Using finance to catalyze greater change

John MacAree pursued a career in sustainability, and attending UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School equipped him with a comprehensive understanding of the energy sector and the financial knowledge necessary to advance sustainability initiatives.

People standing for a group picture.

It wasn’t a sudden epiphany that drove John MacAree ’22 (MBA) to pursue a career in sustainability.

“There was no single moment where I saw a sad squirrel and thought, ‘Aha! I’m going to become a solar panel person,’” he says.

Instead, it was the culmination of many years watching climate change ravage the landscapes he loves.

Born in Milton Keynes, England, and raised, through high school and college, in the U.S., MacAree spent much of his adolescence exploring the outdoors through backpacking and hiking.

“Seeing the difference over time in these areas, even in the last 10 to 20 years, is shocking,” he says. “There didn’t used to be this frequency of community-destroying wildfires. There didn’t used to be this total collapse of the ecosystem in terms of salmon or butterflies.

“It drove me towards a philosophy where I wanted to focus on what’s important: preserving these places that I find beautiful.”

Today, MacAree works in corporate strategy, focused on sustainability at Honeywell, a Fortune 100 company, in Atlanta.

He believes that earning his MBA at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School was an important step in preparing him to advance sustainability within the energy industry.

MacAree started his career in sustainability in the Middle East, working as a sales manager in Dubai after graduating from Arizona State University. There he spent most of his time building solar power plants, dealing with microgrids, batteries and other forms of energy.

After Dubai, he headed back to the U.K., where he took a role as head of strategy for Antelope, a London-based company specializing in energy.

Through these experiences, MacAree had a critical realization: “I realized that understanding the technology and having a passion for energy and sustainability were not the primary drivers of sustainability adoption globally,” he says. “It’s a lot more to do with having an understanding of finance and capital flows.”

The problem was that, at that stage in his career, MacAree did not have that understanding.

“They don’t teach you what tax equity means when you’re selling microgrids,” he jokes.

He wanted to learn more about how funding worked in order to channel more funds towards sustainability initiatives, and he knew earning his MBA was the best place to do it.

A holistic view of energy

MacAree had heard of UNC Kenan-Flagler when he started his MBA research, but it was when he learned about the school’s dedicated energy concentration that he really became interested.

“As I dug deeper and talked to students and professors, I got the interesting sense that the UNC Kenan-Flagler energy program wasn’t just a layer of green paint that someone had applied to the school,” he says.

“It wasn’t a consulting or a venture capital school disguised as a sustainability program – there was a huge amount of depth to the teaching.”

This was evident when he talked to students. MacAree found an understanding of how environmental, social and governance practices affect capital deployment among students at many schools he looked at. However, UNC Kenan-Flagler students stood out due to their greater understanding of what energy actually is.

That’s because UNC Kenan-Flagler energy program doesn’t tackle either oil and gas or solar and wind. It looks at the energy chain holistically, bucking the trend of the U.S. energy programs MacAree had considered.

“The professors who run the program are oil and gas veterans, and they have a very comprehensive view of the space,” MacAree says. “This is incredibly helpful because it really demonstrates how important things like natural gas are to the U.S.”

Indeed, MacAree was surprised by how much he learned about the energy space once he joined UNC Kenan-Flagler.

“I didn’t expect to learn that much because I had worked in the energy space before, but then I learned a huge amount of very detailed information which is specifically important for my job now!” he says. “Although I’ve never worked for an American utility, I know all the terminology because UNC Kenan-Flagler was kind enough to teach it to me. I have a much broader view of the energy space specifically because of the energy concentration.”

Understanding finance from an investor’s perspective

As well as providing a more detailed understanding of the energy sector, the program also fulfilled the brief when it came to learning about finance.

When he enrolled in the Full-Time MBA Program at UNC Kenan-Flagler, MacAree knew the view from one side of the negotiation table: that of a sustainable organization seeking funding.

“I knew what I would care about from a startup’s perspective, for example, but I didn’t know what the other side of the table cared about,” he says. “That’s much more obvious now.”

Through his finance courses, MacAree gained an understanding of how private equity and investment works and, importantly, the priorities that investors have when walking into negotiations. This was one of the most valuable things he gained from his MBA experience.

Another valuable asset is his understanding of accounting.

“I am very bad at accounting,” MacAree says. “I am not an accounting person – I didn’t even know what a debit was before I joined the MBA program.”

And yet, he found himself enjoying his accounting classes, thanks in large part to the compassionate teaching style of his accounting professors.

“I wasn’t punished for asking dumb questions, which I have loads of, whereas in the rest of the business world you can’t make mistakes on the job like you can in accounting classes without being fired,” he says. “At UNC Kenan-Flagler, they teach you to an incredibly high level with remarkable patience.”

For MacAree, this approach worked.

By being given the freedom to make mistakes, he progressed quickly, gaining a stronger understanding of fundamental accounting concepts like tax equity. This has proven exceedingly useful in his post-graduate career, as wind farms in the U.S. are funded almost entirely through tax implications.

Connecting to a greater whole

MacAree threw himself into additional learning opportunities. He didn’t just study energy. He also earned concentrations in sustainable enterprise and consulting. He was a Vetter Dean’s Fellow and project leader for his STAR team project.

Case competitions were a new experience and one he embraced fully.

“I didn’t realize what case competitions were before I joined the business program, but basically if you win you’re getting paid to be a big nerd about specific questions you’re interested in,” he says.

Joining a team of his classmates to compete against other schools, MacAree sharpened his research and presentation abilities and learned more about the energy space, all while connecting with classmates and students from other schools. He was part of teams that won first-place in the 2021 UCLA Challenges in Energy Case Competition and third place in the Kellogg School of Management Energy and Sustainability Case Competition.

“It connects you to a greater whole,” he says. “I know people from other schools through these competitions who I would never have met otherwise, and I still talk to a couple of them on LinkedIn.”

Another extracurricular experience that made an impact on him was his time as vice president of the Energy Club. MacAree recommends all students, no matter their specializations, seize opportunities like this.

“You’re trying to build a network,” he says. “It makes no sense to go through a business program without joining a sector-specific extracurricular.”

Financial knowledge is a differentiator

When asked for his guidance when it comes to standing out to recruiters in the sustainability sector, MacAree’s advice is simple.

“No one accidentally falls into being an ESG manager – everyone who joins a sustainability program does so because they’re passionate,” he says.

“That doesn’t necessarily differentiate you, especially if you’re competing for high stakes. Having a passion for it is expected.”

So then, what can professionals in this area do?

“Knowing the ins and outs of finance is a differentiator in this field,” he says. “Sustainability doesn’t naturally attract people who know how to read a balance sheet or why that’s important.”

His advice is to take every sustainability course that Carolina has to offer, but also to take the finance courses, especially ones focusing on investment and mergers and acquisitions.

Beyond that, take advantage of the network and perspective that a school like UNC Kenan-Flagler can provide.

“The main thing that’s different about UNC Kenan-Flagler is that the school encourages collaboration for everyone,” MacAree says.

“You’re constantly given opportunities to join new teams and meet new people, to understand that you’re not the lone-wolf killer in your organization. You’re a member of a team – you can be a leader, you can be a follower, you can be the finance person, you can be the spokesperson, it does not matter. Use that. Be collaborative. Talk to everyone.”