Ken Field’s first career, as a real estate developer, should have prepared him for the flak he’d take in his second one, as lead shareholder and chairman of Canada’s largest ethanol producer.
As president of Toronto-based Bramalea Inc., Mr. Field handled his share of outraged opposition as he overcame height-restrictions in cities like Dallas, and tore up neighbourhoods to build shopping malls in the Toronto area.
But after selling his stake in Bramalea, Mr. Field saw an opportunity in the industrial alcohol business and – armed with generous government subsidies – he built Greenfield Specialty Alcohols Inc. into a renewable-fuel powerhouse that is now moving aggressively into next-generation cellulosic ethanol.
The affable entrepreneur combines a missionary’s zeal with a businessman’s discipline to lead one of the Canada’s most successful private companies and largest renewable energy producers.
“My whole life I’ve picked up my armour and gone out and fought for what I think is right,” he said. “But what I do now is tougher than what I did as a developer. Because, wherever you go, the first question is: Are you starving people in Africa? Are you increasing the price of my food? Is there a greenhouse gas benefit?” (The Cole’s Notes version of his answers: No, no and yes.)
Expecting revenue of $800-million this year from Greenfield’s ethanol, animal feed and industrial alcohol businesses, the company he leads is now delving into new ventures, including next-generation biofuels made from agricultural wastes, and compressed natural gas, which is trucked to industries that currently rely on expensive diesel.
In the face of widespread criticism of the ethanol industry, Mr. Field argues passionately that Greenfield provides tremendous public benefit: creating a market for local farmers while producing a fuel that displaces imported oil, lowers the greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles and is cheaper than gasoline.
The company name – recommended by a public relations firm – is apt. He sees his second career as the greening of Mr. Field.
Over a lunch of shrimp cocktail and crab cakes in his 14th-floor boardroom just east of Toronto’s financial district, Mr. Field could barely find time to eat as he expounded on the virtues of ethanol; the wrongheadedness of its critics, and the insidiousness of the oil companies who, he said, are largely behind the opposition to it. (Although, he needs to be careful, he added sotto voce, because the oil companies are also his customers.)
And on this day at least, he was feeling some vindication. Greenfield Specialty Alcohols was nominated for a private business growth award in a competition run by the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and Grant Thornton LLP, and the awards dinner was to be held that evening. Mr. Field knew he was the winner – he was preparing his acceptance speech and testing out his themes on me.
He certainly makes no apologies for using corn for fuel. The corn Greenfield uses is not the table variety, but industrial grain used in food processing, in animal feed and in alcohol.
Ethanol producers use a small portion of the grain, removing only the carbohydrates to make the ethanol but preserving the proteins and fibre in distillers grain, which is then used in animal feed.
The North American animal feed market is now saturated with distillers grain, and Greenfield is now exporting it to Japan.
He argues the price of corn is a minuscule component of the average grocery bill, even of a box of Corn Flakes. While there was an outcry against ethanol when a U.S. drought drove corn prices to above $8 (U.S.) a bushel last year, there has been little apparent relief for consumers now that they sit at $4.15 a bushel.
Still, it is not just an oil company conspiracy that has raised concerns about ethanol and the touchy food-versus-fuel debate, as he suggests. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization regularly sounds the alarm that the growing demand for both corn and sugar for use as fuel has driven up the price of those commodities.
While he defends the use of corn, Mr. Field is most excited about the company’s ventures in cellulosic ethanol. The next-generation ethanol is the Holy Grail of the biofuels industry, allowing producers to product high-grade fuel from agricultural waste.
It is also a much-hyped technology: The joke in the industry is that a commercial breakthrough is always just around the corner. “The corner is now here,” Mr. Field proclaimed over lunch.
Greenfield has partnered with Montreal-based Enerkem Inc. to build a cellulosic ethanol plant in Varennes, Que., to produce biofuels from non-recyclable municipal solid waste. But it is the company’s own technological breakthrough at its Chatham, Ont., plant that has Mr. Field talking about transforming the energy world.
