Oct 25, 2022
From BlackBerry to bitcoin: How Jaime Leverton’s love of transformation got her in the C-suite
Lessened volatility in Bitcoin is putting pressure on crypto mining margins: Hut 8 Mining CEO
“They laughed,” she said, smirking at the memory. “Apparently, that’s not a common response.” Her employer at the time may not have taken her answer seriously, but Leverton certainly did.
Some 20 years later, Leverton is now CEO of Hut 8 Mining, a $500-million digital asset miner. Formed in 2018, Hut 8 is one of North America’s oldest and largest companies in the crypto mining space and lays claim to holding more self-mined bitcoin than any crypto miner or publicly traded company.
As CEO, Leverton is doing more than quieting former managers, she’s making a name for herself in what is still a very male-dominated industry. Less than 25 per cent of the crypto investor base are women, says Leverton. Those numbers fall further when it comes to having a woman in a senior leadership team. She adds that fewer than 20 per cent of companies in the blockchain space have a woman on their board or their founding team.
BLENDING TECH AND FINANCE
By the time she took on the role in the fall of 2020, Hut 8 had spent more than a year struggling to find its footing in cryptocurrencies, which were entering a bear market. Half tech, half finance, Hut 8 needed a CEO who could straddle the two worlds – but it’s an uncommon skill set. Many of Hut 8’s biggest competitors pull from either engineering backgrounds or finance. In Leverton, the company found one of the few executives with real experience in both.
Leverton’s tech bona fides are impressive. After earning a MBA in marketing informatics from Dalhousie University, she moved into progressively more senior roles at IBM in Toronto as a technology sales leader, where she first set her sights on becoming a CEO. If she were to one day climb IBM’s corporate ladder, however, she would likely have had to move to the U.S., which, unlike many other ambitious Canadians, she didn’t want to do.
“I wanted to do an executive career path in Canada. That became important to me, especially once I started my own family,” says Leverton, who has two daughters, ages 14 and 12. “If I was going to work long hours and create value, I wanted to feel like I was creating value for Canada and my community.”
In 2010, while on maternity leave from IBM, Leverton got a call from Bell Canada, where she was asked to lead its struggling cabling delivery division, responsible for running cables into data centres and new buildings. It was her first time overseeing a profit and loss statement, which excited her, but the most intriguing part of the job was the potential for turning around an underperforming division.
“I really dove in and within 12 months, there was a significant turnaround in both top and bottom line growth,” she says. “It was then I became hooked on transformation.”
THE PROBLEM SOLVER
If there’s anything that defines Leverton’s career, it’s her love of transformation. She has long been attracted to the idea of saving or fixing something.
“Just like how people want to paint a room in their house and immediately see the impact, my connection to transformation is very much like that, but a corporate version of it,” she says.
Creating jobs, building community and driving tangible benefits to her companies is what gets her up in the morning.
“I often think, if not me, then who? And if I think I can get the job done, then I feel obligated to give it everything I have to make it successful,” she notes.
While her zeal for transformation may have formed at Bell, it was honed at BlackBerry, which, when she joined in 2015, was in the midst of one of Canada’s most difficult and most watched turnarounds. After a chance meeting with John Chen, the CEO brought in to rescue BlackBerry, she was invited to help revitalize the one-time darling of the Canadian tech industry.
It was unlike anything Leverton, who became vice-president responsible for selling and managing BlackBerry’s relationship with its carrier partners in North America, had been exposed to before. She knew it would be a risk that might not pay off, but she couldn’t resist the chance to make an impact on the Canadian company.
“The BlackBerry turnaround story was one of the biggest turnarounds happening in tech,” she says. “I had to say yes to the opportunity to be part of this iconic Canadian technology company that I loved so much, and it was important to me to see if there was a way I could add value and drive change at the company.”
While BlackBerry’s transformation continued after she left in 2016 to join National Bank as a managing director, the experience gave her many of the tools she would need to become a CEO.
One lesson that’s stayed with her, is that for transformation to happen quickly CEOs need to surround themselves with people they can trust.
“John knew he had to assemble a team that already had a trusted relationship, so he could just put them into roles and everyone could move fast,” she says. “That was his perspective on how you drive that change in the fastest possible way with the highest likelihood of success, and that’s something I would not have picked up on if I had just been watching it from afar – you really had to be in the room.”
She took that lesson to heart, surrounding herself with trusted colleagues at Hut 8, which has helped speed up its turnaround.
FROM TRANSFORMATION TO DISRUPTION
After a couple of more technology-focused roles, Hut 8 came knocking. It was the perfect time for Leverton, who was intrigued by crypto’s possibilities.
“I fell in love with the promise, potential and hope that the premise of bitcoin is built on,” she says.
The job also appealed to her transformational sensibilities, not only because Hut 8 was struggling at the time, but because the entire financial sector was undergoing a transition.
“I felt like the financial system was ripe for disruption. It felt very much like an industry that hadn’t evolved in a very long time; one where things were done the same way because they’d always been done that way.”
When she was hired for the top job at Hut 8, her C-suite dreams were finally realized. But the celebration didn’t last long.
“I was terrified,” she admits. “It’s what I have been working for all of these years, but the CEO role I decided to cut my teeth on was a highly volatile, publicly traded crypto company. It was a big leap.”
Instead of letting the anxiety get to her, she did what she’s done every time she has taken on a new role in her career – she went to work. In 2021, the company started mining ether; in January 2022 Hut 8 purchased TeraGo, a cloud data centre, and its five enterprise-grade data centres. In the second quarter of 2022, revenue climbed to $43.8 million, a 30.7 per cent year-over-year increase, while the company mined 71 per cent more bitcoin than in in the second quarter of 2021.
Leverton’s also reshaping Hut 8 in her image to set the company further apart from competitors. “There’s a responsibility I feel to be a role model to other women in this space, a role model to young girls,” she says. It’s one of the reasons why 40 per cent of Hut 8’s leadership team and board are women. “We’ve got an incredibly diverse team and it gives us a competitive advantage because we look at the world from a diverse perspective.”
While the company’s fortunes have followed the crypto craze, surging to a high in November 2021 before pulling back with the rest of the public operators, there is no denying Leverton’s impact. Even after all the volatility, Hut 8’s shares are still up more than 100 per cent since she became CEO.
Getting to this point is not easy – the path to the C-suite is never a straight line – but she’s found success, she says, partly because she always tries to maintain a sense of humility and curiosity.
That’s especially important in a transformation, which can come with many ups and downs.
“It’s really critical for me to constantly check myself as a leader now doing this type of work,” she says. “I never want to fool myself into thinking that what’s true yesterday is true today, or that I necessarily have the answers because I’ve seen something similar before.”
The only way anyone can truly secure a leadership role, however, is to trust themselves, even if it feels uncomfortable, she explains.
“You have to bet on you,” she says. “It was such a big step to leave IBM. You can get so comfortable and protected, and when you make that leap for the first time into a new organization where you don’t have people there vouching for you, you’re almost starting over. But I always believed I would learn something that I couldn’t earn anywhere else and that even if the risk didn’t pay off, I’d add more value to my career.”
BNN Bloomberg is owned by Bell Media, which is a division of BCE.