As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need to Be a Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Chad Wasilenkoff.
As Founder, CEO & Chairman of Helicoid Industries, Inc., Chadwick Wasilenkoff, a Canadian who now calls Southern California home, oversees the commercialization of the company’s core Helicoid technology. Mr. Wasilenkoff is an established entrepreneur and proven leader with extensive capital markets experience specializing in multiple sectors including manufacturing, technology, forestry, mining and oil & gas. He has held numerous officer and director positions with various publicly listed companies.
Prior to founding Helicoid Industries, Mr. Wasilenkoff served as Chairman, CEO and Director of Fortress Paper. Wasilenkoff oversaw the mill’s transformation to focus operations on the high-margin banknote industry.
An established media presence, Mr. Wasilenkoff has been a guest on national and international broadcasts including Bloomberg TV, CNBC, CNN, BNN Bloomberg, Fox Business News and the BBC as well as radio, print and online media. Mr. Wasilenkoff has been recognized as a winner of the Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year, RISI’s list of 50 Most Influential People in the Global Forest Industry, and Business in Vancouver’s Top 40 under 40.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I have always had a passion for buying and selling. As a young kid, it started with golf balls, bikes, skateboards, and by the time I was 13, I was buying and selling gold, diamonds, artwork and cars. After university, that passion continued and I started buying companies. At first, I only bought shares and a minority position. Within a few years, and with some success, I moved on to buying the whole company. Since then, I have bought, built, and grown over 30 companies. Of those I have taken more than a dozen companies public and raised over $1 billion for these various opportunities. I’ve created numerous exits over $100 million and built one company to over $1 billion. I had a banknote mill in Switzerland making the Swiss francs and Euros, a global leading wallpaper company, 2 pulp mills, gold mines, tequila, software, and dozens of others. I am now launching two new companies that both have incredibly disruptive technologies. One company is in composites and the other is a medical device.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Right after university my first job was at a brokerage firm. I quickly achieved some success and was invited on a rewards trip to Las Vegas. I found myself at a craps table in the wee hours of the morning betting $25 a roll. Suddenly my CEO and Chairman showed up at the other end of the table and started playing. I immediately changed my betting to $2,000 a roll against him when he was rolling. No words were ever spoken and I almost got fired the next day. Oh, to be young, dumb, and feel invincible again. I quickly learned the difference between being confident vs cocky.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I have learned so much from so many people I would consider mentors that I could not isolate it to just one. Over the years, I have tried to absorb information and learn a trait when I am in the presence of greatness. I have had to go up against great negotiators and I have tried to learn from all of them, people who have great charisma and can win people over easily, and numerous other characteristics. As an example, I went up against a very talented lawyer during a negotiation that lasted more than a year. The next day after closing the deal, I reached out to this person who I had been fighting and arguing with for months. I immediately hired them, and they still work for me today 15 years later.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
I have acquired, owned, and ran over 30 different businesses. Each one has had some unique quality or attribute that made it worth pursuing. Under all circumstances there was something important aspect missing which was not allowing the business to reach its full potential. A common area of weakness was often a company lacking leadership that was creative or willing to take a risk. They either had their blinders on from years of doing the same thing over and over again, while other times this was due to an owner that was not willing to try something new or take a leap of faith and attempt to make a step-change in the business. Enabling a management team with the freedom to apply their experience and make a meaningful impact can unleash a tidal wave of excitement that migrates through the whole organization.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
One of the biggest challenges I faced during my career was when I had purchased two pulp mills in Canada to convert to a new product called dissolving pulp. After spending hundreds of millions to get the mills ready to make this new product, there was a duty imposed by China on three countries including Canada. With one news release we went from a financial model that should have made hundreds of millions to something that may not survive. As the leader of this organization, we had to collectively find a solution and persevere in the face of adversity. During difficult times like that the most important thing to do is to keep morale and motivation high. If you lose that then there is no coming back and the company is destined to fail.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
There are lots of times when the pressure, stress, and long hours can get one down, but never to the point of considering giving up. For every time someone in the organization calls with good news, there are ten calls with negative news, problems, or issues. The old cliché holds very true that its lonely at the top. To be the leader of an organization, you need to have thick skin and be able to self-motivate because there will always be tough times to a certain degree. I find that focusing on small wins helps keep the momentum and motivation. The plan may need a hundred steps or a thousand steps to get to that final end result, but rather than focus on what may seem like a distant and hard goal to achieve, I just take one step at a time. Before you know it, you are closer to that end goal than you realized.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
It is vitally important that the leader keeps the team motivated. As an example, during the pandemic, the business plan goes out the window. The sales targets and financial projections are no longer valid. All that matters is that you maintain and support your best people to ensure they are still be with you when we come out the other side and get back to work and grow the business. We, as leaders, need to recognize that our teams are also going through this unique time both personally and well corporately which creates added stress on all fronts. So, as a company we can try push them harder which will result in minimal results due to the environment, or we can allow them to take more time off, relax, focus on their families, and be rested and super-charged for when the environment is more conducive to them driving the business forward.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
I find I have had a lot of success by providing small gifts that are not expected. This can be as simple as recognizing someone’s extra effort and saying, “take your spouse for a nice dinner and expense it to the company” or sending a gift basket or gift certificate. These unexpected signs of appreciation let people know that they are appreciated and valued.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
There are three rules I try to follow as it relates to bad news. First, I don’t bother everyone with all the small problems or issues and look to keep smaller issues contained within those smaller groups who are required to fix those problems. This allows everyone to keep focused on issues that are within their department or control. No sense having everyone worry about all the problems. That’s the role of the leader to take on this burden. Secondly, for bigger issues that need a wider audience then the information should be openly and honestly communicated. Thirdly, when bad news needs to be disseminated to the larger group then I try to delay it until at least the start of a plan has been formulated. People can handle bad news when they have confidence in management. If management says “we don’t have a plan yet,” then it will materially amplify the negative effect and drastically harm morale and confidence in management.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
The future is no more unpredictable now than it was before. Plans are made the same way in good times as in bad. The most important thing to know when you make any plan is that it absolutely won’t work out that way. It never does. You need to make a plan knowing you will need to pivot numerous times when things don’t go as planned. The old cliché holds that things will always take longer and cost more in both good times and bad.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Focus on things that are in your control and don’t waste time or stress about things that you can’t control. Of course, you need to be aware of and understand what is causing these turbulent times, but only so much that you can make better decisions.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
The biggest mistake I often see is companies continuing to do things the same old way and failing to challenge themselves to think outside the box. They focus too much on cutting costs and finding ways to try get a 1% or 2% improvement rather than making a step-change that can result in a 20% or 30% improvement. A great example of this is the medical industry during the pandemic. Companies either focused inward and spent time finding ways to cut costs, while others took advantage of the situation and launched tele-medicine opportunities
Another common mistake are leaders that micro-manage their teams which is very common in start-up companies. The CEO wants to have their hands in on every little detail. They seem to think that they can do the job better than the person assigned to that particular task. If that is the case, then they should spend the time to find someone who can do the job better rather than doing the job themselves.
