Building a Vision

Monty Balderston, executive VP and CFO of Northern Frontier, on the company’s plans and the networking it took to get onboard

Calgary is big, but it’s not overwhelming. Most of the major business players still know each other or know someone who knows you, so relationships are crucial. Thanks to his own connections, Monty Balderston was tapped to join Northern Frontier Corp., an ambitious new venture looking to seize opportunities in the area that only a group with access to public markets can. Here, Balderston, the company’s executive vice president and CFO, explains Northern Frontier’s plans in greater detail and reveals how his wealth of connections led him to his current post.

Advantage: What is Northern Frontier’s winning edge?
Monty Balderston: Northern Frontier was created [on the] Toronto Venture Exchange as a shell company. We saw a void of no direct public vehicles in the industrial-services space of northeastern Alberta, so we formed a public shell to capitalize on the opportunity.

Our vision is to build a significant industrial-services player. We want to be a billion-dollar company in a few years. In order to do this, we felt we needed the access to the public markets for the necessary capital to achieve our goal. Currently, one [other firm] in the public domain is doing what we plan to do. We saw the opportunity and are seizing it.

What is your role in building this vision?
The CEO and I were approached with the idea and invited to join, so I joined on a contingent-employment basis. Our first step was to acquire a business that focuses on the industrial-services market in northeast Alberta. Once we closed the deal, I was to become CFO of the new venture.

I helped put together the public documents and went on the road to raise the [$100 million in] capital for the purchase. We had 75 percent of the capital committed but couldn’t close the remainder, so the deal fell through. Luckily, we already had plan B in motion when this happened.

So we quickly moved to plan B—the acquisition of an industrial-services business in the SAGD [steam-assisted gravity drainage] market of northeast Alberta—and went to market with the deal in May 2013 at $55 million and got the deal across the goal line in September 2013.

What is Northern Frontier’s five-year plan?
We want to build a successful, diversified industrial-services business. We believe the current and future industrial-services demand in Western Canada, primarily driven by oil sands, is the highest-growth market opportunity. Within the oil sands market, industrial SAGD services are relatively young and are very fragmented, presenting “platform buy and build” opportunities.

Monty Balderston’s
Career Milestones

1991
Graduates with a finance diploma from the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology

1995
Graduates with a bachelor of commerce degree from the University of Alberta

1998
Earns his designation as a chartered accountant

2000
Articles with PricewaterhouseCoopers

2008
Works for Peak Energy Services Ltd. and eventually becomes CFO

2012
Joins Northern Frontier Corp. as a consultant

2013
Is appointed as executive VP and CFO of Northern Frontier

How did you make the transition from CFO of Peak Energy Services Ltd. to CFO of Northern Frontier?
I had been with Peak, an oil and natural gas company primarily in the equipment-rental business, for eight years, three as CFO. We were acquired by a large US-based public company in 2011. My proposed new role was of an internal focus; however, I wanted to continue my career path being more externally focused, so I joined a start-up, Silica North, but it fell through.

I decided to join Northern Frontier after four independent business associates told me, “You need to talk to Northern Frontier. They are building a new business that definitely fits your experience and vision.” It’s amazing how small a city of one million really is. At Peak, I had accumulated experience through six acquisitions and one public merger. [Overall, Peak was the culmination of 26 acquisitions and one public merger.] I experienced the positives and negatives of a buy-and-build strategy and felt that I could bring my lessons learned to Northern Frontier.

What has been your career’s proudest moment?
Peak went through a public company restructuring in 2009. We rode the roller coaster of negative public disclosure and related people-management issues. Through it all, I did not lose one key staff member, and several stepped up to the plate when I really needed them. You cannot teach heart.

Peak went through a very intense and frustrating ERP [enterprise resource planning] implementation. I’m not just focused on financial controls but also on providing reporting that makes operations jobs easier. If key metrics are visible quicker, the organization is better equipped to make more timely decisions.

On the closing of the Peak acquisition, the acquirer implemented its legacy financial systems on day one. Two months later, one of our key operations guys, who fought the ERP implementation, said, “I didn’t realize, until after someone turned them off, all the great tools we had built. Now I struggle to do my job, as I have no visibility.” It was rewarding to know that my team’s perseverance added value; it’s too bad that our systems had to be turned off before it was recognized.

What was your takeaway from the experience?
Surround yourself with good people. I’ve never been scared of hiring people who are smarter than me. My role as leader is to bring various skill sets together to achieve our goals. As I said before, you can’t teach heart.