Sometimes, you meet people who change your life, rock your world. And Imaginea CEO Suzanne West is one of those people. If you don’t know her yet–give her a call, to grab a coffee. Dinner? Better yet, run up and down the Crescent Heights stairs with her for a while. And then, go change the world together.
As a preparation for your chat, read my feature, Can an Energy Company Make Money and Save the Environment? (Alberta Oil, August 2015). Full text below, and, of course, in this month’s issue of Alberta Oil.
Can an Energy Company Make Money and Save the Environment?
Suzanne West believes that she can build an oil company that’s both sustainable and highly profitable. Is she out to lunch – or on to something huge?
Call it a religious awakening if you want to. The Calgary oil woman who experienced it doesn’t mind. By now, everyone in the energy industry who participates in green navel-gazing has heard the story: Suzanne West went to Richard Branson’s Necker Island estate in February 2013 as the publicity-shy president of a fairly unremarkable oil and gas company called Black Shire Energy. She came back the poster child of the people-planet-profit mantra, and an apostle of the “and” solution, which, if all goes according to plan, will see anti-industry tree huggers and greedy anti-Earth capitalists linking arms to sing campfire songs in harmony. “We don’t need to sing ‘Kumbaya’ today,” West says. “I can go toe-to-toe if I need to do that.” But, today, she’d prefer not to go toe-to-toe. In fact, it’s not about her winning at all. Today, it’s about everyone winning – and making “beautiful profits” in the process. There, in a phrase – in a word, “and” – you have Suzanne West: committed environmentalist and unabashed capitalist entrepreneur. At the moment, she’s the president and CEO of Imaginea Energy, her fifth oil and gas company, and the first with the overt philosophy of saving the planet and making money. Can she do it? “Oh, yeah. Absolutely.”
“The market does not like uncertainty, and when you burn the rule book there are a lot of unknowns.”
– Suzanne West, CEO of Imaginea Energy
That, incidentally, was the same answer she gave when asked if she could raise the $500 million she needed to get Imaginea off the ground at the beginning of 2014. And, she did, starting with a $300-million investment from Lime Rock Partners, a U.S. private equity firm that’s bet on West before. Lime Rock’s investment is perhaps all the endorsement West needs. She went to the firm with her post-Necker Island vision committed to paper, both as her personal manifesto and as an investor pitch. “It is time to pioneer a new kind of 3P energy company,” it said, “one that values Planet, People and Profits equally.” But Lime Rock is a private equity player with one mission: make money. It makes its investment plays with an eye to a profitable exit – that’s all. It gave West money not because she had an awakening and a vision but because she has a track record. She quadrupled the value of her investors’ stakes in Black Shire, and that was after building up and selling both Touchstone Petroleum and then Chariot Energy for very healthy returns.
But she’s also stumbled. Before the successful Black Shire play, there was Auriga Energy, which was battered by the financial crisis of 2008-2009 and was ultimately sold at a loss. But the self-defined optimist barely paused before jumping into the game again. That, perhaps, is the Alberta definition of entrepreneur – and, her Branson-induced awakening aside, West conforms to the Alberta entrepreneur archetype almost too well for it to be true. She was born in small-town southern Alberta to solidly “lower middle-class” parents. Her mother worked as a secretary in a rural junior high school and her father was a payroll administrator. She worked her way through a degree in chemical engineering, and got her first job in the oil patch at Imperial Oil (she calls it, half-facetiously, half-affectionately, “Mother Esso”), through merit, not connections. There was no entrepreneurial oil patch mentor in the family to point the way or to shepherd her along. “But I think that worked to my advantage,” West says. “It meant I never learned that this was the way to do things. And so, when I was introduced to the command and control system at Imperial, I wondered who the heck pulled this out of the Dark Ages?”
She spent nine years at Imperial but she fit into its culture about as well as the proverbial square peg. Gulf Canada, her next attempt to be an employee, didn’t fit much better. So, in time-honored oil patch tradition, West mortgaged her house to buy some oil and gas assets. She fixed them up, sold them and then did it again. So far, so familiar. But the seeds of change – or the fingerprints of a game-changing industry disruptor – were always evident. The oil and gas executive biked to work and took breaks at midday to meditate. Her companies started out as non-hierarchical and became more so with each incarnation. “I don’t get it,” she says of common workplace structures. “Why would you hire smart, talented people and then limit them by telling them to work only in this prescribed way? And treat them like costs, the first thing to shed off your budget when things get tight?”
