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Gillian Harrison: How do you Steer a Company through Tumultuous Times?
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Gillian Harrison: How do you Steer a Company through Tumultuous Times?

Charles Wookey speaks to Gillian Harrison, CEO of Whitefox Technologies. They discuss the reality of steering a company towards an embedded purpose.
15th May 2024

A Blueprint for Better Business are an independent charity whose purpose is to create a better society through better business. They help business to be inspired and guided by a purpose that benefits society and respects people and planet. Their podcast series, hosted by their former CEO Charles Wookey, explores the challenges and complexities of creating and running a purpose-led business.

In this episode, Charles Wookey speaks to Gillian Harrison, CEO of Whitefox Technologies, an engineering company that develops technologies to produce ethanol and other chemicals with less energy and water consumption. They explore her radical changes in career direction and the reality of steering a company through tumultuous times.

“Being able to communicate our purpose succinctly helped our employees to get behind it.”

This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.

What does Whitefox do? 

Chemical separation is something we never really talk about, but the process accounts for 15% of all energy consumption in the United States. We realised that if we could reduce how much energy is required to separate molecules, this would greatly reduce global emissions

That’s how we came to develop Whitefox’s purpose – to develop efficient industrial solutions which benefit owners, customers and the planet at large by producing more from less. It’s a very creative pursuit; we solve problems by trying things out when we don’t necessarily know where they will lead. I like the uncertainty involved; it’s never an obvious path.

What brought you to Whitefox? 

I started off my career in law, but speaking honestly, I don’t know how I ended up there. It was one of those things that I always thought I wanted. Even though I enjoyed my time as a lawyer – I spent ten years as one and even made partner in a big city law firm – it’s very difficult to leave that path. You’re earning good money and often too busy to have the headspace to consider any alternatives.

While on the top of a double-decker bus, it struck me: I wanted to be part of creating something in the world. The nature of being a lawyer is transactional – you present your advice to your clients and they’re the ones that make the decisions and commitments and generate impact. I was eager to be involved in something that would have a more tangible outcome and that I could take risks on. I soon resigned without having my next role lined up because I knew I needed time to think: ‘What do I want to do?’

As a lawyer, I spent a couple of years in Brazil working in ethanol. When I left the law firm, Whitefox was still in its early stages. The founders asked me to be an advisory board member to help open up the Brazilian ethanol market opportunity as a lawyer. I thought, “that sounds exciting, why not take a risk?”

Tell me about the journey that Whitefox has been on and what role purpose played in leading the business.

Initially, we were not thinking of our company in terms of being ‘purpose-led’ – we were much fluffier in how we described our work. Although I knew we cared about saving energy and reducing water in the chemical separation process, this purpose wasn’t clearly stated. 

Being able to communicate our purpose succinctly helped our employees to get behind it. The idea of having a mission and a vision – a very MBA way of thinking – never really resonated with me, but purpose felt much more considered, specific and genuine.

“We’re moving to a point where shareholders are proud to invest in us, proud to tell their children that they are investing in a business that is making a positive impact.”

How is Whitefox’s purpose brought to life day to day?

Purpose really helped to galvanise all of us. When we’re going through difficult times, it’s what brings the team together. Going back to 2009, one of the first decisions I had to take was to sue our biggest client. But that was a defining moment for our business. There were so many questions: “Would we survive a multimillion-dollar litigation?”, meanwhile we were having to restructure, refinance and refocus our business. But throughout all of that, what kept us going was a belief that we were doing the right thing.

Today we use purpose in all sorts of ways. For example, I often hear people challenging each other in meetings, responding to strategies with “that’s not very ‘Blueprint’, is it?” 

As the market grew and you got bigger, what are the challenges of maintaining that purpose?

Some of our conversations with shareholders centre around the notion that, while purpose is interesting, at the end of the day they still want positive financial returns. But when people say it’s all about making money, then there’s nothing special about your business. It tells you nothing about what the company is about. 

From my perspective, profit and purpose are completely compatible; the more we deliver our purpose, the more money we’ll make, and the more we help to save energy and water in industrial processes. We’re moving to a point where shareholders are proud to invest in us, proud to tell their children that they are investing in a business that is making a positive impact. They are also learning to be more patient for their returns; it takes time to introduce new technology and change an industrial process for the benefit of the planet.