25 Years in the Bioeconomy: A Journey Still Exciting, An Adventure Still Rewarding

October 5, 2020 |

by Wayne Lee, CEO, Lee Enterprises Consulting

Editor’s note to readers: Lee Enterprises Consulting celebrates its 25th anniversary on October 4th — having grown from a boutique biodiesel consulting firm to the world’s largest bioeconomy consulting collective.  Today, the bioeconomy is a worldwide business encompassing fuels, advanced agriculture, renewable chemicals, vegan foods, nutraceuticals, cannabis, and lots more. The projects are bigger, and the stakes are higher. Accordingly, the Lee cavalcade encompasses some 150 experts around the world.  But it wasn’t always so.  Here, company founder and current CEO, Wayne Lee, looks back on the roads travelled and the road ahead.

Picture a man approaching middle age with two boys, aged 16 and 2, and little girl of 4, looking to make a difference in the world.  That was me in 1995.  Autumn was approaching in Arkansas and the leaves were all changing, but something was not quite right.  For a few years, it had seemed that the seasons seemed to arrive a bit later and there seemed to be more tornados, hurricanes, and other turbulent weather than I remembered.

I wondered about this thing they called “climate change” and speculated on what even a small yearly temperature change might look like by the time my children were adults.  I wondered if they would they know the simple pleasures that I grew up with, and whether my grandchildren would ever know the joy of walking in a forest or swimming in lakes and streams.

It seemed rather incredible to me that anyone would deny the reality of climate change, or the fact that we were to blame.  I felt a need to do something but was not certain what one person could really do.  Yet as I envisioned a future world, darker and more dangerous world than the one my generation had inherited, I wondered what I would tell my children.  Would I tell them that my generation was the cause of the problems and offered no solutions?  I asked myself why we couldn’t at least try to make things better.  After all, if not me, then who?

At that time, not many folks seemed too concerned about climate change.  The world seemed to revolve around this “black gold” called oil.  There seemed to be a relentless succession of wars over this stuff, and I remember being fearful that we could literally all wipe each other out fighting over it.   I remember thinking that this was a bit crazy as it was certainly going to either run out or at least get much harder to get out of the ground – and thus more expensive.  Since we had wind, sunlight, and yearly crops, why we were not making use of them?  One thing was certain to me.  Working at a regular “job” was not going to satisfy my passion about this, nor give me the fulfillment and meaning to get out of bed every morning.

In 1995, my exposure to this world of renewable energy was limited to a scant knowledge of a single product – biodiesel – a diesel replacement made from soybean oil in a relatively simple process.  I read that Rudolph Diesel envisioned his engine running on vegetable oils, but petroleum fuels had won out because their feedstock – crude oil – was cheap and plentiful.  But I knew it would not always be that way.  I knew that during my lifetime, there might be lots of available crude oil, the cost would have to get continually higher as it became harder to find –  not to mention the real costs in polluting and lives lost in fighting oil wars.

With those thoughts in mind,  I had a vision of doing my small part in making the world a better place.  Thus, I set forth on my journey to learn all I could about biodiesel from friends and relatives. My goal was to become the best “biodiesel consultant” I could become, as at the beginning, it was all about biodiesel and its big brother “ethanol”.   Back then, I knew nothing of things like gasification, pyrolysis, or thermochemical conversion.

In the beginning, business was scant, and it was only with the help of a supportive spouse who encouraged me to “follow my dream”, that I was able to survive.  But after the first few years, it became crystal clear that I needed to either be fully committed or get out.  I chose the former.  By this time, my vision of a sustainable world had started to grow beyond renewable fuels.  I embraced the belief that the Earth had plenty of natural resources, and a “circular economy” with abundance for everyone was not just possible, but a global imperative.  I began studying how the plastics in the oceans were killing marine life, and how we were paying vast sums to pile up our garbage outside of towns.  Having spent my late teenage years in Alaska, I seemed to feel the tug of the Native American, emphasizing taking only what we need and always being respectful of the land and animals.

By 2005, I was getting contacted about many projects that went well beyond my capabilities, so I developed a goal and a path to reach it.  To reach my vision, I knew that Lee Enterprises Consulting needed to become a “one stop shop” where investors, developers, and others, could find the expertise for all types of bioeconomy projects.  My path was clear.  I would seek out the top experts on any requested bioeconomy subjects and engage them.  If we got a second and third request on the subject, this would be a sign that it was an important area, and I would formally add this expertise to our team.

We now have many experts worldwide, all of whom were screened and chosen by me personally.  These men and women represent the top talent worldwide, including a former Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Energy, and a former Special Assistant for Energy to the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture at that time.  Our team is a great mixture of former C-level employees at large companies, professors, economists, market study experts, engineers, and a wide variety of experts on nearly every topic within the bioeconomy.  These are the folks that have “been in the trenches” in the bioeconomy many years.  My role has transformed into being the “general practitioner in this house of specialists.”  I am blessed to have access to an unmatched knowledge base as well as the daily assistance of the eleven professionals who serve on our executive team and lead projects.

In the beginning, all our business literally came from personal contacts and repeat customers.  Over the past 25 years, technology, the internet, and things like teleconferencing has changed the way we conduct business.  Many of our clients are still “repeat customers”, but our new client inquiries now come from a variety of sources including referrals and internet search engines. We are published often these experts speak all over the world regularly.  Even with this phenomenal growth, I passionately remain firm that our business will be built on trust and simple human interactions.  This is the reason I speak directly with every new client and demand that our group always provide ‘personalized service’.  I know that are clients are best served when we ca put together multi-disciplinary teams to provide them with expertise in many different areas, but they still like to have a single point of contact at our group.

As I look back over the last 25 years, I note that despite the difficulties associated with COVID-19, last month was the best month in the history of Lee Enterprises Consulting.  Yet, while revenue and profit are certainly important, these are not my motivating factors.  My real fulfillment comes from the compliments I receive nearly every day about our experts, the quality of their work, and how we have helped the client reach his or her goal or decision.  The reason I stay engaged in all facets of the business and have no plans to retire is that I still find this adventure both exciting and rewarding.

By the way, those three children I mentioned earlier – the two boys and a girl?  Well, they are all grown up now, with families of their own.  I am a grandfather of five (with another due in a few months), and if they ask questions about pollution, climate change and the things that seem to matter much more to young people now, one thing is certain.  I have an answer.  I can tell them that the work of one will never be enough, but with the passion of one will come the work of many. I can tell them that they are not alone in this journey for a cleaner world.  I never was alone, as you were always out there.  Now, with so many of us are working together, there is nothing that will stop us.   I can honestly tell them that I did what I could, and it is theirs to carry forward.  I will remind them, “if not me, then who?”

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Category: Thought Leadership

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