Jonathan Wilkinson has an unusual résumé for a business executive. A Rhodes scholar, former constitutional negotiator, and a former youth leader of the New Democratic Party, he now runs Vancouver-based water treatment company BioteQ Environmental Technologies Inc.
Mr. Wilkinson took over the top job at BioteQ from its retiring founder in October. His task is to expand the company, which offers technologies that efficiently remove metals and other contaminants from waste water, beyond its current 14 projects in Canada, the United States, Mexico, Australia and China.
How did you start your career?
I am probably a bit of an oddity in the business community. I grew up in Saskatchewan as a Prairie social democrat. I got to know Roy Romanow, who eventually became the premier, because I ran the youth wing of the NDP in Saskatchewan for a while.
[After]I won the Rhodes scholarship and went to Oxford, I came back and did some additional graduate work. I was finishing my master’s thesis when the election was going to take place in Saskatchewan. He asked me to work for him during the campaign, and after the election we went into the Charlottetown accord process. I took a role as a negotiator, which was a wonderful way to start in the working world. I was initially on the political side and then I moved into the civil service.
How did you segue from that into business?
I was interested in doing something else; in particular, learning about how the business community worked. I went to [consulting firm]Bain and Co. in Toronto. I worked mainly in telecom, but I did a fair bit in forest products and transportation and in financial services as well.
Did your government work help you do your corporate jobs?
What I brought with me from the government side was an understanding of how to work with diverse constituencies [and]bring people to a common outcome. That is something people in the civil service are better at than business people. You often find a lot of successful people [have]very strong type-A [personalities] and type As are not always the easiest to try to build consensus with.
How did you end up in the environmental technology business?
My wife is from Vancouver, and I’m from Saskatchewan, so we made a decision that we were going to move back West. I was offered a job with a company that was involved in the fuel-cell space, at a time when fuel cells were very hot in Vancouver.
Why did you take the CEO job at BioteQ?
What I saw was a company that had good [water treatment]technology and systems operating in the field, which is not all that common in the clean-tech space. But it never seemed to be able to get to the next stage where it was selling five, then 10 and 15 and 25 [systems] It really needed somebody to think about commercialization.
How hard is it to take over the reins from a former CEO who was the company’s founder?
The key challenge for a new CEO is to look at the business through a fresh set of eyes and try to determine how it might be taken to new heights by thinking about it differently. We have an opportunity to create significant value by going in different directions with the same technology. It is a challenge in that people are used to doing things in a particular way, but … there is an openness to change. You need to take advantage of [that]in the first six to 12 months that you are in the job.
What do you like about the clean-technology business?
It is important to get up in the morning and make a buck for the shareholders, but it is also important for me to make a contribution in some way that is beyond simply financial results.
How is water technology different from other clean-tech plays?
Much of the clean-tech space is focused on carbon-dioxide mitigation technologies, [but]water is more tangible for the average person. You can’t feel CO2, you can’t touch it, you can’t really tell what its impact is going to be. But people understand dirty water. The whole issue is increasingly discussed in the context of population growth and urbanization and the scarcity of water. Also, regulatory change is going to drive the need for industry to clean their discharge, or to find ways to better utilize water within their existing processes.
Will the oil sands be a key market for BioteQ in the future?
It may be, [but]our focus primarily is mining at this stage, [although]we are doing more work recently in power generation. Oil and gas is something we are exploring.
Where are the big international markets for industrial-scale water purification?
The big markets for metal recovery and metal-removing technologies are in North America, South America and Australia. We have an operating facility at the largest copper mine in China, but there aren’t many large mines in China.
Why have stock prices for many clean-tech companies, including BioteQ, been so depressed lately?
There has been a general flight to large-cap stocks, particularly dividend-paying companies, and the clean-tech sector is largely small and medium-sized companies. With the collapse of natural gas prices over the last few years, and the failure of the global process to put an effective price on carbon emissions, a lot of investors have become concerned about the prospects for many clean-tech companies. Also, a lot of the firms had a tendency to overpromise [on]the speed and the size of their growth.
At BioteQ, we have to create a better understanding with investors as to why water-technology stocks aren’t driven by the things like a price on carbon. And we have to show progress that is financially based – revenue and cash flow growth, not simply technical achievements.
How did studying at Oxford make you a better manager?
At Oxford I learned how to think analytically. Oxford’s system … [involves] tutorials where you are one-on-one with a professor. It forces you to work and to really think and understand what you are doing. The way that I am able to think through problems in a critical and analytic way is a product of the two years I spent at Oxford.
Does your background in the NDP raise eyebrows among your executive peers?
There are times when I have to explain my roots. [But]the NDP in Saskatchewan was the party of power. It was a mix of farmers, small business people, teachers … a much broader tent than what existed in other provinces, with much less of a strong union bent. It was the party of balanced budgets, as well as social progress.
Chief executive officer, BioteQ Environmental Technologies Inc., Vancouver
Born in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.; grew up in Saskatoon; 46 years old
BA from the University of Saskatchewan
MA from Oxford University
MA from McGill University
Executive Development Program, Ivey School of Business, University of Western Ontario
* Worked as an adviser to Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow and in the provincial civil service from 1991 to 1995
* Joined Toronto strategic consulting firm Bain & Co. in 1995
* Moved to Vancouver to work for gas purification firm QuestAir Technologies Inc. in 1999, becoming CEO in 2002
* Moved to biomass firm Nexterra Systems Corp. in 2009 as senior vice-president of business development.
* Named CEO of BioteQ in October, 2011