based on partisanship or favoritism.  It’s based on strategic thinking.  The first Blueprint … was presented [in 2013] to both [gubernatorial] candidates before the election as what the business community thought that Virginia should look like. It includes things like education, business climate, quality of life and workforce development. The 2025 effort is a remake of the first effort. … We are developing a blueprint that the business community leaders will agree upon and will present it to the candidates for governor. Our full hope and expectation is that the next governor will embrace it, because it is well thought out and has the blessing of the entire business community ….

[The second issue], my favorite, is the effort to restore Virginia to the top of the rankings for best states to do business … For several years we were number one, and we were so proud of that. In recent years, you have seen us decline to number 10, number 11, number 15. We’ve been going the wrong way … [The chamber] felt that the business community needed to step up and come up with a plan to make sure that Virginia is at the top of those rankings again ...

The good news is that we’ve got partners. The Virginia Economic Development Partnership has a new leader, Stephen Moret ... He agrees with us about the rankings and the importance of the aura that it created [in being a top state for business] … We also have GO Virginia [a new regional economic development program]. They have panels all over Virginia. We are in sync with VEDP, we are in sync with GO Virginia, and we are working with folks in the education world to make sure we understand what the most important issues are. They will find their way into the Blueprint, but they will also be translated into our answers for surveys from these organizations that rank states. We are very hopeful that we are going to advance once again to the top of those rankings.

VB: On the rankings study, when is that supposed to be completed?
Treacy: It is an ongoing thing. We have partnered with Virginia Tech’s Pamplin College of Business. They are doing part of it. They are looking at the ranking systems. They have already delivered a program to us that describes how these organizations rank states. But this is not a one-shot deal. We can’t snap our fingers and have this occur overnight. Instead, I think what you’re seeing is the business community developing a path for the future. That path is intended to be sustained so that we never lose ground again.

VB: Back to Blueprint Virginia, has McAuliffe followed [the first Blueprint] during his administration?
Treacy:  He has. He has been a good governor for business. If you look at the kind of decisions that have come out of the governor’s office, I would say, by-and-large, they are pretty pro-business. Now there are some folks who would disagree with that. But he took on the major planks of the Blueprint and tried to help implement them, as did members of the General Assembly. We had the entire legislative and executive branches pulling the oars in the same direction on business development in this state.

VB: What sort of goals do you see [as rector at Virginia Tech] that the board of visitors will be pursuing in the upcoming year?
Treacy: Virginia Tech is at an exciting time in its history. We have a president [Timothy D. Sands] who is working with the board, faculty, students and alumni to create a Virginia Tech of 2047, the Virginia Tech of the future. The program is called Beyond Boundaries. (See related story on Page 76.) This reinvents what education looks like. It is intended to tackle big problems with the entire student body and with the entire research team, focused on solving big world problems, whether that would be an agricultural challenge of feeding hungry people or whether that would be cybersecurity or some other IT effort …

Virginia Tech has always been a place of pride for its alums, and I think this will magnify that. We are looking for partnerships with business. We are deploying our research efforts on focused avenues that will keep us at the top of the list for research institutions. We have always been the top research institution in Virginia [in annual expenditures]. We want to advance on the world rankings. Tech is rethinking itself, but at the same time, it is mindful of the Virginia Tech we all know. It’s not as though something was wrong at Virginia Tech or something needed to be fixed at Virginia Tech. It’s just a new and exciting direction.

VB: Now, you’ve been chairman of the board’s finance audit committee. What shape is Virginia Tech in financially?
Treacy: It’s always tough. A friend of mine told me one time, “There’s never enough money for education.” I think there was some truth to that ... People always complain that education should be more efficient or it should cut costs. I don’t disagree with that. I will tell you that I think Virginia Tech is run very, very efficiently. We have had a big leap in students being admitted to Virginia Tech recently without any loss of quality. I think that will help the financial picture. As we are thinking about that future and our financial future, we are also looking at new places to have Virginia Tech’s identity associated with. One of them is the National Capital Region in Northern Virginia. The schools there are the top of the line as it relates to research efforts. Our business program has quite a presence there as well. You’ll see us becoming more and more and more a national player in Northern Virginia. I think you also will see us expand in the Roanoke area [where the university and Carilion Clinic are partners in the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and Research Institute.] I think you will see us embracing Roanoke Valley as well as Blacksburg.

VB: How did you become president of the Smithfield Foundation?
Treacy: I have been the full-time president of the Smithfield Foundation for about two years now. In my former job, I was executive vice president in charge of lots of different things. I was in charge of the legal department, government affairs, sustainability, environmental compliance, communications and the foundation …

The foundation has three primary pillars right now. One of them is educating the children and grandchildren of our employees. We have a relationship with more than 10 colleges around the country where our employees’ children and grandchildren get to go to school, many of them for free because it is a needs-based program. After students go through the financial aid [process], our foundation comes in behind it with funding, which usually makes up for the entire cost of an education.

The second pillar is feeding hungry people. We’re a food company. One of the things you see in any food bank in the nation is a real lack of protein. It is very difficult to handle and to get. Smithfield has given away pork products and protein [across the country].

The third pillar is relatively new for us, which is supporting veterans’ causes. Our CEO [Kenneth M. Sullivan] is passionate about supporting veterans and their families. About a month ago, we gave a donation to the [Virginia Veterans Services Foundation]. They are in the process of working with the governor to try to wipe out [homelessness among veterans]. It’s a moving target. It constantly needs support. We gave a fairly significant donation which was to give furniture and things like that to veterans who have found housing. Once you get in a room, you need a bed to sleep in, a couch to sit on, you need food to eat, you need lots of things. We’re working with the state of Virginia to make that happen. It is very, very satisfying to our team to be a part of that.

VB: Environmental issues have become a flashpoint in many recent elections. Virginiaforever has prided itself in being able to find a consensus. As we see, even in Virginia politics, more partisanship and a drift from the center, is that going to be harder to do?
Treacy: I don’t know. I will tell you that Virginiaforever is not a partisan group.  There is great power in what we do. We have only identified two things that we lobby for, and that is money for water quality improvements and land preservation. We have agreed on those two things for more than 10 years … Sometimes we don’t get all of the money we’re asking for. Last year was a tough year for us, but they know we’ll be back …

Is the environment a Democratic or Republican issue? I would say neither. I think most of our elected officials and politicians view it that way. Environmental protection is vital to Virginia as a whole. The Chamber of Commerce has endorsed environmental principles and the work of Virginiaforever along with the work of the Businesses for the Bay program run by the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay. The first [Blueprint Virginia] had a significant section on environmental improvement. This new one will as well. The chamber has met with members of the environmental community to get their input of what that blueprint should look like.  We are unique in that regard. As I look at other parts of the country, those kinds of interactions may not be possible. But here in Virginia, they are.

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