The team of General Biodiesel’s operation in Seattle. • Courtesy Photo
The team of General Biodiesel’s operation in Seattle. • Courtesy Photo

It’s the business of General Biodiesel to transform a common waste—used cooking oil collected from local restaurants—into biodiesel fuel. The fuel is used in all types of diesel engines without any need for modification. The biodiesel produced has the lowest carbon footprint of any biofuel because the cooking oil is sourced locally, the fuel is made here, and is then sold to local distributors and fleets. Burning this fuel, rather than petroleum-based diesel, also results in considerably less greenhouse gas emissions.

In the last eight years, General Biodiesel has overcome setbacks caused by the Great Recession and outlasted other biodiesel companies to become the renewable energy industry leader in Washington State. General Biodiesel, Inc., is the parent company of General Biodiesel Seattle, LLC, which runs operations in Washington State. Last fall, General Biodiesel, Inc., opened a new operation in Juneau, Alaska and plans to increase production to 10 million gallons of capacity this year. General Biodiesel, Inc., is plotting the course for what may ultimately prove to be an expansion along the I-5 corridor and beyond.

Yale Wong, founder and Chairman of General Biodiesel, Inc., said that none of the company’s success would exist without the drive of its employees—a diverse bunch of likeminded individuals who wanted to build a local company that reduces the region’s impact on the environment.

“The reason we have a successful company is because of the employees,” Wong said. “Somebody had to take a chance because we didn’t have the highest paying jobs. They could have chosen anywhere they wanted to work. A lot of these guys got degrees. You got Microsoft here, Boeing, a lot of engineering jobs out here. But they chose to be with General Biodiesel because they wanted to be a part of making history, making a difference, and playing their part in society and in affecting climate change for a more positive planet.”

Process manager Matthew Rutherford joined General Biodiesel shortly after graduating from the University of Washington with a degree in chemical engineering in 2009.

“I make sure the process works, and that’s everything associated with it,” Rutherford said. “Some examples are ensuring a safe work environment, maintaining great fuel quality, ensuring process quality checks are being met, and managing equipment. The team atmosphere here is awesome. We really work together to solve problems throughout the company and try to make this a better place to work every day.”

Hans Utu, a recent electronics-engineering graduate now working as Wong’s assistant, also described a family environment.

“The reason I work here is because of the people,” Utu said. “When you go down to the plant, everybody knows each other.”

The sense of family is rooted in General Biodiesel’s initial planning, which was led by Wong and his wife, Laura Wong. The company was initially built on $3 million raised from friends and family before facing the challenges of the Great Recession.

OVERCOMING THE ODDS

General Biodiesel was founded in Washington in 2006 along with eight other biodiesel companies. Today, only two remain: Imperium Renewables and General Biodiesel. Imperium Renewables is now up for sale.

Over the years, Wong has had to navigate General Biodiesel through a number of obstacles.

“Right out of the starting gates we got going,” Wong said. “My wife and I already did the research prior to that in 2005 just touring the country, learning about the technology, learning about the entire industry. In 2006 and 2007, everybody was very hungry to get into General Biodiesel as far as recruiting investors and recruiting employees. It was a very desirable company. It wasn’t hard at all. But from 2008 all the way to 2010, boy, we ran out of money twice.”

Securing money to launch the company and keep it going has also been a challenge as an Asian American CEO trying to break new ground in a “good ol’ boy industry,” Wong said.

“I think as a CEO, starting a company and being minority-owned is extremely difficult,” Wong said. “I am American born and I have it a lot easier than a lot of immigrants coming over here, like my father. But I think a lot of it [covert racism] exists today, and a lot of people don’t see it. Some investors might look for these big degrees from ivy league schools. The problem is many MBA graduates don’t have real experience using their own money to really understand the real world other than what is taught in school textbook style. On the other hand, they are well articulated and speak the same language and have the credibility selling to institutions. I’m thankful my investors don’t have that problem. They bought into into the leadership and the mission.”

It’s an obstacle Wong has overcome before as CEO of Compass Communications Inc., one of the largest broadband Internet service providers in Washington.

“I was the only Asian, Chinese person, or Asian American to have an Internet service provider here in the State of Washington or within three or four states,” Wong said. “I remember going to conventions where I was the only Chinese guy and I always had to sell business and products to mostly predominantly Caucasian people. And here I am in the fuel business, and this is a ‘good ol’ boy’ network where I’m the only Asian again.”

Wong said the difficulties in being an Asian American CEO came mostly when trying to secure money from institutions and investment bankers.

“I think the biggest problem that minorities face going forward in having successful companies is raising cash,” Wong said. “And in order to expand, for whatever business you do, you need cash. I sit on a lot of boards of a lot of companies, and I see all these young people, brilliant people [of color] who have great ideas. They can’t raise cash. And I think a lot of people judge a book by its cover.”

Wong said that the way to beat barriers created by racism is to not allow the barriers to affect our perseverance.

