Servant leader Featured

3:20pm EDT February 28, 2011
Laurie Cunnington, president, Ward Williston Oil Co. Laurie Cunnington, president, Ward Williston Oil Co.

The president’s message from Laurie Cunnington on her company’s website couldn’t be more direct: “At Ward Williston, we strive to conduct business while always adhering to our core business values. We believe our people are our best assets. We believe in treating our employees and customers with dignity and respect. We believe our customers deserve honest treatment and the best service possible. And finally, we believe that every day we must work to keep Ward Williston a company we can all be proud of.”

For Cunnington and her husband, Thomas, who serves as Ward Williston Oil Co.’s CEO, this means focusing on giving back to the community, supporting employees and operating an oil company that supports domestic oil exploration and production.

Smart Business caught up with Cunnington — whose Michigan-based company explores oil fields in North Dakota — at Ernst & Young’s Strategic Growth Forum, where she was participating on a panel about corporate and social philanthropy.

Why is corporate philanthropy and giving back so important for entrepreneurs and business leaders?

I have a little problem with the phrase ‘giving back’ because I really believe that it’s not about giving back. Rather, a person should be giving all their lives and be part of their character and heart’s desire. When you see someone less fortunate and you have a loaf of bread, you should break that loaf in half and give it to them. It’s not about giving back because it’s not just multi-billionaires. It should really be about that loaf of bread. I should be able to divide it and give it to somebody else.

I’ve seen suffering, and it’s changed me. I’ve seen children in Africa that two or three hours after leaving them will know more suffering than I’ll ever see in my life. This is what motivates me to work hard so that I can do something to help others.

You’re often asked to speak about corporate philanthropy. When you do, what are some of the key points you try to get across?

This is something I feel passionate about. My husband and I do work domestically. If a hospital or local charity needs something, we help. Think about this: Half the world is living on less than $2 a day. I think about whether I could do that. If I could keep everything I have — my fancy cars, my nice house, my nice clothes, but I had only $2 a day, how long could I last and use my brain? I wouldn’t last very long. Yet, I wake up in the morning and more than half the world is living on less than $2 a day. That’s what makes me work hard. I hope others are able to pick up on that message when I talk about philanthropy.

So how can others think about aligning their work with causes they believe in?

Last summer, we all turned on our TVs and saw 11 men die in the twinkling of an eye. Then we watched the Gulf being polluted. We saw people out of work because of the oil spill, so here we were in a remote area in North Dakota and saw all these people suffering in the Gulf. Our people encouraged us to do something about it, and we encouraged them to take the lead. So they put together a fundraiser called Golf for the Gulf. Our tagline was ‘It’s our ocean. It’s our industry. It’s our time to do something.’

Together, we raised a little over $100,000 for the fishermen and oilmen out of work. It was interesting to see how much our people got behind it, but our vendors and customers did, as well. Our vendors had never thought of doing something like this before.

Do you think there’s something to the belief that people want to work for companies that care?

I think it’s a nice thing when you do care for others. I honestly don’t know if that’s why people work for us, but I believe in taking care of our people and that they’ll take care of you. Today in America, people want to get working again. That’s the major thing. They would love to work for a great company but they just want to get working. It’s this way across the country. Ironically, in North Dakota there are more jobs than people, but in Michigan, where we’re based, there are no jobs. People just want to get working, and if they can have a good job and a good boss, that’s wonderful. But they want to feed their families.

When you purchased Ward Williston it was on the brink of ruin, correct?

Yes. I’ve been with them for 20 years. I had done some independent drilling before that, and then an opportunity came to buy this company, which was on its last legs. There were four or five people working for it then. My husband and I took over the company, and today there are about 180 people working for us. We’ve made the Inc. 500 for three years in a row, and we’re very strong now. We drill for oil and service oil fields.

So what’s the toughest challenge you’re facing now?

I work in Michigan, and Michigan has been hit so hard. One of our most prevalent field operations is in North Dakota, and there it’s a boom market. So I have a paradigm shift every day. I’m working with our people in North Dakota and the reality hits me that those workers have a management team that’s located in a depressed market. You have to be on your toes to balance that.

But I have no complaints because the oil industry is very good. We’re doing well, and I believe that for Americans, we have to capture the idea that we, domestic drillers, can fuel America. Right now, there’s a barrel of oil found in the Middle East. That barrel gets on a ship and is brought over. With that barrel, people have fought over it, people have died over it, and we do business with our enemies. But here, domestic drillers, the people who work for me, get up in the morning, put on their work clothes, say goodbye to their families and go produce a barrel of oil. So with that barrel, our domestic drillers can handle the needs of America. That’s why I love what I do. It allows me to run the business and pursue my passions.

How to reach: Ward Williston Oil Co., www.wardwilliston.com