‘A Personal Business’

FROM THE JUNE ISSUE: Two ethanol company executives discuss their career changes, lessons they’ve learned and their impressions of our industry.
By Matt Thompson | May 15, 2019

Greg Thompson started his career at BASF and is now president and CEO of White Energy. Jeanne McCaherty, CEO of Guardian Energy Management, came to the ethanol industry from ag-giant Cargill.

Both say the industry is a community, working together toward common goals without much competition with each other. “I don’t know of any industry quite like it,” McCaherty says.

Ethanol Producer Magazine talked to them both about their experiences, their transitions to the ethanol industry and what they learned along the way. Here’s what they had to say.

EPM: Tell us about your background.

Thompson: I was with BASF for the first part of my career. ... And then I worked at Nufarm and ran about a $4 million agricultural group for Nufarm in North America, so running all sales and marketing on their agricultural side for a number of years. … Then I left Nufarm to start Verdesian Life Sciences. … I was founder and president and chief operating officer. I was there for that period of time and then felt that it was time to do something different. I like agriculture and liked the people in agriculture and I think that’s what kind of drove me to this opportunity. I worked in privately backed companies for a number of years and White Energy had that private equity-backed play on it. They hadn’t had a CEO for about a year and they were really looking for a CEO and somebody to step in and had some really interesting projects and areas of improvement I thought that had value. So I decided to leave and started with White Energy 18 months ago.

McCaherty:  When I came to Guardian, I had been doing private equity work for about a year after I left Cargill. The bulk of my career was at Cargill, and the last role I had at Cargill was running a business called Cargill Texturizing Solutions. We provided ingredients to the food industry that provided texture: corn starch, xanthan gum, pectin, alginates and carrageenans. The business operated with global supply chains, global customers, and I was responsible for the North and South American regions of that business.

EPM: What was the transition like for you?

Thompson: I think in the beginning for me, there was a lot of listening, a lot of learning to start off. I have a highly experienced team that was very effective, so having that around, I think was very good. A lot of it had to do with listening and learning, and then the other part was also bringing a fresh perspective because I hadn’t been in the industry for a long period of time, and then bringing a bit of a different approach. And for us to work together with those who have a lot of experience, with those who didn’t, and then to bring that diversity to the table to be innovative and to think differently I think, was good.

McCaherty: There are things about a small business that are very, very different and things about it that are very much the same. One of the things that is very, very different in the two companies is the level of in-house expertise. In Cargill there was extensive capability inside the company—experts in insurance and lobbyists representing our interests in Washington.  I really appreciate and enjoy the size of Guardian because I have been able to come here and learn and become involved in the industry lobby personally, which is critical. The relationships in Guardian with our vendors and suppliers is much stronger because of our dependence on their expertise. They provided critical support during the build-out of the ethanol industry. One of the other things I really enjoy about a smaller company is the focus on value-added activities only. We do not spend one minute talking about reorganizations, have few corporate meetings, and limit our energy to items that make a difference to the business.

I would call the ethanol industry a very personal business.

The owners that I work for every day invested their own personal dollars in this business. They are very passionate about the industry. I really love that personal feel to it.

One of things that was so striking to me, and that I love so much in this business today is just the decision-making. I have a board of six people that I report to. They are a group of strategic owners who own and operate their own ethanol assets.They’re passionate about the industry and if we have good ideas or good suggestions, they act on it and it’s done. We don’t spend months and months trying to influence a lot of different decision-makers. We can act very, very quickly to make things happen, and that’s been really refreshing. There are reasons big companies have those layers of people, but for me personally, being able to make things happen quickly has been really, really refreshing.

EPM: How was your experience at a large company beneficial to you as you transitioned into ethanol?

Thompson: So it’s a very entrepreneurial environment. That was certainly one, and then also, you can see firsthand the commitment of the entire team. We have 210 employees. You can really tell the commitment of each and every individual team member, so it’s real transparent and obvious the hard work that everyone does.

McCaherty: There are a number of things that big companies do very well. One is management of risk. They’re very structured and very formal in the way they do that. The ethanol industry has been a little more informal and could benefit from some of the rigor of the larger corporations.

A global mindset was something I had to have in my operating business at Cargill. If you look at the ethanol industry and the way it’s evolving, … having that global mindset around what is going to be the future of our industry and how global trade is going to evolve is very relevant and important.

EPM: The ethanol industry is a tight-knit group. Everybody wants to help each other succeed. Has that been apparent in your transition?
Thompson: Take all the plants, whether you’ve got a 50 MMgy plant or a 400 MMgy plant like a Marquis, etc. We’re all working toward common goals, because that’s where you truly win. Whether that’s E15 year-round, whether that’s China and tariffs, our ability to export. All of those initiatives are something that we’re all working on together. I don’t get the feeling of a lot of competition because the big ways we win, we’re very aligned around.

McCaherty: Absolutely. The ethanol industry is such a unique industry. It evolved from grassroots. The farmers invested their own personal money and built these plants and you’re left with a very broad group of owners who are independent owner/operators of these assets and the way they’ve been successful is just what you say: by networking and collaborating and sharing their information. You go to the National Ethanol Conference and it is just full of very close vendor suppliers into this industry who are equally passionate about the industry and its success. I don’t know of any industry quite like it.

EPM: Do you have any advice for executives who might also make the transition into ethanol?

Thompson: I think my advice is, as you contemplate it and if you want more accountability, if you want more responsibility, if you want more of an entrepreneurial environment, that’s certainly something that I would say to anybody that they should certainly consider, whether that’s ethanol or somewhere else. Working for a small- to medium-sized company certainly provides those things for you. And also a way to impact business very quickly and effectively. So that’s more aligned to really what motivates folks. The more entrepreneurial spirit, I think the small- to medium-sized businesses provide that.

McCaherty: One of the things I’ve tried to do at Guardian is to avoid introducing too many processes. Some of the processes and procedures we used in a large corporation are just too much here. We don’t need it and it just overburdens people with process and paperwork that really doesn’t add value. I have worked very hard to understand the root of problems to be solved and the value that can be created by solving it. Make sure you fit the company you’re in today, and don’t try to impose the large company structure and processes on the current business.

Author: Matt Thompson
Associate Editor
Ethanol Producer Magazine