Suzanne West received the encouragement she needed to start her fifth entrepreneurial venture in the Alberta oil and gas industry, Imaginea Energy Corp., while attending the innovative Necker Meets Oxford conference on Sir Richard Branson’s island. The conference also inspired her to take on a tremendous task: transforming the oil and gas industry into a force for good.
Ms. West was confident in her ability to produce traditional shareholder value, having successfully negotiated several other ventures including the most recent, Black Shire Energy Inc. However, the challenge with Imaginea was that it was not only going to produce a healthy return for its shareholders, but also had to have a positive impact on the community and the environment. The question was, could she raise the $500-million required to launch this new venture? More specifically, were investors in Calgary ready to support her as a social entrepreneur? She was excited to find out.
After graduating from the University of Calgary in 1987 with a chemical engineering degree, Ms. West began her career working for Imperial Oil Ltd. and then transitioned to Gulf Canada Resources Ltd. By 1999, she felt the entrepreneurial itch and began what would become nearly 14 years of building successful oil and gas companies. By 2013 she had four under her belt and sold her most recent company, Black Shire Energy Inc., to Twin Butte Energy Ltd. for $358-million. That same year, she was awarded RBC’s PROFIT Award for Excellence in Entrepreneurship.
Ms. West’s entrepreneurial record, combined with her love of the outdoors, led her to Necker Meets Oxford to connect with and learn from leading entrepreneurs, philanthropists, and academics. This inspiring experience prompted Ms. West’s journey to Ecuador, spending time among the indigenous Kichwa and Achuar people. This immersion in nature – witnessing how these people lived with the land and animals – was life-changing. Ms. West returned to Calgary determined to change the paradigm of what an oil and gas company is. With her new experiences fueling her entrepreneurial appetite, she took on the wicked challenge of creating a sustainable energy company in Alberta.
To capture her thoughts and establish a direction for the new company, Ms. West began with the golden circle, focusing on why she was creating Imaginea. Putting pen to paper, Ms. West developed Project Step-Up, a manifesto that outlined the need for changing the way companies profit from the earth. The manifesto included tactics, important details of how the company would have a net positive environmental difference, and the beginnings of a culture for the organization that would be based on empowerment and accountability. An organizational structure that was not hierarchal was something that she had established in her previous companies with great success. Ms. West quickly realized it came down to one word: and. Her company needed to positively contribute to the environment and generate a profit for shareholders.
With her experience in the energy sector, Ms. West knew that for Project Step-Up and Imaginea to be successful, they would require massive amounts of creativity, innovation, and funding. After completing her manifesto, she began preparing her investor presentation with a goal of raising $500-million. Having gone through the experience of losing investors’ money with her third company, Auriga Energy Inc., she knew the challenges of raising capital in Calgary – especially for something as novel as Imaginea.
With her presentation complete and Project Step-Up in hand, Ms. West set off to meet Lime Rock Partners.
Rather than pitch to Lime Rock Partners, Ms. West demonstrated her inspired leadership to change the oil and gas industry into a sustainable paradigm through her visionary entrepreneurial drive. Lime Rock committed $300-million (U.S.) to her vision for Imaginea. Having previously worked with Lime Rock Partners (investors in Black Shire Energy), Ms. West knew they were the right people to have on board and had confidence in her ability to fulfill Project Step-Up.
Confident in the why of Imaginea’s creation, and with the financial investment secured, Ms. West turned her focus to the how. How would Imaginea measure its environmental and social impact? She knew she had to start by building a team that was up to the unique challenges of the task.
Imaginea is now flourishing, driven by committed people who Ms. West seeks to empower. Imaginea’s team make decisions that move the company towards her transformational goals, staying accountable to her vision while using their own initiative and skill sets. With the new investment in place, her team of 13 is actively acquiring oil and/or gas assets to apply their innovative business model to.
The questions and challenges her team encounters as they help new assets focus on environmental and community accountability just as much as stakeholder accountability, fuel Ms. West’s entrepreneurial spirit, as she relentlessly pursues her reimagining and reframing of the paradigm of oil and gas production in Alberta.
This is the latest in a regular series of case studies by a rotating group of business professors from across the country. They appear every Friday on the Report on Small Business website.
Houston Peschl (@houstonpeschl) is an entrepreneurship instructor at the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business (@haskayneschool).
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