View From The Top: Q & A with Steve Oesterle, Chief Executive Officer, BioWALL

September 7, 2016 02:36 AM

What is your connection to farming?
I grew up on a farm in Mason, Mich., south of Lansing. We had cattle, corn, wheat and soybeans on 1,400 acres. Today, my nephews run the family farm, which is close to 5,000 acres with almost 1,000 head of cattle. After college, I worked for Ernst & Young in corporate finance and consulting for 25 years. I retired as vice chairman in 2003 and then helped manage safety and security issues for Giuliani Partners, the consulting business of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. One of the businesses I became exposed to was the business that evolved into BioWALL. I went on the board of the predecessor tech company in 2003 and came back as CEO in 2009 because I was inspired by the technology and its applications across a variety of market sectors, especially on the food and ag side. 

Company: Albany, N.Y.-based BioWALL (an acronym that refers to its mission of protecting water, air, land and life) is a business whose proprietary chlorine dioxide formula is the only EPA-registered sterilant for broad-spectrum decontamination of porous and non-porous surfaces. The company provided ultra-sterilization after the 2015 avian flu outbreak and works with producers and processors to prevent contamination from food-borne diseases.

Leadership philosophy: I had very strong mentors at important points in my career. Being able to be a mentor for others in the organization, and making sure that people have access to seasoned professionals they can learn from, is critical. 

Best business advice: Look at the path forward within the concept of optionality. Are you creating additional options for yourself going forward, or are you narrowing your options? As you gain knowledge, you can grow personally and professionally.

How do you view your business role as the leader of a biosecurity company?
There is a strong foundation of science. It is very easy to be passionate about the mission. 

The challenge as a leader in this sector is helping to focus on the opportunities and where we can provide the best value. Part of my job every day is to help us decide where we are using our talents and our efforts. In many ways, it is taking the best of consulting—where you have deep scientific knowledge and expertise, and you share that knowledge with people—and at the same time finding solutions that you can replicate across a market. We’re trying to consult with customers, understand their needs and see what their priorities are and how they’re experiencing risks. Then we are trying to develop a solution you can replicate across a specific sector or across the entire food chain.

What do you enjoy about high-risk ventures?
Some of that is genetic, to be honest with you. Some of that is upbringing. My father the farmer always said you control the thing that you can control, and you don’t worry about the things you can’t control, such as the weather. Did we get too much rain or not enough rain? Depending on the year, you got too much of one or the other. I can’t change that. What I’m going to do is focus on those things I can control. If you’re going to do that, then you take more intelligent risks along the way. Some of that comes down to intellectual curiosity. If you’re excited and want to learn and grow, you have to take risks along the way. 

How do you successfully manage risk? 
Ask a lot of questions and actually care about what people are telling you, whether customers or employees. Part of that is helping people to understand the real cost and the real value in something. Look at the cost of a potential risk such as avian influenza in 2015. Farmers lost 50 million or so animals that were euthanized or died from the disease. 

But if you look at the total cost, it wasn’t just the animal losses. It was billions of dollars of cost associated with not being up and running and producing. Then if you look at the overall cost to employees, employees’ families and communities, you get a better picture. 

Look at some of the restaurants that have had food safety issues—and the effect on their brand and their ability to grow going forward. Will their customers come back? These events reset people’s expectations. Suddenly, everybody can begin to quantify risk, and it becomes real to them again. 

How has your business model changed?
We need as a culture to move toward protection and prevention, and away from response. There is a cultural reaction to response. If there’s a problem, everybody marshals resources and we go fix it. Whether bioweapons or naturally occurring issues such as the weather are involved, we want to build a culture of protection. That philosophy is something General Charles Jacoby Jr., former commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), brings to our board of directors. These issues are very important.

How receptive are farmers and agribusinesses to your message of proactive biosecurity?
There is an increasing awareness and an increased willingness to value protection across the food chain. It is highlighted in certain areas where there have been major events. There is a tremendous focus on contamination at restaurants and contamination of foods such as avocados and peanut butter. The trendline on receptivity is increasing and, I would say, accelerating.

There was a lot of discussion about listeria this summer at a conference I attended in Chicago. What I think is different today is the recognition of how one event in the food chain affects stakeholders up and down the chain. You need to have barriers all along the way. It is the aggregation of those barriers that gives you the protection you ultimately need. 

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