International experience helped Helen Wesley climb the corporate ladder
Now she’s been recognized with the Haskayne 2012 Management Alumni Excellence (MAX) award
by Geoffrey Morgan
Helen Wesley was hell-bent on becoming a doctor. She was a star student in high school and enrolled in science as an undergraduate student at the University of Calgary. But the executive vice-president of corporate services at Talisman Energy changed her mind after she spent a summer working at Petro-Canada ahead of the 1988 Winter Olympic Games in Calgary. “For me, that was a life changer,” she says, noting that she enjoyed working at Petro-Canada far more than studying science. “I would have been a very unhappy doctor.” So when she returned to university that fall, Wesley dropped all of her science courses and enrolled instead at the Haskayne School of Business. It proved to be a wise decision: It has given her a varied, satisfying career and, this year, earned her the Haskayne 2012 Management Alumni Excellence (MAX) award.
Photograph Ewan Nicholson
After earning her degree, Wesley took a series of steps that have given her broad international experience. She completed an MBA in international business from Bentley College in Boston. She then moved back to Calgary for a job first at Petro-Canada, then at Nova Corp. in 1997, where she moved up the ranks and eventually served as head of investor relations. When Nova merged its pipeline business with TransCanada in 1998, she stayed with the company but moved to Pittsburgh, serving as Nova Chemicals’ head of supply chain management. She eventually took the Global Petroleum Course through the Oxford Energy Institute. “That was a huge eye-opener for me,” Wesley says. “In North America, we have a tendency to think of this as the centre of the universe.” She says that’s just not the case.
Wesley went through the Oxford course with 60 other energy executives from around the world, and only six were from Canada and the U.S. “As North Americans, we were the minority and we absolutely did not carry the conversation,” she says. That experience helped later in her career, when she was the head of finance for Petro-Canada’s international operations in London.
At the time, Petro-Canada had oil and gas assets in a dozen countries, and Wesley was responsible for everything from finance to supply-chain management and IT systems for those operations. Wesley held that post for four years before moving back to Calgary with her husband and their two children, but her work overseeing those operations helped form her perspective on the global energy industry and what’s required for a company to succeed in foreign markets. “You have to recognize how business is done in those countries,” she says. “Is there a lot of upfront social time spent, or do you jump right into the heart of the matter? How and when do difficult decisions get made? Are they made in group meetings or are they made in private? Where does the balance of power lie in that culture?”
After she moved back to Calgary, Wesley stayed at Petro-Canada during its merger with Suncor and served as Suncor’s vice-president and treasurer through 2010. Then she moved to Talisman. Don Carty, a Talisman board member and the former CEO of American Airlines, says Wesley’s international experience has been a big asset for the company. “Having someone that actually understands how the global economy works, how different cultures work, how rules and regulations in different parts of the world work, is incredibly important for us,” he says. That’s not all she brings to the table, either. “There are a lot of dimensions to Helen, and her background in business is fairly diverse,” Carty says. “She’s a very accomplished financial executive, and she has overseen information technology and supply-chain management and HR.” That broad range of experience, he says, is part of what makes Wesley such an accomplished executive.
Now other young executives can develop that broad base of experience too, thanks in part to Wesley’s continued work with the University of Calgary. This past spring the Haskayne School of Business launched a new MBA program geared specifically for executives working in the energy industry. “We [at Talisman] were a founding sponsor of that program, and it was partly driven by the huge eye-opening experiences I had in working in oil and gas internationally,” Wesley says.
The 16-month program is based in Calgary, but includes postings in Abu Dhabi, Beijing, London and Houston. The program is designed to provide students with “global and multicultural perspectives” by offering study sessions in the world’s “energy capitals.” Wesley says the company has already put a few of its own employees into the program. As she sees it, Haskayne can have a positive influence on Calgary’s business community – and the city of Calgary itself – by graduating more MBAs with international experience. As she says, “The more people we can get going abroad and learning, the better it will be for the city.”
And Wesley’s influence on the city of Calgary has been positive as well. She has volunteered her time with the Calgary Emergency Women’s Shelter, and has represented women in the workplace for years. For example, while at Nova she was the chair of the Women in Nova Committee, and has a passion for mentoring – or as she describes it, “helping others find their way, career-wise.”
One of her friends and business mentors is Sarah Raiss. Raiss retired last year as a vice-president with TransCanada but still sits on the board of Canadian Oil Sands and the Business Development Bank of Canada. Raiss says she’s proud of Wesley, and that her friend cares deeply about her company and the organizations in which she volunteers. “I was so excited when I heard that she got the MAX award because she truly is one of those people who is a role model in everything that she does,” Raiss says, “in her career, in her personal life and in her community work.”
Last year, Wesley joined the board of directors at Care Canada, a charity that provides aid to the poorest countries in the world and one where she’ll be able to use her international experience for the not-for-profit sector. She is also a member of the dean’s management advisory council at Haskayne, where she continues to work with university staff to improve the school and its relationship with the local business community. “If I look at the Haskayne School, I think it needs to be a critical part of Calgary’s infrastructure,” she says. “A vibrant city needs a vibrant business school.”
CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this story, we said Helen Wesley was Petro-Canada’s head of international operations in London. In fact, she was vice-president finance. We also indicated she returned to Calgary after her MBA for a job at Nova, but it was Petro-Canada where she started.