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December 11, 2017
On the record

'Road to WEXcellence': Michael Dubyak reflects on lessons in leadership during long career at WEX

File Photo / Tim Greenway
File Photo / Tim Greenway
Michael Dubyak of WEX in his office in South Portland shortly before he retired in 2013. He has a new book, “The Road to WEXcellence: Leadership with Integrity.”

Michael Dubyak would be the first to admit that it was his lucky day when his cold-call letter inquiring about possible executive job openings was retrieved from a trash can. It resulted in him being hired by what was then known as Wright Express, now WEX Inc. It was a new business venture for the A.R. Wright Co., a family-owned home-heating oil business that had the idea to tap the emerging electronic banking technology and use it to meet the fuel needs of companies with large fleets of vehicles. The company spent $23 million before turning its first profit in 1993.

Dubyak was hired in 1983 and rose through the ranks to become president and CEO in 1998. In 2013, he turned over leadership to Melissa Smith, and WEX revenues topped $700 million. It was well on its way to becoming the $1 billion company that it is today. He remains board chairman at WEX and has served as a leader for two efforts to boost Maine's economy, Project>Login and FocusMaine.

Mainebiz caught up with Dubyak recently to talk about his new book, "The Road to WEXcellence: Leadership with Integrity." The following is an edited transcript.

Mainebiz: What prompted you to write "The Road to WEXcellence?"

Michael Dubyak: I think that Maine doesn't celebrate great business success stories that well. And there have been great business success stories in Maine. This, to me, is a very unique story about a company that had lost money for eight years under venture capital, had five owners, and almost didn't make it through the IPO process without being sold. It's a company that really wanted to establish its home in Maine — not flip the company and cash out. And there were a lot of people who are part of that story along with me. It's not just about Mike Dubyak.

It's also a little bit of a tribute to the people of Maine. When I came up to this area, I had lived a little bit in California, three years in Texas in the oil industry, eight years in Pennsylvania. I fell in love with this part of the country because of the beauty and the people. I could sense the depth of character

So the WEX story of success says to the business community: You can build a great culture here. If you are treating your people well and you're giving them something, they're going to give you back everything they have to contribute to your business. Our employees and the people of Maine never let me down. That depth of character allowed us to build a culture that really give us differentiation — a strategic differentiation in the marketplace

MB: What stands out in Maine's culture?

MD: Mainers are articulate, they're compassionate and they are persistent.

MB: They take 'ownership' of the problem?

MD: Yes.

MB: What are the one or two big surprises readers might learn from your book?

MD: Well, I think the thing that surprised me maybe the most — it kind of seeped through the narrative chapter by chapter — 'WEXcellence' really is about the culture. And that gets back to being based here in Maine. The people of Maine made it possible that we could make partnering part of our DNA. And Melissa is building upon that, continuing it. She knows that's what differentiates us and why she's continuing to build on that. At the end of the book I thank WEXers for the ride. They really made it easy.

MB: Was it a challenge to be writing about key periods in the company's history — in particular the IPO in 2005?

MD: No, because I believer Mainers are authentic. If I'm going to write a book about Mainers, then I'd better be authentic. I just felt that I should put myself out there, so people could get a better view of who I am and why I would get emotional at the IPO. I wanted to show why that was so important, not only to myself and Melissa but to all of us with all the trials and tribulations leading up to it. And then to finally realize, 'This is really going to happen. We're really going to ring the bell!' It was like the race to the bell. So many people helped us to get to that point.

The IPO story by itself is a pretty amazing story. It really was that people genuinely wanted our independence. That meant everybody had to work very hard. And we did. We pulled together to make that happen. We rang the bell on Feb. 16, 2005. Guess what? By the end of March the IPO market had soured. We would have been sold to one of the two companies wanting to buy us.

Our parent would have said, 'I can't get the optimum value for WEX in the IPO market,' and they would have taken the best offer. And we would have now had a sixth owner. Who knows what would have happened after that? One was a competitor. We might not even be in Maine at all today.

MB: What's next?

MD: I don't know what will develop next. I can see things tangentially that are starting to develop. Little bites that maybe will get me involved in some other things and might even bring larger opportunities to the state of Maine. I can't define what that is today. Some of it is confidential. But I will do everything I can, short of working 40 hours a week, to lend a hand and use my stature, my ability to bring people together, my ability to raise money, if it's going to help the state.

MB: Any closing comments?

MD: For me it's been extremely satisfying: to come to a state, come to an area that you love, and never feel that it's let you down in any way and to build something that I can be proud of. But, ultimately, it's something a lot of people along the way can also be proud of. We created something that now has even greater opportunities to do tremendous things, not only for WEX as a business but also for the communities around us. WEX is strong. We're going to partner with Portland, we're going to partner with the state, we'll continue to give back to the communities, we're going to be part of that community fabric. I'm proud of all that we — not I — have been able to achieve over this period of time. It's very satisfying.

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