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January 05, 2014 | Tom Ballard

TennEra’s Adam McCall always focused on solving tough problems

TennEra2(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a two-part series focused on Adam McCall, President and Chief Executive Officer of TennEra, LLC.)

By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.

Adam McCall says he decided early in life that he “wanted to learn how tough a problem I could solve.”

Today, many would say he has found that ultimate challenge as President and Chief Executive Officer of TennEra, LLC, the for-profit subsidiary of the University of Tennessee (UT) Research Foundation focused on commercializing technologies related to the Tennessee Biofuels Initiative.

“I heard a presentation from Dr. Kelly Tiller and Dr. David Millhorn regarding UT’s Center for Renewable Carbon and its work on lignin-based carbon fiber,” McCall says. “I immediately felt that this was a challenge I’d like to help tackle.”

During our recent interview, we found a young man in his mid30s with as diverse a background as you might imagine, but a consistent passion to continuously climb new mountains. Along the way, he co-founded two businesses while in college, helped develop the Tennessee Board of Regents (TBR) Online Degree Program, was part of the first iteration of IdleAire Technologies, and even created and launched a new boat brand.

McCall repeatedly noted that, in an unexpected way, the journey he has followed prepared him well for his current role at TennEra.

“I grew-up on a dairy farm in Blount County where Clayton Homes’ headquarters is now located,” he explained. McCall went to Maryville College where he graduated Cum Laude with Bachelor’s degrees in Physics and Mathematics.

It was during his Maryville College years that the wakeboard enthusiast helped start two outdoor retail businesses and also worked as lead staff member for the college-sponsored Mountain Challenge. The latter is a ropes course that helps build teamwork, communication and leadership skills.

“It taught me how to survey and understand group dynamics,” McCall said of Mountain Challenge. “It formed my definition of leadership.”

After graduating from Maryville College, McCall went to Tennessee Technological University (TTU) where he earned a Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering and a Masters in Business Administration.

“Engineering teaches you how to solve problems,” McCall notes.

The TTU years also found him honing additional skills – assisting companies in the TTU Business Incubator with web design, upfront ideation and marketing as well as helping with the TBR online initiative.

“With the right idea, people and energy, you can build a business,” McCall concluded from these experiences.

That belief was quickly validated when a “random encounter” resulted in the graduate student getting linked with the original founders of IdleAire and starting what he describes as a “fun side project” for the company on a part-time basis.

In a short period of time, however, McCall was working full-time for IdleAire, finishing the last 12 hours of his MBA, ironically online. He progressed at IdleAire from Mechanical Design Engineer to Director of Engineering and eventually Vice President of Product Development.

McCall describes the IdleAire years as “a great experience . . . getting to see a small team grow to 1,300 employees.”

Yet, with IdleAire still in growth mode, McCall left the company in 2007 to pursue an opportunity somewhat close to his “alter ego” – wakeboarding. Malibu Boats came calling with an offer he could not decline – designing a new boat and creating a new boat company.

“It was an opportunity to blend my passion for water sports with branding and product design,” McCall says while also acknowledging that the timing could have been better. He had to relocate to California. Within months of joining Malibu, about 70 percent of the inboard boating industry had disappeared due to the economic downturn.

“Trying to start a boat company in the great recession was a real challenge,” McCall noted. “I had to dig deep. I learned that you’ve got to grab the market first. You’ve got to pluck the heart strings of the ultimate customer and let them pull your product through the distribution network.”

Nevertheless, at the start of 2009, Malibu’s board of directors authorized launch of the new boat under the Axis Wake Research brand. Today, the new company is ranked among the top five largest inboard boat brands in the world, and Malibu and Axis together control almost one-third of the market.

The lure of a new challenge, particularly one back home, proved to be a strong magnet that caused McCall to leave Malibu/Axis and join TennEra in February 2013.  We’ll explore his reasons and his thoughts about biomass in part two of the series.