Business drives positive change in society

In the wake of the current economic crisis, an impassioned debate emerged in the United States about the role that business schools played in creating, or at least not preventing, the debacle. At the Global Business Summit hosted by Harvard Business School last October, for example, a grim discussion of “what happened and why” overshadowed celebrations of the School’s 100th birthday. A flurry of media stories also covered the topic, including a special series in Forbes about the implications of the crisis for business education.

Some of the harshest criticism, however, originated with Columbia Business School’s Raymond Fisman and Harvard’s Rakesh Khurana. Pointing to the huge salaries and bonuses of some of the executives involved in the crisis, they lament the short-sighted, self-centered and imperious nature of corporate leadership in America. Calling for real change, they believe business educators will “need to instill in the next generation of business leaders a sense of social purpose and broader understanding of their role as custodians of society’s economic resources, rather than the very limited ‘Friedmanist’ view that the selfish pursuit of maximizing profits leads to the best of all possible worlds.”

I agree. This is precisely the philosophy that Ivey has traditionally embraced in its mission “to develop business leaders who think globally, act strategically and contribute to the societies within which they operate.” It is also at the foundation of our Cross-Enterprise Leadership approach, where our aim is to help future corporate leaders to do a better job of not only anticipating, but understanding and acting on social issues.

As researchers and educators, we know that the best corporate performers don’t operate in isolation, but are influenced by and have an influence on the environment, communities and society at large. These leaders see their companies as part of an “enterprise” – a rich, growing and continually evolving network of interdependent relationships. And they value the role that their organizations can and should play in enriching that enterprise.

Since launching this approach in 2005, Ivey has revamped the curricula of our programs, introduced new case studies, and re-organized our research to focus on cross-enterprise leadership. Through workshops, conferences and new networks, we are also reaching out to other stakeholders to open up new avenues for discussion and the exchange of ideas. As such, in a real and practical way, Ivey students come to appreciate, experience and value social responsibility – from analyzing a case study, to participating in community projects, to understanding a wider spectrum of perspectives. This learn-by-doing approach is at the core of the Ivey experience.

Do these experiences resonate with our students once they join the business world? I believe they do. I hear dozens of stories every year about how our graduates are “doing well by doing good”. One of most stunning examples of this success is the story of StormFisher Biogas.

Bas van Berkel, now the president and CEO of StormFisher, came to Ivey in 2004 to obtain his MBA. He had built up a successful civil engineering consultancy in the Netherlands, but felt he needed a better understanding of “business principles to take his company to the next level”. He intended to return to Europe once he had his degree, but during his time at Ivey, he became friends with fellow classmate, Ryan Little.

A consummate entrepreneur since he was just ten years old, Ryan Little launched one of the world’s first business-to-business e-commerce applications for the energy industry while he was still a teenager. Once the business was profitable, he decided to concentrate on school, enrolling at Queen’s University. At Queen’s, he co-founded “CanadaHelps” in 2000, an application which enables visitors to donate to any Canadian charity online, with no fees to the donor or the charity. Since its inception, donors have given more than $80 million to 83,000 charities through CanadaHelps.

Bas and Ryan share a deep interest in the protecting the environment and decided to actively explore starting up their own company. With an Ontario Centres of Excellence Interact Grant obtained through Ivey, they spent about four months evaluating solar, wind and other renewable energy technologies. At the 2006 workshop hosted by Ivey’s Lawrence National Centre for Policy and Management, they also presented a comprehensive research paper on the current state and future potential of Ontario’s renewable energy sector.

The workshop became a “pivotal moment” for Bas and Ryan in their business planning, enabling them, as Bas puts it, to “dive into the electricity environment”. They met people interested in helping them to develop their ideas further, including Dianne Cunningham, the Director of the Lawrence Centre, and others who continue to serve as advisors to StormFisher. In talking with some of the other experts at the workshop, they also became intrigued by the potential of biogas.

There are currently about 5,000 biogas plants in Europe, up from just 300 in 2000, and the number is projected to increase to 20,000 by 2015. Given this success and the growing demand for renewable energy sources here, North America will likely soon follow the same growth trajectory.

Since biogas is proven technology, StormFisher is more of a financial and marketing company as opposed to a “tech play”. Bas has large scale project management expertise and Ryan excels at business development. They joined forces with Christopher Guillon, another Ivey MBA graduate with a specialization in biotechnology, to found StormFisher.

As StormFisher’s vice president of finance, Chris brings extensive experience in the life science and agriculture sectors, as both a scientist and a business leader. He was the founding investor of a veterinary vaccine company and led the creation of a series of successful collaborative projects between Warnex Inc., a Canadian developer of diagnostic test kits, and government research agencies.

Like many start-ups, StormFisher had some difficulties in securing investment and the company was initially self-financed. They were seeking $2 million in seed capital, when an Ivey MBA classmate, Mike Clabby, suggested that they get in touch with a colleague at a major Canadian bank who understood the renewable energy sector. This colleague introduced them to Denham Capital Management, a Boston-based private equity firm. Last February, they sealed a strategic partnership deal with Denham, gaining $350 million in new capital investment – the largest infusion of capital into any start-up in Canada in 2008 and the biggest single pool of money available for biogas plant development in the world.

StormFisher has also formed a number of partnerships with agricultural, food and beverage companies in both Canada and the United States. Its plan is to develop 30 biogas projects across North America over the next five years. StormFisher’s first four facilities are already in development with the company’s flagship plant in London, Ontario and another plant in Wisconsin expected to become operational by the end of 2009.

StormFisher’s plants leverage a natural, low-impact process called anaerobic digestion to convert organic waste, such as the processing leftovers from food and drink producers or manure and other waste materials from farmers, to produce electricity and an organic, all-natural fertilizer. A typical StormFisher plant, which produces about 2.8 megawatts of continuous electricity, can meet the energy demands of 10,000 people while reducing the greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to taking 5,000 cars off the road.

StormFisher is a capital intensive business. But with multiple revenue streams – from the fees charged for waste collection to the sale of electricity, fertilizer and carbon credits – StormFisher’s founders, investors and partners undoubtedly expect that the company will be a profitable and growing concern for many years.

President Bas van Berkel believes that until now, biogas had been the “missing link in recycling waste material and reducing greenhouse gases”. He’s excited about the future. He knows his company has a solid business plan. And he also likes the idea that StormFisher’s plants will support local farming communities, by generating “green” energy, creating new jobs and helping to attract and keep more young people in the agricultural business.

To be sure, like most of Ivey’s graduates and students, Bas van Berkel, Ryan Little and Chris Guillon had dreams of building a successful company before they came to Ivey. Clearly, they also share a deep passion to give back to society. However, I like to think that Ivey attracts people with that calibre of drive, character and commitment. And I do know that their education at Ivey gave them the knowledge, skills and valuable business contacts necessary to fulfill their passion and to achieve their ambitions. As they have told me, they feel that they owe a great deal to Ivey.

This is the role that business schools can and should play in fostering positive change. And it’s a role that we are proud to play at Ivey.