Of Oil and Energy: A fascinating business for fascinating people

The third in a series of articles with an international perspective on Developing Managerial Capabilities in the energy sector: what talent is needed? with Sarah Irving of Irving Oil, speaker at the Council on Business & Society 2015 Boston Forum

Sarah Iriving

Sarah Iriving

Sarah Irving, Executive Vice-President and Chief Brand Officer at Irving Oil, was guest speaker in the panel discussion Developing Managerial Capabilities: what talent is needed? at the Council on Business & Society International Forum in Boston, September, 2015. In the following article she focuses on the dynamics of the oil industry, talent acquisition at Irving Oil within the marketing function, and provides tips to students and graduates wishing to work in the sector.

Irving Oil: A refined track record in the energy business

“Irving Oil brings together 3,500 people who refine and market high-quality petroleum products so that customers in Eastern Canada and New England can enjoy clean, reliable and safe products and exceptional service.

It’s a fascinating business,” says Sarah Irving, “and probably one of the most dynamic industries to be a part of – it’s always evolving, challenging, exciting”.  The energy business is sustained by a wide range of professions including engineering, environment sciences, finance, operations, communication, HR, government relations, community affairs, legal, compliance, and marketing.

Today, Irving Oil operates Canada’s largest refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick along with distribution and transportation facilities in regional markets throughout Atlantic Canada, Quebec and New England. Founded in 1924, the company is shaped by its Atlantic Canadian roots and values.

Marketing has its place in oil

As Irving’s Chief Brand Officer, Ms. Irving oversees the brand and marketing initiatives across the retail, wholesale and commercial business lines. Ms. Irving insists it is crucial to understand each of these distinct businesses, as well as the diverse geographies in which the company operates because customer preference and brand perception differs by market.

“Marketing any commodity product is an interesting challenge,” she continues. “It is an extremely competitive market and there is a need to differentiate in order to succeed. As a business, Irving Oil has to focused on our customers and not only meet, but anticipate and exceed, their needs.”

Customer insights is the important first step and companies need a good understanding of direct and mass marketing, retail programs, promotions, the ever more important presence of loyalty in the retail space, and the role of technology. It is also essential to bring to the marketing role an understanding of the different markets in which a company such as Irving Oil operates, as well as awareness of the diversity of competitors and the reliability of supply and distribution.

The brand and communication perspective

According to Ms. Irving, today is an interesting time in the industry. Social license and reputation are playing a critical role in the success of major projects, as is the case with Energy East, a proposed 4,600 km pipeline in Canada that will transport approximately 1.1 million barrels of oil per day from Alberta and Saskatchewan to Irving Oil’s refinery in Saint John, as well as to other refineries in Quebec. The energy sector, like any other competitive industry in the 21st century, is also subject to the age of social media and immediate news with an imperative to react quickly. As an organization, Irving Oil recognizes the importance of brand and reputation, both internally and externally, and is currently working on this as a company-wide initiative. Irving Oil logo

Talent acquisition at Irving Oil

“Irving Oil is fortunate to have long tenured employees with average tenure being above 10 years, more than double the Fortune 500 average,” said Ms. Irving. The very nature of Irving Oil’s operations means the company operates in smaller urban and rural centers. Irving Oil’s challenge is to hire the best local talent and give them opportunities to learn from doing business with great global partners. We offer exceptional professional learning opportunities to employees with the added benefit of the company being located in a region they love and call home.

Irving Oil hires based on culture and attitude, looking for collaborative and flexible problem solvers. Training initiatives are also encouraged, with continual investment in talent development opportunities, both with formal training, as well as extensive on the job training. In addition, the company places a high emphasis on team work and cross-company collaboration, always aiming to reduce silos and layers in both the organization and project teams. Project teams are increasingly used to solve problems and kick-start initiatives before moving the solutions or new products into Irving Oil’s day-to-day business.

“We focus on finding ways for our people to advance in the company by taking on new challenges. This is a great retention strategy and also helps us have a long lead to prepare for succession and retirements,” said Ms. Irving.

Recent and significant investment has been made in Workday, a leading cloud-based HR system, to help increase the consistency, ease and data analytics of all the company’s people processes. As with many companies boasting a high retention rate, Irving Oil is faced with an aging workforce. Subsequently, a renewed focus has begun on adding new talent directly from colleges and universities, which entails working with schools tailoring programs for our needs – such as refinery technicians – as well as increasing opportunities for students with company sponsored co-op programs and work terms.

Drilling for tips: preparing students for work in the energy business

“When we think about the study of energy in schools today – and the preparation required for students to be successful – we look first and above all else for good thinkers and good problem solvers, which is critical for our business,” said Ms. Irving.

Irving Oil specifically looks for individuals who are customer focused and willing to personally invest in the success of the company. Irving Oil’s recruitment strategy is a long-term approach for employees to develop a broad perspective based on a good understanding of the industry as a whole; the social, cultural and regulatory issues; and a basic understanding of the financial principles, especially in volatile market conditions. This broad perspective requires long-term employee investment and time to acquire experience. Council Students

When aiming for the job interview…

One of the most underrated skills is communications. Communicating internally, as well as externally with key stakeholders, especially at a senior leadership level, is crucial to our business success. An applicant can really stand out by demonstrating strong collaboration, creative problem solving, natural curiosity and a real passion for the industry. “We are undergoing a lot of change whether its technology, market conditions, or the supply chain – and we need people who can challenge assumptions and show a new way to tackle problems,” said Ms. Irving.

Ms. Irving believes that as a student it is important to recognize the incredible opportunities the energy industry presents, such as the ability to apply knowledge from a multi-disciplined background and make a real contribution to an ever evolving industry. She advocates being part of a wave of change and urges students to take time to understand the broader business.

“The more you understand about the business and about the industry, the more opportunities you will have to grow within the company and be respected for this knowledge. And this will help you in whatever role you choose to do.”

Written and edited by Tom Gamble, Communication coordinator at the Council on Business & Society, from Sarah Irving’s notes and speech at the Council on Business & Society’s 2015 Boston Forum Energy, Business, and Society

The Council on Business & Society Global Alliance is an ongoing international dialogue between six of the world’s leading business schools and an organiser of Forums focusing on issues at the crossroads of business and society – The Council Community helps bring together business leaders, academics, students and journalists from around the world. #CouncilonBusinessandSociety

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