Kiely MacLean: Pushing Against the Stereotypes, One Oil Tank at a Time

Getting down and dirty in oil tanks, may not be on every girl’s “what I want to do when I grow up list”, but for 30-year-old businesswoman and visionary, Kiely MacLean acquiring a summer job cleaning hazardous tanks has been the stepping stone in defining who she is as a person and realising her ultimate dream of being an innovator and successful entrepreneur.

It was during the summer of 2011 when the young Kiely Maclean, who had just graduated with a degree from business school, had two life-changing choices to make. One – to take on the corporate marketing world, wearing formal suits everyday for a lucrative company or two – to throw on overalls and boots and get dirty in oil and gas tanks. While most may choose the former over the latter, for MacLean deciding to go against the grain has been one of her best decisions.

Five years later, she is now the CEO of her own innovative company, RJ Cleaning Oil Tank Services, and has since been recognized as Canada’s Top 35 Under 35 and Class of Rising Stars 2019 by JWN Energy. She’s also the winner of the Young Women in Energy Award, Ernest and Young’s Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award finalist, and 2019 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards Start-up Award finalist. Furthermore, she was also featured as a keynote speaker for SHEInnovates, by United Nations (UN) Women, on the panel of Environmental Disruptors, ScotiaBank Women of Influence and Toronto’s Bay Street Bull ‘Women in Leadership’ Conference.

Her company, with unique automated technology — using robotics, instead of people, to clean tanks for a safer and less tedious process, is a passionate advocate for innovation in business, the environment, and promoting women in the energy field.

The Edge recently had the opportunity of chatting to this inspirational businesswoman about challenging the stereotype of women in male-dominated industries; the perks of being her own boss and the motivation behind her business.  

How would you describe your business of robotic tank cleaning and your company RJ MacLean Tank Cleaning? And what inspired the concept of both?

Controversial pipelines, transportation and environmental spills are issues that come to mind when considering carbon impact functions in oil and gas.  However, the greatest risk for human exposure are the routine maintenance functions, including tank cleaning.

Across the globe, wherever there is hydrocarbon production, transportation or refinement, there are storage tanks. The function of cleaning these depositories is traditionally some of the most dangerous regularly performed work in the oilfield – not to mention risk bearing for spill potential, or hazardous vapors release.

RJ Maclean has fundamentally altered the industry’s approach to tank cleaning through automation.  As one of the first to bring innovation to this sector in Canada, we use robotics instead of people to clean tanks, and incorporate environmental processes/equipment to minimize waste, recycle and reuse water as well as minimize hazardous gas, carbon footprint.  

Initially, one of the most significant challenges for the company was to convince clients of the benefits of using an automated equipment. 

Today, five years after inception, the majority of our clients now require that robotics are used as opposed to exposing people to the hazards of tank cleaning.

As a young woman, in a mostly male-dominated industry, how did you become involved with tank cleaning? What inspired this career path and how did it come about?

Following university, I worked at the field level for tank cleaning operations. It started as more of a summer job – the market opportunity was clear as people entering tanks seems archaic in the age of technology.  The risk to personnel and massive waste volumes generated in the process were unbelievable to me as a newbie entering the industry. Everything was on such a large scale! The idea for RJ Maclean Tank Services was conceived through recognition that traditional tank cleaning processes needed to change with a profound effect of globally reducing waste and recycling water.

What are some of the challenges that you must endure being a woman in this field?

The challenges are more of a strength at times, being underestimated, or unique can be a real advantage. I actually think this is my edge. There is one aspect that I have noticed entrepreneurs do really well: to use what can be seen as a weakness their advantage and strength. I completed a business degree and one of things I had to rationalize coming out of school was whether to take a marketing job offer or take the risky path – to put on work boots, roll up my sleeves and get involved in the front lines of something I knew nothing about. I think we really need to encourage women, especially in the oil and gas industry, to go out and get involved in the operations or at the field level. You can’t be the best leader until you understand and experience every component of the business. It was integral to my growth and ability to understand where the niche was in the market.

