Searching for Leaders

Could the quest for top executives reveal the growth path of the industry?
| July 25, 2011

If Steve Kyryk wants to get in touch, you’d better be ready to talk. As the vice president for Hobbs & Towne, a leading clean energy executive search firm based in Philadelphia, Kyryk’s list of clients sounds more like a directory of renewable energy companies than a Rolodex of past clients. The only letters missing in his list of energy and clean technology companies are J, X and Y. “We’ve been in the cleantech space as long as anybody,” he says. Those 14 years for Kyryk and his team have given them a “rather unique experience,” he says. A call from Kyryk could mean he’s looking for the next senior vice president of manufacturing and processing for a startup biobased chemical producer or an advanced biofuel firm. When he calls, Kyryk probably already knows all of your job history (including that lawn mowing gig) and probably, all of your future job aspirations. He’ll want to know everything from what time you set your alarm, to how well you mingle on the manufacturing or processing floor.

Biorefining Magazine spoke with Kyryk, and others in the field with similar experiences, not to find out what time senior executives at companies like Cobalt Technologies or Genomatica wake up in the morning but, instead, to find out how those senior executives earned their titles, where they came from before leading their respective cleantech ventures, and most importantly, what those “rather unique experiences” that Kyryk speaks about relating to the renewable energy industry mean for the growth of our own biorefining industry.

The Challenge

Kyryk’s company began recruiting and placing executive level employees soon after the corn ethanol boom ended, but, he says, the job wasn’t easy. It’s a lot harder to find someone to lead a team of researchers trying create a new approach to energy production than it is to, say, find a lawyer to represent you in a personal injury lawsuit. The pool for attorneys is nearly as big as two oceans, but for companies in need of that senior vice president of manufacturing and processing of, for instance, a biobased chemical never used before, the pool of experienced recruits might only be as big as a mud puddle. “We began doing a lot of recruiting into those early stage ventures,” he says, “and it was difficult…it is a challenge when there is a very small population that can even spell some of the science.”

The short list of talent available to fill a biorefining company’s executive team isn’t the only challenge facing Kyryk and other companies like his. Andrew Cartland, managing director for Acre Resources, an executive recruitment and search firm based in London whose clients include everyone from Shell to Nike, specializes in environmental and sustainability type recruits. Cartland agrees with Kyryk on the difficulty of finding talent for a relatively new industry, but for Cartland it’s also about competing with other existing and semiparallel industries (petrochemical). “These established firms offer generous salary and benefit packages, which can be hard to compete against,” he says. And, in addition to the difficulty of matching a salary, “depending on the exact technology,” Cartland adds, “there is likely to be some perceived risk around accepting a position with the organization,” especially “if the technology is unproven in a commercial sphere, and this is the case for many new technologies.”

On top of all those difficulties is another hurdle Kyryk has identified in the process, one that actually stems from a good thing. Kyryk worked with several companies at once, all of which received their first round of funding and were excited about expanding their ventures, and needed that hire which is “so critical to the future success of the company.” The only problem with multiple companies receiving their funding all in a relatively short period of time, he says, is that it only squeezes the talent pool tighter.

But that was a few years ago. “What is challenging now,” Kyryk says, “is that the ventures that have survived and are moving ahead, and they are entering the first commercial technology deployment phase of their operation,” are still in need of recruits—but the pool is still small. And with the big energy houses beginning to take a more active role in renewables (more than just writing checks, he says), the commercial facilities need people who know how to build first-of-their-kind production facilities, “which, aside from in China, not a whole lot has gone on in this country.”

Staffing Executives

For both Cartland and Kyryk, their jobs may be difficult, and they are not only managing, but they are doing well. Sentiments from Cartland show why. “In startup companies,” he explains, “excellence is required.” From Cartland’s perspective, it is very difficult to get a new business off the ground with mediocre staff as that business is likely to be competing with more established firms that he says will have an advantage: more cash, an existing profile, more reputation and more clients. “The best people are often being actively retained by their current employer,  and [they hold the] experience you may be looking for.” To find that experience, mainstream sources most likely won’t suffice.