Another common mistake that I have seen over-and-over again are leaders that think they are irreplaceable. Through my career I have built and grown companies in dozens and dozens of industries. So, I’m constantly forced to learn a new business or industry quickly. Surprisingly it only takes a few months to know enough to make informed decisions since a leader’s role is to set strategy which is based on the big picture and doesn’t require an in-depth understanding of the minutia. Too often leaders are focused down in the weeds where someone needs decades of industry-specific experience to understand. Then they think as leaders they can’t be replaced as that level of knowledge is a requirement for the job.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
Assuming you have done your job right before the turbulent times, then your company should be in s better position than your competitors. Even if you are not the industry leader, there are often other companies that will be struggling more than you in the tough times, so now is the time to grow through acquisition. Acquisitions can create significant growth, unlock huge synergies, and position the company to be significantly better when the market returns. Taking on what is often perceived as a bigger problem during tough times is not for the faint at heart. However, this is when opportunities offer the greatest risk to reward.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Maintain your long-term goals. Just because times are tough, the place you are striving to get to should remain the same but the only difference is the path to get there may now be different. New markets may now be open that weren’t available before, regulatory hurdles may be more accommodating for a short period of time, or growth through acquisition may now be something that now can be achieved with lower valuations and competitors struggling more than you. During the financial crisis of 2008, I made the decision to get into the dissolving pulp industry. I then found numerous mills that would make ideal candidates. The deciding factor was which local government was more desperate for job creation. This resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars of government funding and grants that otherwise would not have been available during normal economic times.
- Focus on your competitive advantage. Every company has one, or sometimes more than one competitive advantage. Take this advantage and exploit them as much as you can. In 2006, I acquired a wallpaper mill in Germany for 5 million Euros. They had a competitive advantage in one small product that represented only about 15% of the sales. The existing management was not supportive of shifting 100% of the mill’s production to this new product where the competitive advantage was. Once I replaced management, we immediately switched production to focus solely on this one product. Six years later I sold the mill to an NYSE competitor for $210 million.
- Focus on the weakest link. When I acquire a or start a company, I start as the CEO and President. My first priority is to find a good operator to take on the President role. Then I am constantly evaluating the business to identify and improve upon our areas of weakness. With every business I just keep improving upon the weakest areas until I come to the realization that now I’m the weakest link. My goal is always to work myself out of a job as fast as possible. Then I know I have done all I can do and feel confident that the pieces are in place to leave it to the talented management team to keep things going.
- Hire slow and fire fast. Take the extra time to get the best people because once they are in place, you will have them for a while. Then fire fast. As soon as you are even thinking about firing someone then just do it. If am guilty myself of thinking “oh maybe it will get better” or “I should give them another chance,” I can assure you this has never worked out and I should have just ripped the band-aid off as soon as that thought enters your mind.
- Take a good hard look at your current situation. If your company is facing difficulties during these turbulent times then now is the time to take stock and evaluate what you would have done differently. Maybe you wish you had more liquidity, or less debt, or hadn’t taken on too much growth so fast. Keep in mind these turbulent times will be done soon and then you don’t want to make the same mistakes again in a few months or years. Hindsight is always 20–20, but then applying that knowledge in the future is its true value. I learned this lesson during the Dot-Com bubble. I had invested in what I thought was a good company based on valuations of other companies at the time. When the bubble burst it quickly became apparent that all the companies, including the one I had invested in, were not really worth a fraction of what their valuations had been. I now ignore the share price of any company and focus on what would I pay for the business if I had to assume there would never be a market to sell it.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Warren Buffet’s “the newspaper test” is one of my favorite quotes. As leaders, we are always faced with important decisions. With those decisions there are often opportunities to take short-cuts or bend the rules a little. In the long-run these will always prove to be the poor path to take. Mr. Buffet describes the concept that before you decide on a path you should assume that an unfriendly newspaper article will come out and describe your decision and the path you chose in great detail. This is something that all your friends, family, and business colleagues will see. If this is not something you would want to be exposed then you know the right path to take
How can our readers further follow your work?
I invite your readers to visit the media room at my website at Helicoid Industries to learn more about company developments and advancements. Of course, we are delighted to share this interview from Authority Magazine on our website!