How do you balance your life as a successful businesswoman and your personal life?

Integration! My dad is my partner in the business. Naturally, there are a lot of integration with my personal and business life therefore, I manage by combing the two. Sometimes, it can be difficult, but I make it work.

What does a day in the life of “Kiely MacLean” look like?

There is no typical day. It’s always different.

A typical day for me is anything but typical.  What I love about my job and about the business is not knowing what is next – yesterday I was in the field helping to commission our robotic equipment and today I am focused on strategic planning and business development. Tomorrow I might be meeting with clients, developing budgets or financial statements, dabbling in HR or on the shop floor learning about our fabrication, quality control or working with our engineering division.  I enjoy having a hand in so many aspects of the business.  As a company I get the opportunity to be involved in all the different areas of the business on a day to day basis, which is really enjoyable, and I am constantly learning.

How has the journey from being out in the field, literally ‘getting down and dirty’, to sitting in an office in a formal environment been thus far? Which do you prefer and why?

I appreciate the combination of both, I think both functions complement each other and are integral to my leadership style and understanding of the business.

What motivates you daily?

Taking risks! I was a quiet kid. When I look back in hindsight at the decisions I made and the path that I took, taking risks and feeling confident in going down a different and unique path while also having people behind you who really supportive is the most important thing.

The RJ Maclean team is probably the main motivator daily as they are all extremely dedicated and focused on challenging the status quo.  In the long-term, I would say the largest motivating factor is understanding the change that needs to happen in energy and that these changes need to happen quickly.  Our team is on the front lines, spearheading a portion this industry change.

One of the most critical components for my leadership development was field experience and what I call above and beyond mentorship. I had a lot of people in the field who to this day, I learn from.

Again, understanding each component in the business is important to developing that strategic direction and establishing a solid foundation.

When it comes to mentorship, the one that really stands out is my dad, Greg MacLean. He is someone I’ve always looked up to. He challenges me and the team to think outside the box to come up with unique solutions. His uncompromising ethics and determination have earned him a lot of respect in the industry. His understanding and vision for uplifting the energy industry has really influenced me.

The second person is my other partner, Jack Seguin, who is the RJ of RJ MacLean. He’s has an interesting high-level strategic guidance and direction. He is a hand-on person when it comes to getting involved in the business. I admire his ability to make decisions quickly and to be nimble. 

What was one of the defining moments in your life and how has this changed your life for the better?

We started in 2015 when the oil price was very low. Being able to start in a down market and the impact we’ve had on the industry is something I’m extremely proud of. I’m proud of challenging the status quo and being able to form and mold cleaning and maintenance projects in the industry. My greatest accomplishment recently would be the fact that one of our biggest clients recognized our innovation and bought into it wholeheartedly. We’ve been given the opportunity to work for them across North America. It shows what we have been able to accomplish as a company in the last four to five years.

You’re a person who seemingly defines traditional social norms and has created an innovative company where robots are replacing a human job, which has been an age-old debate. Would you consider these as challenges and if so, how do you overcome these social challenges and deal with the negativity in both your work and personal life?

I do not see robotics as taking over jobs – just doing jobs people should not be doing in the first place.

It is our human resources that make all the difference in our business. Robotics are certainly unique but it’s our team who makes the business a success.

What advice do you have for women who would like to explore careers such as tank cleaners or traditionally male occupations?

“TAKE RISKS”!!

We really need young professionals to get involved at the front level of business. I think executive leadership requires a thorough understanding of the operational levels of the business and it’s crucial for young female leaders to get involved on the front lines. Having that knowledge was a huge part of defining the started of the company. Particularly in energy, we need more female voices in the field.

Carlie Doan | Coordinating Editor

Veruschka Mungroo | Senior Editor

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