Venturing Outside the Comfort Zone

How an unexpected career opportunity led Jonathon Schwebach to unexpected success at Renewable Energy Group

After nearly two years with Renewable Energy Group, Inc. (REG)—a leading provider of clean, lower carbon intensity products and services—Jonathon Schwebach unexpectedly found himself with a major decision to make: accept a promotion to become the company’s treasurer, or continue on the more familiar path as head of the tax department.

Jonathon Schwebach, Renewable Energy Group

Because he was building out the tax team and involved in other projects at the time that he found to be particularly interesting as senior tax manager, Schwebach respectfully declined the promotion. Just a few hours later, however, Daniel Oh, who was the CEO at the time, invited him out for ice cream to discuss his decision. That turned into a two-hour conversation about Schwebach’s career path and goals.

Oh asked if Schwebach’s parents had ever made him do anything he feared. They had, in fact, persuaded him to pitch in Little League baseball. Years later, he went on to pitch for his college team. Using that experience as leverage, Oh finally convinced Schwebach that he could accomplish great things if someone had faith in his abilities, provided him with the right tools, and if he had the desire to succeed.

“Accepting the treasurer position was one of the best career decisions I ever made,” Schwebach recalls. “It was an unexpected shift and unknown territory at the time, but it set the stage for me to learn much more about the business and industry, which has made me a better advisor and business decision-maker, as well as a more well-rounded tax professional.”

One particular opportunity—overseeing the multifunctional initiative to sell all biodiesel blended gallons at the end of the year to claim mixture tax credits—changed how Schwebach was perceived in his new role as treasurer. The credits are part of what is known as the “extenders package” that is typically renewed every few years by Congress.

“To ensure we qualify for the credit, we have to meet the tax definition for a sale,” Schwebach explains. “I had to lead the company-wide effort within my first six months as treasurer, which resulted in the successful sale and acceleration of the claim for up to $30 million in tax credits. That was a turning point in proving myself as an effective partner with the rest of the business.”

Schwebach’s tenure as treasurer added to his prior experience in public accounting and working with REG as an outside advisor. While still treasurer, the company acquired a German company and established an office in Amsterdam. These transactions exposed Schwebach to details of how REG generates profits worldwide and to other critical nontax issues that he faced while leading a cross-functional team responsible for designing the company’s European legal structure.

In his current position as executive director of global tax, Schwebach continues to be actively involved in REG’s M&A strategy. As part of the M&A team, he steps in early to manage due diligence related to acquisition structures and tax considerations, which provides him with opportunities to apply his insights and expertise. He advises the deal team about tax risk mitigation, how the target company fits within the organization from an asset placement standpoint, and how the financing structure is likely to influence cash flow.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of Schwebach’s role is the variety, he says. On any given day, Schwebach may be focused on tax accounting issues, then transition to lead a project around global trade or transfer pricing. He may also handle issues related to derivatives that the company purchases to manage risk around commodity price fluctuations or help advocate with legislators for expanding biofuel incentive programs and the use of biofuels. Other times, he focuses on setting goals and long-term objectives, departmental strategy and policies, performance indicators, and presentations for his executive team or board of directors.

“I’ve been with the company for almost seven years and never had the same day twice,” Schwebach says. “There are many opportunities and challenges that are unique to our industry that involve a wide variety of tax and nontax topics. I really enjoy the challenge and the complexity.”

One of the areas where he feels particularly proud of is helping build the company’s global tax department. When he arrived, the team consisted of just three people but has since grown to thirteen, including two members based in Amsterdam. While much of that growth has been aligned with the company’s own expansion through organic investment and M&A, it is also associated with Schwebach’s approach to talent management.

He genuinely cares about his employees, coaches them to help them reach their full potential, and encourages them to pursue what makes them happy. That style enables team members to advance within the department and has created a culture of camaraderie and trust. It has also resulted in global tax department alumni being sprinkled throughout the organization as they have sought other positions that fit their visions of their own career paths.

Schwebach’s leadership style is rooted in relationships he has made with mentors throughout his career. He feels quite fortunate to have had their encouragement to pursue his own ambitions—even if he didn’t fully realize what they were at the time. “If Dan Oh hadn’t challenged me declining the promotion to treasurer, then I would not be as effective in my role today supporting my team or serving the company,” he says. “I’m truly grateful that Dan pushed me out of my comfort zone.”

Photo: Jessie Borkowski

Kelly S Mathews LLC has the privilege of working with great clients. Throughout our relationship with Jonathon Schwebach, we have been inspired by his dedication to his team, enviable integrity, and commitment to excellence in all aspects—especially new endeavors. We look forward to realizing our shared vision for growth for both our companies, and are honored to work together.

Deloitte is proud to recognize the accomplishments of Jonathon Schwebach and Renewable Energy Group and their collective contributions to the advanced biofuels industry.