The Erb Institute at 25: Ready for the Transformation

The Erb Institute at 25: Ready for the Transformation

Pictured above from left to right: John Erb, chair of the Erb Family Foundation, Jonathan T. Overpeck, Ph.D., dean of the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability, and Thomas Gladwin, Professor Emeritus of Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business during a 25th-anniversary event for the Erb Institute.

By Neil Hawkins and John Erb

The Frederick A. and Barbara M. Erb Institute for Sustainable Global Enterprise at the University of Michigan is marking 25 years of impact this year! As stewards of Fred and Barbara’s legacy and philanthropy, the Erb Family Foundation is proud of this milestone and optimistic about the changes that Erb Institute graduates are bringing to our world and society.

Fred and Barbara were visionary, pioneering supporters of sustainable business. Their gift to establish the Erb Institute wasn’t motivated by a need for recognition, but by a sincere and enduring passion to drive significant changes that they believed would have benefits for the future of the planet and people.

Fred was the business mastermind who grew Erb Lumber from a single location into one of the state’s largest suppliers of lumber and building supplies for builders and homeowners. Long before Lowes and Home Depot descended on the scene, he recognized the untapped retail market. He made sure to invest in his employees and customer relationships too, and anyone who purchased materials for their home improvements and repairs left feeling great about the support of the Erb Lumber team and the company’s products.

In later years, Fred’s business interests expanded across the Midwest to include real estate development and many new ventures — all of which continued to respect people alongside profit.

Barbara focused her energy on the wellbeing of their home and community. Even in the 1950s, she was devoted to feeding their family healthy, organic foods and understood the impacts that people, agriculture, and corporations have on the environment. She held a place in her heart for young people and was especially committed to ensuring that future generations would inherit a clean environment and clean water in the Great Lakes.

As a graduate of the University of Michigan Business School, Fred was in regular communication with Dean Joe White. Over time, Joe grew to understand Fred and Barbara’s interests and values and in November of 1995 suggested a meeting with Garry Brewer, Dean of the School of Natural Resources and the Environment, and Stuart Hart, Faculty Director of the Corporate Environmental Management Program and Max McGraw Professor of Sustainable Business, to discuss the role the University could play in advancing Fred and Barbara’s vision.

Fred and Barbara developed a great admiration for the interdisciplinary program that Garry, the faculty, and the deans were building. Fred wanted to see some of the wealth that Erb Lumber had generated devoted to showing businesses how to lessen their negative impacts and do more good. For Barbara, it was inspiring to think about the idea of engaging young people in a novel and innovative dual degree program that blended the couple’s interests of business and environment.

Together, they made a series of endowment gifts, established three endowed chairs, and leveraged matching gifts for the Erb Institute that are today valued at more than $50 million. Fred and Barbara lived out their lives believing this was the most important investment they made in the future of the planet and people.

How would they view the Erb Institute’s achievements so far? They would be very proud, but also very vocal in reminding us of the need to pick up pace for the next 25 years if we are to bring about the changes that the Earth and its inhabitants need now.

52133969933 838feb98f7 c
John Erb and Leslie Erb Liedtke give remarks at the Erb Institute’s 25th anniversary event.

The Erb Institute has become a leader in publishing, scholarship, and thought leadership —producing professors of sustainable business for University of Michigan and beyond. Over the past 25 years, 23 post-doctoral and doctoral students have emerged from the program. No other organization can match the Erb Institute’s record of creating change agents for sustainable business. More than 500 dual-degree alumni have formed a tightly knit “Erb Community” which surrounds and supports them throughout their careers. They are world changers and business innovators, chief sustainability officers and start-up CEOs, directors, and vice presidents — working across companies and NGOs. These alumni have been joined recently by 57 undergraduate Erb Fellows. Their potential collective impact should not be underestimated.

Fred and Barbara believed that the optimistic power of young people like the Institute’s alumni can make great things happen, and that business has the power to effect significant societal and environmental change. They would be excited and humbled by the accomplishments of the Erb Institute — and astounded that climate change, the circular economy, and social sustainability are now daily topics in C-suites of major companies around the world.

But they would also see there is still so much to do — and that time is short.

We cannot continue to use and abuse the planet’s resources for the next 25 years at the same pace as the past 25 years. Like Fred and Barbara, we know that the concerns of sustainable business will never be truly solved. But outcomes for people and the planet can continue to be improved by further intensifying cross-sector and cross-discipline collaboration.

Now is the time for the Erb Institute at the University of Michigan to accelerate and provide the global business ecosystem with the trained talent to change from within — and inspire everyone to become agents for sustainability.