Make It Business Magazine | Inspiring Small Business & Entreprenuers To Think Big

Refinery Leadership Partners internal culture allows it to expand globally

Fiona Walsh - Women in Business Columnist

Vancouver is full of inspired entrepreneurs. This month’s conversation is with Barbara Ross-Denroche, co-founder of Refinery Leadership Partners. Refinery is a different kind of consulting firm, whose clients include Goldcorp, Finning and Coast Capital Savings, to name a few.

How do you grow a company from an idea to one that operates throughout North, South and Latin America with offices in Toronto, Calgary, Austin and Mexico City in just 10 years?

First, have a clear vision of what you want to build. Be able to articulate it clearly so people understand what it is you do. When we started in 2002, our goal was to be bold, honest and steadfastly committed to excellence.

We wanted to build a firm that took traditional leadership and management training to a new level by combining the best elements of strategic consulting and training and development with an innovative learning design. Working from our clients’ strategic performance needs, we design learning experiences tailor-made for each client and delivered with progressive and engaging methods. Our clients tell us that Refinery programs result in better leaders and better organizational growth for them.

Second, be able to implement your vision. From Day One, our vision for Refinery was to be bigger. Every day the team is looking for ways to make that happen. We’ve evolved into an organization with the depth and foundation of a large consulting company, while maintaining the nimbleness of a small entrepreneurial organization. Through all the changes, we’ve never wavered from the values that drove us to set up shop.

What did you do to make Refinery grow so successfully?

There are three things we focused on putting into place from our early days:

1. Build a company culture that is purposeful. Refinery is a place where people are excited to come to work; they are proud to be part of the team. We do great work; we work with challenging clients and projects. There is a huge sense of accomplishment in the office every day.

2. Collaboration is encouraged and expected from everyone. We want people to bring their best ideas to the table; we want them to be creative. Sometimes this can lead to conflict because people see things from different perspectives, but it’s good conflict. It causes people to do better work. Too many business owners are scared of conflict. They think it means they won’t be in control.

3. Hire people smarter than yourself. You never will have all the answers or know everything, especially as the company grows.

The state of the economy remains challenging for many business owners. Refinery bucked the trend by expanding operations over the last few years. Any advice for other entrepreneurs in tough times?

Our strategy was to look at our market with fresh eyes and come up with innovative solutions for existing clients. It also meant a strong focus on business development. In fact, our business development skills are better than they ever have been.

In tough times for business, owners may realize they have to make changes. But they often end up simply doing another version of what they already know, which doesn’t get them much further along. We realized we were missing opportunities by not focusing globally. If we had just focused on the North American market, we would never have had the growth we have today. When we realized the opportunities in Latin and South America, it became apparent where we needed to focus our resources and time.

What’s the most valuable mistake you’ve made as a business owner?

As an entrepreneur you’re always thinking: How do I grow more? How do I do things better? Growth is great, but you have to realize that it brings about rapid change in a company, which calls for better planning. My most valuable lesson has been to recognize that having an HR development plan in place is essential for Refinery’s growth. Now I hire way in advance instead of being scared to hire people and worrying about whether it’s the right decision. People development takes time.

Fiona Walsh started FM Walsh & Associates Inc. when she saw how many business owners struggled to sell effectively. An expert in sales and business development, she has worked with hundreds of businesses throughout North America to double, even triple, their revenues. She offers tips for growing your business at

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