Suzanne West once tried really hard to get fired from the big company she worked for. She pointed out failings of senior management. She refused to follow direct orders. She messed with standard procedures. Nothing worked. Despite her best efforts, West remained employed. And she was mad.
The 48-year-old oil and gas professional from Calgary was angry because the company seemed to view employees as costs rather than assets, employing a “command and control” model instead of encouraging and equipping workers to find their potential and add real value. Dismayed, West remortgaged her home in 1999 to start her own small oil and gas company, and she has since spent the past 14 years building and selling similar companies for deals worth more than $700 million.
Her latest endeavour, Imaginea Energy, takes her views a step further, finding ways not only to help its own employees but also to serve the commonweal.
It was a tropical meeting with Richard Branson in 2013 that first gave rise to West’s new company. She received an invite to the billionaire’s private island, where he hosted a conference on “doing business for good.” As the world’s top minds in business and academia came together to discuss new ways to make a real difference in the world, West had an epiphany. “I saw standard of living as a common solution to many world problems,” she says. “And energy accounts for 25 percent of standard of living. Energy can be part of the solution to some of the world’s really big problems.”
The Word on Green
President Suzanne West has found that preaching green practices means finding a new way to communicate in the business community. Pushing for positive change means speaking a new language. Here’s how she breaks down some industry lingo:
“This means learning to act in new ways that aren’t solely focused on profits. There are simple things we might not think about that can really have a big impact if you add them all together. We need to show people that our actions really matter and that we don’t always need to obsess only with the bottom line.”
“We can really help people try something new. Old thinking often prevents us from having a breakthrough. This is where collaboration comes in. Too many businesses are focused on doing better than everyone else. Everyone wants to compete instead of contributing in a way where everyone does their best.”
Everyone talks about technology, but the key is to remember how fast it changes. We need to stay up-to-date to bring faster and more accurate data so that we can analyze everything in a better and more accurate way.
The conference set West’s mind in motion. She started asking questions. Can an energy company change the world? Can we provide energy and make profits without wrecking the planet? Can we make money in a sustainable way? Why aren’t we doing this? Those questions motivated West to spend two weeks living among the indigenous peoples of Ecuador to observe their simple lifestyle and the devastating effects of global business. She came back from the trip with renewed determination to build a new kind of energy company—one that would return a profit and still do good in the world. “I don’t know of any rule book that says we can’t make money and be eco-friendly,” she says. “We’re either too lazy or unmotivated, but I’m going to try.”
First, West had to sell her latest energy company, Black Shire Energy Inc., which Twin Butte Energy Ltd. scooped up for $358 million in a November 2013 deal. That left West free to create Imaginea, a new oil and gas company with both an environmental and human focus, and the sustainable principles West applies to Imaginea are known together as Project Step-Up.
Here’s how Imaginea is different: the company will still turn a profit (Black Shire paid its investors back 3.5 times), but the bottom line will not drive every single decision West and her partners make. “We see things in a new way that people either don’t or can’t see,” she says. West is currently looking for backers who will stake her enterprise with $500 million for acquisitions.
The approach is still being researched and networked, but Project Step-Up already exists as a set of values for West—one that other owners can apply to their own companies. In the oil and gas industry, Project Step-Up might push crews to kill idling engines at jobsites, but in a bakery, it might push an owner to buy ingredients from local farmers.
“We break down your business and find opportunities for positive intervention,” West says. “We find what you are doing and what you are wasting and then apply innovation to find where you can have both profit and sustainability.”
When it comes to Project Step-Up, West is not competitive or territorial. In fact, she hopes other organizations will adopt the concept. “When you have greater purpose and vision built in, people show up 100 percent,” she says.
Having walked away from a series of multimillion-dollar sales, West is taking a big risk with Imaginea, but she’s not afraid of failure. As she sees it, even if Project Step-Up falters, it just might inspire someone to follow in her footsteps. “If we don’t change the way we operate as a society,” she says, “it won’t matter how much money I could sell future businesses for.”