“I think the way out of it is that we have to retrain our minds to believe that no barriers exist,” Wong said. “If you walk in a room and say, ‘Oh, I’m Asian and these people always judge a book by its cover,’ that starts to affect you. But once you start believing in yourself and your product, people will see the conviction in you and that’s how you can be successful. That’s what I had to do to overcome that. I had to go in there with the confidence that my color didn’t matter and it was all about ‘this is the best damn idea in the world and this is the best product and I had the best management with the best team and the best experience.’ And I go in with that and that’s the only way to win.”

A WINNING TEAM

General Biodiesel was founded by Wong, his wife, and his friend of 35 years Clarence Pascua. Wong and Pascua met on the bus in high school. This was when the Seattle School District mandated desegregation efforts to bus racial minority students to diversify school populations.

Always an entrepreneur, Pascua had been running a business as a FedEx contractor in North Lake, Washington. When he heard about Wong’s latest venture into the biodiesel business, Pascua sold his FedEx van and helped to found the company.

“We just took all our talents, put it together, built the business model, and executed it,” Pascua said. “Some of us are mechanics. I was a welder in the Marine Corps. I’ve taken all that education and applied it to General Biodiesel. I certainly didn’t know what the process did at the time, but I did know how to put the pieces together. We were building the boat as it sailed.”

Pascua said the original goal was to build multiple plants, but the recession in 2008 made them focus locally.

“Our business model has always been to turn waste into energy,” Pascua said. “Biodiesel is a fuel that helps our country now. It’s a ‘now fuel.’ What we need to do is continue educating our users and our buyers. We’re a business that provides fuel for the country without importing any products.”

In Washington, General Biodiesel collects used cooking oil from hundreds of clients, including Amazon, Port of Seattle, Seattle University, The Space Needle, and WA Department of Corrections, among others.

It’s been the job of Hoby Douglass, General Biodiesel’s Vice President on Sustainable Business Development, to help communicate with clients and potential clients the benefits of taking part in the biodiesel process.

General Biodiesel has a Green Partner program with local restaurants to collect their used cooking oil and grease. General Biodiesel provides a container for the restaurants to dump their used cooking oil and grease in, which is collected via a regular route service. The waste is taken to the General Biodiesel plant where the oil is refined and filtered to get the food matter and water out before it is transformed into pure B100 biodiesel.

“It’s a closed loop waste-to-energy mission here in Seattle where the waste is local, the jobs are local, and the end product, biodiesel fuel, is used locally,” Douglass said.

Douglass was able to secure agreements with a number of restaurants to let General Biodiesel collect used cooking oil for free. These same restaurants had in the past received checks of about 10 cents on the gallon from other grease collection and biodiesel companies who picked up their waste.

Douglass said he was able to get restaurants to supply their waste for free because of General Biodiesel’s policy on great customer service—something often lacking in the waste management business. He said that restaurants were also receptive to the fact that General Biodiesel supports the local economy.

“General Biodiesel creates local jobs,” Douglass said. “Every other company but us ships this [fuel] out of Washington state.”

Tom Yamada, who also met Wong in high school, was General Biodiesel’s first collections driver. Today, he leads the fleet of drivers who collect grease and used cooking oil from throughout the city. Yamada is also an established music promoter in Seattle.

Yamada said most people don’t understand biodiesel despite it being around for so long. He described how biodiesel was demonstrated at the 1900 World’s Fair.

“We’re picking up garbage, we’re not using virgin seed stock,” Yamada said. “We are doing it the hard way because we’ve got to think about the environment.”

He described how the byproducts in making the biodiesel, such as glycerin and methane, don’t go to waste either. The glycerin is used for soap and beauty products, the methane for fuel.

“There is no waste in our company,” Yamada said. “So you would think more people would jump on this.”

LOOKING TOWARD THE FUTURE

Wong said that the business model that General Biodiesel has created can be replicated and opens many doors for possible expansion in the future.

“What General Biodiesel has done in the last eight years, since 2008, is really proven ourselves as the renewable energy industry leaders in Washington State,” Wong said. “We proved it on the technology side. And we proved it as a successful business model. This is viable, sustainable and renewable. We made it work to get it to profitability.”

Wong said that the next step for General Biodiesel, Inc., is to expand along the I-5 corridor all the way down to San Diego.

“We want to end up in San Diego and maybe have some presence in Nevada and Arizona,” Wong said. “We don’t want to do anything in the Midwest, we just want to stay on our side. What we want to do is to merge and acquire with other biodiesel companies similar with business models or other grease collection companies that want to be a part of the General Biodiesel companies.”

The industry as a whole needs to join forces, Wong said, and not compete against each other to drive up prices. If, in the future, a West Coast expansion is successful, Wong would like to take the technology and business model to Asia.

“The big dream, if I can get it there, is to open 20 plants in Asia and most predominantly in China,” Wong said. “Our business would thrive exponentially in China. And the reason being is because they have the grease, the population to support the waste vegetable oil, and they desperately need the renewable energy to help offset their carbon producing coal fire plants. It’s a perfect win-win situation for us to be in China.”

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