The process of finding the right person for a job, as many would assume, starts with the petrochemical industry. But there are other places to start, like the major chemical companies. Mark Niedershulte, chief operating officer of Ineos Bio, says that in addition to the petrochemical world (nearly the entire Ineos Bio team worked for BP at one time), his team has also looked to source new hires from the ethanol sector as well as the steel industry because of a frontend process Ineos Bio employs at its Florida facility that utilizes a high-temperature gasifying unit.

At Ineos Bio, there is a three-step approach to finding new hires. First, Niedershulte says, “We always look internal; sometimes we are surprised of the background of the people within Ineos. Some people,” he says, “have some very unique backgrounds and experiences that are relevant to what we are trying to do.”

Next, the company will try the public forums like, and if neither of those work, he will bring in people like Kyryk, people who he says have sourced roughly 80 to 90 percent of their new hires.

For Kyryk and his team, the challenge of assessing a possible executive who can operate in a small, early stage environment is “a little science and a little art,” most of which comes down to personality, given that most applicants don’t have an overwhelmingly large advantage of experience. He looks for the “intrepreneurs” (entrepreneurs already employed in a company), the recruits that have already worked on new projects in their current role, or volunteered for the “wacky” projects that no one else wants to do in those big companies. “They understand how to bootstrap, they understand how to fight for resources,” he says. “That stuff translates really well to fighting for resources at an early-stage venture and fundraising and managing revenue.” These things, he adds, “are things you can talk about and evaluate.”

To find the potential boot-strappers, Kyryk and his team perform a detailed review and series of discussions with a company’s search committee and stakeholders. The team goes onsite to get a sense of the company they will be hiring for, all to understand the culture. “Do they like to work hard and play hard, or, is it more like a big company environment where it is expected to be 9 to 5,” he says. After that, they set out on their search.
Search Results

There is a lot to glean from the work that executive search firms like Hobbs & Towne or Acre Resources have done in the past few years. For starters, as Kyryk says, “everything is manageable.” From the sticky situation of a founder unwilling to relinquish control of a company to the business building experts ready to move past startup stage into the commercial realm, to what at first glance appears to be a small pool of talent to run a biorefining based company. In fact, some companies are well past that point; already forming a board of directors with some exceptionally big names (Condoleezza Rice at Kior, former U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan at Codexis or former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson at Abengoa).

But although some companies have found their CEOs and other executives and have moved on to building the board of directors, there is still something to consider. From Kyryk’s perspective, the industry is in an in-between stage. “We aren’t looking for this professional corporate board member because these companies aren’t established enough yet,” but, he says, “we are looking for active board members from the commercial sector,” a move he says will help to transition a startup’s board away from all investors.

Even with a handful of companies already reaping the benefits of big name board members and the network of outside resources those big names bring, that situation isn’t the current norm in the industry, but it will grow, says Kyryk, and there’s more. For all of the intricacies and details that executive search firms deal with everyday, there is a larger, more positive theme to their work that bears attention. The talent pool may be competitive now, but listen to Niedershulte. “What we have found [in the hiring practice] is that there is a lot of interest in the biospace. There are people when we post these jobs,” he says, “that have contacted us and said they have been following us.” Those people have been waiting for the opportunity to work with a company like Ineos Bio, he says.

Cartland shares the same sentiment regarding the renewable energy space. Although not in the same volume of the oil and gas industries, he says “the jobs definitely exist,” adding that “we believe that there is an increase in the number of jobs within the renewable energy sector,” that although has happened slower than expected, will still happen.

But Kyryk might have the best perspective on the growth of the industry and the need for executive-level positions. “We see it as an opportunity as the sector matures,” he says—a sector he believes is clearly doing so. “I think it will go mainstream and it will be kind of like the tide, there is a big sandy beach and then you turn back and look back and then the water is up to your knees.” Someday, he says, “You won’t remember how the water got there.”

Author: Luke Geiver
Associate Editor, Biorefining Magazine
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