Author of “Kochland” Speaks to Core Pathways Students about Big Business and Climate Change
By Caroline Healey, Student at Georgetown University, Project Associate at the Designing the Future(s) Initiative
On Jan. 23, university students gathered for a dinner and discussion with Chris Leonard, author of bestselling Kochland, about one of America’s largest privately-held companies. Mr. Leonard came to share what he learned about Koch Industries and how the topic is relevant to climate change with Core Pathways students and others interested in learning more about the topic. He is a business reporter known for taking “boring” topics and making them interesting by analyzing them from many unexpected angles.
Mr. Leonard spent years investigating the secretive company that makes elastic, fertilizer, wall paneling, and just about everything else. The company is a sprawling empire with $110 billion in annual revenue and 120,000 employees, and Charles Koch sits at its center. Mr. Leonard’s reporting was the first to uncover the multi-faceted system Koch Industries uses to prevent the federal government from passing anti-carbon legislation. Through lobbying, campaign funding, research propagations and grass-roots organizing, Koch Industries pressures lawmakers to avoid limiting carbon emissions. As the company is a significant polluter, the Kochs are highly invested in limiting regulation.
While publicly-traded companies are required to regularly release financial information, privately-held companies are not. This makes them notoriously hard to research. Mr. Leonard explained that he navigates his reporting by moving between people he is able to connect with and the public documents they point him to. His first step was to fly to the company’s hometown of Wichita, Kansas. Without any leads, he began knocking on doors to see if any current or former employees would talk to him about their job. After many doors slammed in his face, a few productive interviews led him to government documents that then gave him names of additional insiders to contact. Using this method, he constructed previously unreported stories about Koch Industries and their political dealings.
Mr. Leonard also explained that Charles Koch operates according to both profit and ideology. He subscribes to a libertarian value system that believes the government should completely leave companies alone. He has been the Koch Industries CEO for over 50 years — a complete anomaly in corporate America. “The book can also be seen as a case study in long-term strategic thinking,” said Mr. Leonard. He has carefully plotted the evolution and trajectory of his company since he took over Koch Industries from his father, molding it to his ideology and profit-maximizing goals.
Altogether, Mr. Leonard’s book discusses how business structures and ulterior motives can challenge climate solutions, and the power small numbers of people wield to affect millions. This complex dynamic speaks to the issues that students are tackling in their interdisciplinary Core Pathways courses. Only by analyzing “boring” topics from many angles like Mr. Leonard does in his book will we be able to make progress on climate change.