Why Suzanne West thinks it’s time for change
Plenty of people in the energy sector talk a good game on environmental and social responsibility
by Max Fawcett
Photograph Heather Saitz
In October, Suzanne West sold Black Shire Energy, a firm she started three years ago, to Twin Butte Energy for $358 million. It’s not the first time she’s made her investors a bag of money, but West says she’s tired of just making money. She wants to make change instead.
That feeling took root this past summer when she was at a conference (on Richard Branson’s private island) called Necker Meets Oxford that brings together academics and entrepreneurs from around the world to find out how they can make a difference in the world. She says the event created an epiphany, and after a side trip to Ecuador where she spent two and a half weeks living with the Kichwa and Achuar people, she came back to Calgary committed to starting something truly new: an oil and gas company with a conscience. Alberta Venture’s Max Fawcett caught up with West to talk about the result, Imaginea Energy Trust, and the waves it’s making in the patch.
AV: You’ve said you want to create a new kind of company with Imaginea Energy Trust. What’s the response been like?
SW: It’s been such a beautiful response. It’s tapped into this magical undercurrent of what people are desperately seeking – a form of meaning in their lives. Some people have said, “Please tell me this might be true,” because we’ve been living under this myth that it’s only about money. And from the investor community, I have been very pleasantly surprised that there’s been so much response. But I’m surprised, and I’m not surprised. It’s an idea whose time has come, and the universe is opening all the doors that need
to be opened.
AV: Are people in the patch threatened by the way you think?
SW: They’re unnerved. It’s so unknown to them, so outside their conditioning and comfort zone. We as a society don’t embrace the unknown – if we can’t control it and know it and put it down and label it, we don’t have that comfort.
AV: You’ve made your investors a heap of money in the past. Does that help you in terms of getting a fair hearing on this where someone else might not?
SW: I’m certainly hoping so – that’s the entry point, for sure. They’re saying, “Well, she can’t be completely crazy.” But my pitch to them – and it’s not a pitch, because I believe it in every cell of my body – is that they’ll do better. If they think of it fundamentally as a cost, and they’re trying to figure out how much it will reduce their profits, they don’t get this. But if they truly understand the vision I have, then they’ll get that this will do better. All that money I made them before – I’ll make them more money.
AV: So, what form does this take? What does it actually look like?
SW: It’s a good question, and I don’t have all the answers. But the basic tenet is that we go in and we drill wells, we build facilities and we generate profits that can do good in the world. That’s what my gig is, and what I’m good at. The difference is how we do that. You have to break things down into all the pieces, so you can see where the opportunities for intervention are. You have to think of the whole supply chain. Are they from environmentally friendly suppliers? What are you using? What are you wasting?
AV: I know you’ve said that there are plenty of attractive assets out there right now. Is it a good time to be a buyer?
SW: It’s a great time. Great time. People are asking, ‘Why didn’t you take a break?’ But when the universe opens doors of opportunity, you need to walk through them.
AV: Is there anything in particular you’re looking for?
SW: We try to see value over and above what we buy, so that’s not necessarily attached to a product. But the economics right now are better on oil, and frankly I have a little bit more impetus to do the oil because the oil probably needs more help. Gas is just fundamentally cleaner energy, so to pick up legacy oil assets is probably more congruent with what I’m trying to do. Do I have a postal code? No. But I’m a conventional girl. Those are the assets that people are going to be shedding, it’s where you can be countercyclical – and I love things that other people don’t like.
AV: Let’s roll the clock back for a moment. How did you get into the energy sector in the first place?
SW: I’m a reservoir engineer by background, and I lived in Calgary graduated in 1987 and it was the only place to get a job. I started with Imperial Oil.
AV: When did you realize that the traditional career path in the patch wasn’t for you?
SW: Probably about day two. I mean, as soon as I got introduced to a command and control organizational model, it was so bizarre to me. But I was young, and I didn’t come from a background of entrepreneurs or a corporate culture, and nobody else seemed to think it was strange, so it wasn’t until after about four or five years and I got into middle management that I realized it was completely crazy. I tried to be an organizational rebel and turn the Queen Mary around, but eventually I left Imperial. Now, I got well trained, and I couldn’t do what I do without that training, so I thank Mother Esso every day. But I struck out on my own, re-mortgaged my house, busted open all my piggy banks and said, ‘What the heck.’ And it’s worked great.
AV: What’s wrong with the energy sector, in your view?
SW: It’s not just the energy sector – we have a society where almost everything’s polarized. You’re a Democrat or a Republican, and God forbid you ever agree on anything. You’re a crazy tree hugger or a greedy capitalist pig, and then you have to pick your side and fight, because there must be a winner and a loser. But we’re missing all this beautiful space in between of collaboration that makes the pie bigger for everybody. This is the space I’m going to live in.
AV: That’s radical thinking for someone in the energy sector.
SW: I’m certainly charting unknown territory. But in August I spent two-and-a-half weeks in Ecuador living with indigenous people learning how they live in harmony with Mother Nature, and if I wasn’t motivated by Necker, I came back from that knowing that what we’re doing is not sustainable. We have to change what we’re doing. I might not have all the best ideas, but we have to do something – we have to want to change, and then we have to try to change. And really, if those are our only two barriers, those are completely within our grasp.
AV: Can you foresee a day when a company like Imaginea gets a premium valuation for the market, rather than being punished for spending more money than it needs to in order to get the oil out of the ground?
SW: In five years, social entrepreneurship will absolutely get that premium valuation. It will be understood and accepted as a new model of business, and we’ll be five years ahead of the game or leading the charge. But you need to incubate this in the private world. The public world isn’t ready for it yet. The market does not like uncertainty, and when you burn the rule book there are a lot of unknowns.
AV: You’re trying to raise $500 million. That’s more than you’ve ever raised before. Can you do it?
SW: Oh, yeah.