Backed by the federal government’s Sustainable Technology Development Corp., Greenfield has developed and construction a demonstration version of an extruding technology for preparing straw, corn stover and other material to be processed into ethanol.
“The way we invented this is ingenious, and it is going to change the world. That’s why I’m so thrilled and so passionate about this industry,” he said.
The company is now talking to major multinationals about licensing the technology, which he believes will make cellulosic ethanol competitive with gasoline. All that is needed now, he said, is for North American auto makers to market vehicles that run on either ethanol and gasoline, as they do in Brazil.
Mr. Field is at heart a builder, rather than a manager.
A graduate of the University of Toronto and York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School, he left real estate law as a young man to help build Bramalea into one of North America’s largest developers. When he left Bramalea in 1988, it had, over 20 years, been the best-performing stock on the Toronto Stock Exchange. A person who invested $1 in Bramalea in 1969 could have cashed out with $12,000 in 1989. (The company went bankrupt five years later after the 1990-91 recession sent real estate into a tailspin.)
He lets his managers run their various businesses, including an expanding industrial alcohol operation that has 70 per cent of the North American market and, among other products, supplies vodka to some very well known brands. (He can’t say who – they put a lot of money into their marketing.)
He and his four-person executive team based in Toronto are responsible for launching new ventures. That includes a compressed natural gas business that has a deal with TransCanada Corp. to take gas off its mainline in Nrthern Ontario, and then compress it and ship it by truck to industrial users. Now, Greenfield is using the gas to generate steam for Bruce Power nuclear station.
It’s no coincidence that he suggested we dine at Greenfield’s 14th-floor conference room, rather than a nearby restaurant. Before I arrived, he asked what type of food I preferred and promised a fine meal.
Greenfield employs its own chef at the Toronto Street headquarters, but Mr. Field insisted she is no luxury for overindulged corporate executives. The management team has lunch together in the same boardroom nearly every day. And at each meal, they generate ideas; test concepts with their incisive peers and ensure they are generally moving in sync.
“We don’t usually talk about the present; we talk about the future,” Mr. Field said. “To me, that interaction is critical team building.”
Age: 70. Born Nov. 17, 1943
Family: Three children, seven grandchildren
Education:Forest Hill Collegiate Institute, Toronto. University of Toronto, BA in economics; York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School.
After graduating from law school, he became the youngest director of United Trust.
At 27, became president and CEO of Bramalea Ltd., overseeing its dramatic growth in the 1970s and 1980s.
In 1989, led a group of investors to form what became Greenfield Specialty Alcohols Inc. and its Greenfield Energy, which became a driving force in the booming ethanol business. Mr. Field was a founding member of Canadian Renewable Fuels Association, which lobbied successfully for federal and provincial support for the biofuels sector.
In 2001, he was named “entrepreneur of the year” by Ernst & Young.
In 2013, his company won the private business growth award in a competition run by the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and Grant Thornton LLP.
IN HIS OWN WORDS
On ethanol as an answer to global warming:
“When you dig up coal or oil or natural gas that’s been buried underground for millions of years, and then you burn it, you’re adding new [carbon dioxide] to the atmosphere. When you take ethanol that’s made from a corn kernel, that corn kernel took the CO2 that was already in the atmosphere.… It’s not the new CO2 that you get when you dig below the crust and take that out and put it into the atmosphere. I think that’s important.”
On the future growth of biofuels and opposition from the oil industry:
“There is enough biomass in North America to replace all the gasoline that’s being used now [with next-generation ethanol]. So if you were the oil industry, and you knew this was coming, what would you do?” They want to protect their monopoly over your gas tank. And it’s so well-funded, and so well organized in the public relations and government relations that they have a tremendous ability to get a message out. I have to sit back and I have to admire them.”