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Q&A With Craig Dickman: How Breakthrough Fuel Finds Employees Who Fit

Breakthrough Fuel, a global business that helps clients save money on fuel costs, began 11 years ago. The company’s St. Norbert College connection started a year later when SNC alum Jenny (Brice) Vander Zanden joined the business as an intern. She currently serves the company as vice president of fuel recovery, and 20 percent of the Breakthrough workforce is now made up of St. Norbert alumni. CEO Craig Dickman talks about what attributes make a good Breakthrough Fuel employee, and why so many St. Norbert grads, with their liberal arts background, fit the bill. 

Q: Breakthrough Fuel seeks employees who are smart, passionate and edgy, and who can work broadly. Why are these things more important than knowledge of a particular industry?
A: You can always teach people subject matter. What we want to do is connect where people think and problem-solve … we need people who will stand up and communicate what they believe in, people who are not just comfortable with the flow, people who will stand for something.

Q: You also seek people who have varied interests. SNC alumna Kimberly Larsen, sales operations manager, is an example; she was Miss Wisconsin 2010. Why are different interests important?
A: It can’t all be about work. People with varied interests tend to be passionate people. Different ideas emerge from unexpected areas. If you spend time walking around here, I think that what would strike you more than the technology, more than anything we do, is we have really interesting people.   

Q: You say St. Norbert grads are more confident than they have the right to be, and that’s a good thing. Why?
A: We are a business with a new product that is serving a relatively traditional aspect of business, so we are going to have people who are 25 years old standing up in front of people who have been in their profession longer than (our employee) has been alive. If you don’t have confidence to stand up and say, “I am going to tell you what we are doing, why it’s important and why you should listen,” if you don’t have the innate strength to do that, it can be really intimidating.

Q: An estimated 50 percent of the company’s 58 employees, including some St. Norbert graduates, were not intentional hires for specific positions. In fact, the company does not have human resources personnel. How does that process work?
A:  Jenny [Vander Zanden] came to us from another business. [SNC alum] Peter [Romenesko] was planning to move out of state. He was not looking for a job. He was networking. At the end of the conversation, I ended up offering him a job. When we connect with people who are smart and have the skillset to enhance our business, we look for ways to create an entry point for them.

Q: You have spoken at the college on multiple occasions, and your employees have returned to their alma mater to assist in the classroom. Why is it important for Breakthrough Fuel to serve St. Norbert?
A: I think it’s easy for a business to work with a university or college where you develop students, I will hire them and we will call it a relationship. It has to be more than that. We have graduates who are enhancing our business. As a business, we have to find ways to enhance the community and the college through internships, mentoring and getting involved in the classroom.

Q: You have hired good employees from St. Norbert, but how do you keep them for years to come?
A: If employees are growing personally, professionally and financially faster than their peer group, they tend to stay. If they fall behind, they leave. I think we do a good job of providing opportunities for growth. Peter Romenesko has been here five years and he’s leading our international business. He just returned from Jakarta (Indonesia). He started here in marketing. That’s a pretty interesting career advancement when you’re in your 20s.

Jan. 28, 2016