Francisca Quinn

Founder and President at Quinn & Partners

With 25 years in corporate strategy and sustainability, Francisca has a track record of assisting large corporations to conceptualize and implement industry leadership initiatives and excel in ESG disclosure. Her work with global institutional investors focuses on embedding responsible investment principles in governance, due diligence, monitoring and reporting in alternative investment portfolios.

In 2013 and 2017, Francisca was named as a Clean50 honouree, joining a group of Canadian leaders who is recognized for outstanding contributors to sustainable development and clean capitalism in Canada. Francisca is a board director at Canada Nickel Company, a next generation metals company delivering zero-carbon nickel.

Work and impact

We are a management consultancy and everything we do is advising on sustainability. Sustainably is also how I like to operate our company, as well as creating a great place to work. Maybe I’ll start with the first one.

We advise clients on sustainability. Clients are typically large companies, but they can also be large investors, curious or concerned about how to embed environmental, social and governance factors into their overarching business strategy and execution systems. That typically takes the form of first working with the big picture to figure out what the overarching objective or vision is for the organization. We start by setting the ambition and then we break that down into business strategies. These can then show up as programs that we advise our clients to pursue and business metrics to adopt. Many times we stay on with our clients to help them implement the strategies and measure success. We also support reporting as disclosures and transparency are very important for leading organizations. Sustainability strategy and integration is the core thing we do and we are almost 30 people now. I would say we are the largest pure-play ESG strategy firm in Canada, which is super exciting.

As a company, we are also trying to do the things we advise our clients to do. For example, we are a B-Corp certified organization and we have been that from the get-go. The firm is almost 10 years old and we were B-Corp certified in 2014. From the start, we have been very conscious about our own environmental footprint. And this last year, we initiated our own EDI – equality, diversity and inclusion – initiative with a committee. We started with an employee survey that led to an action plan. We adopted an EDI policy and you can see both the policy and action plan on our website. We also want to push EDI with our suppliers and to influence them by asking them questions and getting them to report back to us on their practices. Hence, we are embedding Sustainability and EDI in procurement decisions. For example, we recently signed a contract with a brand agency to help us revitalize our look and our logo and part of the criteria we had in the RFP was to work with an organization that was aligned with us.

In the past, we’ve done a lot of things on ESG, but probably most on the E, I’d say. Right now, we are doing many projects relating to climate change. Currently, climate change is the biggest part of the E, as I’m sure you can appreciate. And on the social part, we are partnering with clients on measuring social impact. In our investor work, are being asked to help to think about impact investing frameworks. Human capital, health and safety and EDI are other focus areas that we have.

That was very random. I have a degree in economics and business administration from the Stockholm School of Economics, and I came to Canada as a fairly young woman, about 25 years old. I started working with a management consultancy called Oliver Wyman, where I did many projects relating to corporate strategy, as well as a lots of reorganization and process redesign, which I thought was interesting. I’m very interested in how businesses work – interested in business models – how people and companies make money and how it all works. At Oliver Wyman, I worked with many energy companies. So I got a bit of an insight into the fossil fuel part of the world, which came in handy later.

My family moved to London, England, around 2002 after the Kyoto Protocol had been signed. I was very interested in what climate change was, so I spent some time understanding the issue. I joined a UK-government sponsored organization called the Carbon Trust, which was one of the first consultancies that worked with businesses and investors on understanding the business opportunities and risks of climate change.

Basically, I’m self trained by being very interested in these topics and trying to understand how they apply to businesses and capital markets. I did an executive program on climate change science at Imperial College, which was something that Carbon Trust offered for all employees. And then, of course, there is a plethora of things to read on a daily basis, so I just read. I think opportunities presented themselves to me because I had this underlying interest in learning and trying different things.

