“In my family, you were either an academic or a lawyer, and both were my role models,” says Chip Wheelock. He wasn’t sure which path to follow, so he worked in a law firm for a year and then taught for a year. And doing so helped Wheelock—now vice president, administration, general counsel, and secretary at Global Power Equipment Group—understand the value of explaining legal concepts and presenting ideas to people clearly.
Born in Wilmington, Delaware, Wheelock moved with his family to Canton, New York, as an infant. He says his parents were teachers and also free spirits, who traveled to work in Romania, Ireland, and Italy while he was a child. They returned when he was set to enter high school. “They blamed me for having to come back to the US,” he says with a laugh.
After graduating from Emory University, he indulged his own free spirit, working in New York City as a paralegal for a year before venturing to Japan to teach English. In Japan, he practiced speaking in front of people. That experience helped later, he says, after he returned to Emory to pursue a JD. “In the business environment, when you may be the only lawyer in the room explaining a dry legal concept, it gives me a way of feeling comfortable in front of people,” he says.
Upon graduating law school, he worked in private practice in the Atlanta area for five years, where he learned the basics of being a lawyer. But he did not grow up wanting to be a courtroom lawyer. He preferred being in-house—near the action of the business, Wheelock says.
He went to work at a new internet start-up that promptly went bankrupt after the dot-com burst, and he then spent ten years at General Electric—first in Atlanta and then in Wilmington, North Carolina. At that point in his life, married and raising two small children, he wanted to live in a bigger city. Then, a recruiter called to tell him about Global Power.
Based in Dallas, the design, engineering, and manufacturing firm provides an array of equipment and services to the global power infrastructure, energy, and process industries, including gas turbine power plants and power-related equipment for industrial operations. With his experience in GE’s nuclear and energy power operations, Wheelock found Global Power to be a good fit.
After six years with Global Power, Wheelock was promoted to his current role in July 2017. The promotion has expanded his responsibilities—something which he relishes. One of his new duties is leading human resources. “In a million years, I wouldn’t have thought I’d be in charge of HR,” he says. “But I see it as a growth experience, working with people with different talents and perspectives.”
As an HR leader and the company’s top counsel, Wheelock relies on his legal acumen to take a much broader look at the company and the concerns it faces. As a result, other departments come to him for legal advice as well as to discuss moral, ethical, or business issues. “Usually, there is not just one right answer,” he says. “There are a wide range of ways things can get done, so it’s about choosing the answer that fits best at that particular time.”
Much of his focus is on compliance issues by reinforcing the fundamentals of regulatory compliance—or “getting the basic blocking and tackling right,” as he puts it.
“The energy industry is highly regulated, and people want to do the right thing but sometimes forget they have to follow the steps in order,” Wheelock says. “For example, in the nuclear space, regulators do inspections, so you have to make sure people in that environment understand what the rules are.”
As a leader whom people often turn to for guidance, he stresses the importance of communication, something he learned during his experience teaching. “I communicate a lot, maybe more than you think you need to,” he says. “People learn in different ways, so you may need to say things differently and then follow up with questions to see if they understood. In a leadership role, you have to remember that others may not have as much information as you do, so you need to communicate as regularly as you can, with as much transparency as you can. That really helps others feel comfortable in their jobs and be more productive for the company.”
Although his career path may not have been a straight line, he might not be where he is today without the worldliness he gained along the way. With that knowledge, his advice for others is to not be afraid to stray from the path. “There are twists and turns that you will never expect, and they can always be for the positive if you take them the right way,” he says. “There is always an experience that you can draw from.”
Photo: Lisa Hill