Alcoa CEO sees power shift toward Asia in global business

Aluminum executive Klaus Kleinfeld spoke about trends in global business at a Morse Master’s Tea Wednesday.
Aluminum executive Klaus Kleinfeld spoke about trends in global business at a Morse Master’s Tea Wednesday. Photo by Henry Ehrenberg.

Klaus Kleinfeld, chairman and CEO of Pittsburgh, Pa.-based aluminum company Alcoa, spoke about global developments in business at a Wednesday master’s tea.

Kleinfeld spoke to roughly 50 people in the Morse College master’s house about the ways in which business has shifted in response to several global trends of recent decades, in addition to identifying areas where it has remained unchanged. He argued that there are “mega-trends” shaping the world today, such as technological development and environmental damage, and then analyzed how these trends are shaping today’s businesses.

A current board member of the Brookings Institution and the World Economic Forum USA, Kleinfeld said the massive population growth seen across the world in recent decades — combined with increasing urbanization — will present the next generation’s business leaders with challenges in transportation, infrastructure and security. He added that “environmental stress” is shaping the world’s social and economic climate, while technological progress has led to business developments such as high-frequency trading.

One of the most significant changes to global businesses today, Kleinfeld said, is that businesses have increased their focus on the company’s social mission. He encouraged students to push companies to articulate their social purposes further, which he said will have tangible, positive impacts on businesses and will force company leaders to consider such questions.

Beyond those global trends, Kleinfeld also identified a power shift toward Asia as a trend shaping today’s world — a development he said is not surprising based on historical tendencies.

“The truth of the matter is that this shift ends a very small period of this planet where Asia was not the center of gravity,” Kleinfeld said. “It was only because Asia missed this tiny blip called industrialization that they did not continuously dominate world events.”

While Kleinfeld explained several factors impacting global business that have changed in recent decades, he also spoke about ways in which the global business environment has remained the same. For example, he said factors of growth and cost that have historically driven companies will continue to do so.

The talk also wrestled with the benefits and drawbacks of working at established corporations versus new startups. Kleinfeld said positive work experiences can occur in both environments, noting that while large corporations offer name recognition, startups typically allow for more flexibility.

Morse College Master Frank Keil and three students interviewed said Kleinfeld gave a thought-provoking analysis of trends and changes in global business today.

Keil said Kleinfeld is “uniquely and ideally positioned” to discuss global businesses, and how they “must adapt to changing circumstances” while also preserving their core missions.

“Dr. Kleinfeld offered a very valuable discussion of the ways very large companies adapt to current economic and political climate,” Keil said. “I was surprised at the number of students interested in these large companies, as startups seem to be increasingly popular among undergraduates.”

Eleanor Michotte ’15 said she was impressed by Kleinfeld’s ability to draw on his vast knowledge of business and experience in multiple fields. She said his views on globalization were particularly interesting.

Kleinfeld worked at Siemens, an international company and leading supplier in the field of energy technology, for 20 years before joining Alcoa in 2007.

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