When I started my career, this space wasn’t really a business issue. When I was in business school, it was all about efficiency, optimization, total quality management, globalization, supply chains, taking slack out of the system, just in time delivery, and all that stuff. Climate change and responsible business were so far from anything that anybody was worrying about in business. So, no, I didn’t think I would work in this space. 

I think what peaked my interest came from my Scandinavian mentality to be careful about the environment and with resources. In Sweden everything is expensive, so not wasting is imperative. There was the oil shock in the 70s that really impacted the economy. At home we were always told to turn off lights and lower the heat, because utilities cost money. I’m not surprised that Scandinavian countries are sustainability leaders today because they adopted a lot of these habits early on as a must and that drove innovation.

The world has woken up to realize that there’s just an enormous business imperative for sustainability. Businesses are realizing that sustainability is very strategic for an organization’s existence if they want to keep on having customers, having products and services that the market wants to buy, understanding what employees are looking for, and understanding the risks of not taking action. So I’m excited about that. This is now a boardroom issue, and that was not the reality 2 years ago. It has changed so fast.

Some people think that ESG or environmental consulting is all about the greater good, which is of course a valid reason. But, I think the misconception is that it’s not a business issue. It is just something that people do because it’s a responsibility. Another misconception is that sustainability or ESG is not profitable.

Life and aspirations

Ha ha. Everyday I’m juggling like 30 things to make sure that I move forward projects or the business for the following day, for the following week, for the following month. So I don’t really have an exact work day. I try to take care of myself first and foremost. I try to do some exercise and get fresh air every day. In the mornings. I connect with my children. I’ve got three kids between 16 and 22, so I try to make sure that I know what they are doing that day. And I like to work out or have a coffee with my husband. But when I’m at work, it’s typically meetings. Most of the time, I’m meeting with clients, meeting with individual team members, meeting with project teams… I’ll try to carve out a few hours everyday to review documents that are going to clients. We have a peer review process that is pretty rigorous. We also have a quality definition to make sure everything is tip top. Doing excellent work is the best marketing strategy.

Everything because there’s not enough time to do all that I would like to. I think that is a function of being in a market and a space that is just exploding. And also, there’s so much more to learn and think about everyday than ever before. It’s also very hard to find people that have any ESG consulting experience, so I spend a lot of time meeting with potential candidates.

My goals are to be more of a thought leader in this space. I’d like to become involved with and sit on boards. I’ve got one corporate director position right now and it’s something that I would like to do more of. I’d also like to continue to build the company, of course, and make sure that there is good succession in place to take it forward and continue to grow and do amazing things.

Advice for the next generations

First, I think you have to be a good communicator, verbally, as well as written. And you need to have an enormous interest in the world and in world issues, in trends, in particular topics. You need to be curious in envisioning where the future is going. We’re going to see a lot of change over the next 10 years in the world. Politically, socially, economically. We may have a new economic system potentially. So you need to be really interested in reading about what is causing change and then envision how the world and society are going to be changing. Finally, you need to have a can-do attitude. You need to be able to figure things out to solve problems.

Some type of academic background is sufficient. I don’t think you need to have a particular one. People are too focused on degrees. In general, I think you learn so much just by being out there and having any work experience and the ability to build networks. I think those are the most important parts. So I always push back when people ask me what program they should do. My philosophy is very pragmatic – just get out there, work and figure things out.

I like people to be interested in the sustainability topics and in business on a personal level. I like people to be direct, have good questions, and be engaging. I know as a consultant, as an advisor, and as a leader, those skills are very transferable.

I’ve been really lucky in having had opportunities to come into where I am right now. Maybe having had a little bit of exposure in a large multinational organization would have been good, because organizational systems and management systems are such beasts to crack and large, multinational companies do that really well. So having been more exposed to policies and procedures and leadership messaging from larger organizations would have been good. It’s all about assembling a global team for a big idea, and then marching people through different management techniques. I would have liked to have had more opportunities to experience that because it would have given me more reference points as the leader, but then also understand better how our clients can implement change.