Imaginea Energy’s Suzanne West talks vision with Carvel Electric
A young entrepreneur wants to do more than just make profits with his small but growing electrical company
by Jesse Snyder
Photograph Chris Wedman
Young exec: Jordan Jolicoeur
Senior exec: Suzanne West
In the public markets, where investors are high on expectations and low on patience, oil and gas companies are only as good as their last quarterly result. But for Suzanne West, the founder of Calgary-based Imaginea Energy, an oil and gas producer with the intention to, as she puts it, “change the world” by operating in a sustainable way, companies can have a higher purpose than generating returns. West sees her company not solely as a revenue generator, but as a way to recalibrate the idea of what an energy producer is. She sat down with Jordan Jolicoeur, a 26-year-old entrepreneur, at Ki Modern Japanese + Bar in Calgary to talk about the importance of having a vision when building a company.
West says companies are a manifestation of the vision (or lack thereof) created by its founder. Without a vision – without a greater intention or purpose – companies are less formidable in the face of market uncertainty.
Jolicoeur and his brother, Joel, took over Carvel Electric in 2013. So far business has been good, he says, and his relationship with his employees and apprentices is positive. But he is still contemplating what the ultimate vision for the company should be. When he sat down with West he had that very question in mind: How can entrepreneurs create a vision for their companies that will motivate and inspire their employees?
West describes companies as an ecosystem: The total composition of a company is the result of many smaller ideas, values, decisions and people, each providing their own purpose in creating the larger firm. “Your company culture is what determines what lives in that ecosystem. That’s why it’s so critical,” she says. “To create a culture where people care – or where they are inspired – all organizations have to be built on a greater meaning and purpose. People can get excited about making money, reducing costs, being more efficient, when they are serving something greater than themselves. You can beat on people to do stuff, but it has a very temporary effect. Getting better shareholder returns is important, but it’s not something shareholders are going to get engaged about. Imaginea has a particular vision that we’re about to change the world. You need to think about what it is about your company that can make people get up in the morning and say, ‘I can’t believe I’m this lucky.’ ”
West says inspiring people means getting to know what makes them tick. “All humans care about something,” she says. “That’s what makes us human beings – we’re not robots. Take the time to find out what that is for every person at your company. Really good leaders will actually be able to connect the dots between the vision of the company and what each person cares about. There will always be some connection. Some of it is more direct, but it’s up to you to be creative. When you find that creation, everything else will be easy.”
Jolicoeur says he sees the wisdom in such an approach. “So, it’s not about implementing my own vision; it’s about finding theirs and building off of that.”
Yes, but with a caveat. “It has to be natural,” West says. “Find what they are naturally motivated by and guide that energy and allow them to connect the dots. But always bear in mind – and this is super important – if people are repeatedly resistant to your vision, you don’t have the right people. Don’t keep swimming upstream in that case. Make the courageous decision to let people do what they want to do.”
Over the few years Jolicoeur has managed Carvel, he has tried to shift the company away from residential applications toward industrial-scale jobs. Already the company has a foothold installing control systems for railway companies, and Jolicoeur aims to add pipeline companies to his client list. But his ultimate goal, he says, goes beyond building his client base. “I’m at the early stages of building the company, so I want to build it in the right way,” he says. “I don’t want to be forced to hire people just to get the job done. I want to build a team that works organically. The vision that I see – and that I talk about with my brother a lot – is how do we build a team in which everybody wants to be there?”
West says people want to work for companies that inspire them, so people with an honest vision will find motivated people who want to work for them. The big question is how you know you’ve found the right vision.
“One way you can test it is by telling someone your vision,” West says. “If they say ‘that’s the stupidest vision I’ve ever heard,’ and you still want to do it – that’s how you know you believe in your vision. It should inspire you regardless of the environment of the business, regardless of whether people say it’s stupid, regardless of whether people send you accolades.”
West then asks her own question of Jolicoeur. “What keeps you up at night?”
He hesitates for a moment. “As the CEO and the person running the company, you have a lot of people who rely on you to provide work for them, to give them a platform to work,” he says. “The thing that gives me anxiety is knowing that I’m putting a roof over people’s heads. Their dreams rely on me helping them create an income and a life. So the question is, how do I keep the work coming in?”
West knows the feeling. “Number one, that’s going to kill you,” she says. “But if you create that narrative, it will make your company fragile. Companies are fragile when there is a linchpin of sorts, a central element that if you took it out of the company, it would be finished. I used to think that too, and I had a lot of weight on my shoulders, but you’re actually building a fragile system. Great leaders sometimes build fragile systems, because they’re so effective in what they do that the company is never the same in the absence of that person. What you want to do is build the DNA of the company, so that if, god forbid, you were hit by a bus, the rest of the company would know what to do.”
West imparts a last bit of advice. Jolicoeur wants to know how she has managed to be bold in an industry that isn’t always receptive to change. For her part, West doesn’t see her vision as “bold,” but instead doesn’t let negativity cloud her ultimate goal for her company. “Being told ‘no,’ doesn’t mean stop,” she says. “If you don’t accept ‘no,’ it means you are assuming you have all the best ideas. And no one knows what all the best ideas are. I might have a lot of good ideas, but I don’t know what the best ones are. People are so tragically conditioned to let fear dictate what we do or don’t do. I don’t have that as a barrier. If I fail, it means I’m going to learn something fantastic. You will not do anything extraordinary if you’re afraid of failure.”