Next Up: Massey Whiteknife built a business and a following by staying true to himself
by Amanda Richardson
Most business owners wouldn’t name their company after their drag queen alter ego, let alone do it in Fort McMurray. Then again, most business owners aren’t like Massey Whiteknife. The 33-year old owner of ICEIS Safety Consulting – who is, indeed, an amateur drag queen – stands out in a community defined by more rough-and-ready types, and he does so for reasons beyond his unconventional appearance.
While Whiteknife might not look the part, he says he always knew he wanted to go into business. He opened his first business in his bedroom when he was seven, a shoebox store where his Barbie and G.I. Joe dolls would shop for mattresses. And while it might seem like idle child’s play, he says it offered him an escape from a troubled childhood. Growing up in the predominantly aboriginal hamlet of Conklin wasn’t easy, he says, and he was attacked both verbally and physically by his classmates for being gay and treated even worse at home. “All I really had left to do was play in my room, so I made a store,” he says. “I had my little G.I. Joe and I had Barbie and in a shoebox, I would make a waterbed out of a garbage bag.” He would eventually poke a hole in the bed and Barbie would have to buy a new one from Whiteknife’s store. “I would mark up the price and have a sale.”
At 17, looking for a fresh start in a new community, he moved to Fort McMurray. He lived alone in the boom town while completing high school during the day and earning money as a custodian at Suncor at night. He quickly cottoned on to the business potential of safety consulting and after he graduated, Whiteknife tried to build a business selling those services to aboriginal business owners in the region.
Like a lot of first businesses, his was a failure. But the lessons he drew from that experience were different – and harder – than the ones most first-timers walk away with. “Being openly gay in Fort McMurray is hard, but being an openly gay business owner is even harder,” he says. “Some people turned away and said no. Some people told me I should stay in the closet and not tell people I’m gay. Some industry players told me that I wasn’t going to succeed because I was openly gay and that I should try to ‘act manly.’ I was mentored by the wrong people.”
Whiteknife tried to play it straight, but when the business failed to gain traction he realized his success would be a product of him being himself. He regrouped and registered for an aboriginal youth entrepreneurship course where he learned the basics of business, gained insight from professional mentors and developed a solid business plan.
And so, in 2005, armed with little more than those lessons and the book-on-tape teachings of business gurus like Zig Ziglar, Donald Trump and Kris Kardashian, Whiteknife relaunched ICEIS Safety Consulting. In 2010, he added the reclaimed, wheelchair-accessible mini bus that he’s become known for around town. “My clients would be laughing at me, like, ‘Here comes Massey with ICEIS Safety in his handicap bus,’ ”says Whiteknife, looking back on ICEIS’s slow start. “It’s like, ‘Go ahead, laugh all you want,’ but I thanked them for giving me the opportunity … and said, ‘Give me a year and I’ll have my own cube van with my logo on it.’ ”
True to his word, within a year, Whiteknife had his van with company logos on it, a team and an ever-growing client list, which included well-known industry players like SNC Lavalin and the Bouchier Group, helping to affirm his position in the Fort McMurray safety consulting world. ICEIS now has seven full-time employees and seven subcontracted employees. What began with safety consultations for oil sands contractors quickly grew to include safety supply delivery and training in things like small space confinement and fall protection.
Whiteknife has big plans for 2013, too,including the release of a new line of environmentally-friendly industrial-strength cleaning supplies. And he’s still as busy–and as hands-on–as ever, occasionally working 19-hour days.
Whiteknife is pleased with his professional success, but it’s the fact that he’s found acceptance in a community that isn’t exactly reputed for offering it to people like him that really makes him proud. In 2011 he was recognized by the Alberta Chamber of Commerce with the Youth Entrepreneur Award of Distinction,while he was nominated for the Fort McMurray Chamber of Commerce’s 2012 Small Business of the Year award and won the Community Safety award at last November’s Fort McKay Community Awards ceremony. “That meant a lot,” he says, “because I feel like it means they’ve accepted me as a part of the community, even though I’m not originally from Fort McKay.”
Whiteknife has gone on to use his position as a local business owner to promote gay rights and anti-bullying in schools, summer camps and throughout the community by hosting and sponsoring events like Prestige fight nights. “Fighting should be done in the ring, not on the streets, in schools or in the boardroom,” he says. He was also behind the Do’in It Dirty Party drag show at Whiskey Ultra Lounge last July. All proceeds from the drag show, where Whiteknife took the stage as Iceis, went to Girls Inc. of Northern Alberta, an outreach program for young girls in the region.
And Iceis, who first appeared when Whiteknife was 18, still makes regular appearances when Whiteknife needs a break from the day-to-day stresses of running a business. “She stands up for herself; she’s strong, independent and a lot of fun,” he says. “It’s hard to explain, but being abused and bullied, called down all your life, all you want to do is escape for a day. She allowed me to do that. Now I do it just for fun, because she’s her own person. She’s nothing like Massey.”