She’s walking that talk, by the way, in the world of sub-$50 oil. Imaginea is not laying off its people. “In times of greater challenges and greater constraints, you need more brain power, more innovation, more creativity, more passion, more drive, more motivation,” she says. “You don’t get any of that if you treat your people as a disposable cost item … If you look at all the great advantages we’ve made in our history, they all happen on the back of human ingenuity. They don’t happen as the result of cost-cutting and layoffs.” That attitude earns West incredible loyalty and devotion from her team. Lindsay Goos, Imaginea’s CFO and vice-president of finance, followed West from Black Shire. “I knew I wanted to be part of her next company,” she says. So did senior geophysicist Jenny Yeremiy, while Munaf Samji, Imaginea’s brand director, gave up a life as a serial entrepreneur for a chance to work with West. Wes Pohl, the company’s creative director, did the same. “There’s this whole starry-eyed and bushy-tailed feeling that she brings back out in you because she shows you this world of possibility,” says Samji.
Pohl agrees. “I’m so committed to this,” he says. “I come to work every day and I feel like a million bucks and I feel like I’m part of something real and something authentic.” And, let’s not forget, something financially well-positioned. Imaginea closed its financing last April at $100-plus oil. West can now “rub her hands with glee” and anticipate making acquisitions at significantly lower prices than she was projecting in mid-2014. “Constraints create opportunity and they foster creativity,” she says. Goos, Imaginea’s finance guru, agrees. Low commodity prices ensure Imaginea is extra-diligent about its operating costs and practices. “Part of our action plan is understanding the asset we’ve purchased and finding all existing inefficiencies and possible reductions,” Goos says. “When you become more efficient, you reduce your cost – and your environmental footprint.”
That really is the core of Imaginea’s business plan: get the most out of its assets, make money and tread more lightly on the planet. Win-win, right? So why is this idea so revolutionary in the oil patch? Rob Nieuwesteeg, the president of Mud Master Drilling Fluid Services and someone who’s worked with West’s various ventures for the past decade, puts it this way. “We are an industry that’s predicated on a certain way of doing things. Financial markets respond a certain way in this part of the world.” And it’s a high-risk world. Look no further than the drop in oil prices at the end of 2014 and the way most people have tried to mitigate the risk: by doing what they’ve always done during a downturn. “Getting them to think differently may take a little more effort,” Nieuwesteeg says. “There are a lot of people in [the] E&P sector and on [the] service side who believe there are a lot of better ways of getting things done. But when it gets down to numbers and why haven’t you produced x barrels at the end of the quarter, that gets in the way of things.”
West knows this. That’s why, incidentally, Imaginea is a private company with no aspirations towards an IPO. Change incubates better in the private world, and as she put it immediately after Necker Island, “The market does not like uncertainty, and when you burn the rule book there are a lot of unknowns.” Still, the $100-million – or is it $100-billion – question remains: Will West change the way the oil and gas industry works? “If anyone can, she is the person to do it,” Nieuwesteeg says. “She’s an out-of-the-box thinker. I don’t think you want to pigeonhole Suzanne into any one box because she will prove you wrong. But, the key thing is she gets the bigger picture and she gets things done.”
From inside Imaginea, Goos agrees. “When she says she’s going to do something, she does it.” What’s more, she’s doing it at a time when the industry should be more open to a game changer like her. The pipeline wars have underscored how critical social license is when selling fossil fuels, and battered commodity prices are a reminder that the only economic certainty in oil and gas is uncertainty. “I think the timing is right for what she is trying to do here,” says John Hankins, a board member of the Alberta Clean Tech Alliance. “There is a lot of appetite for her message. And she has the tenacity to do this. If she walks the talk, and if people see it happening, that it can be done, that is the best way to influence people.”
Doug Kulba, an innovation specialist with Alberta’s environment ministry, has been evaluating how West might impact the industry ever since he read her declaration of intent for what she calls Project Step Up. “When she said, ‘I don’t know of a rule book that says we cannot generate amazing great profits and not wreck the planet at the same time,’ I thought, that’s a very interesting thing, for an oil company president to be talking that way,” he says. But Kulba doesn’t see West as a lone voice in the wilderness. He believes she’s part of something bigger. “There’s something emerging here,” he says. “The industry is very adaptive and is continually looking for ways to improve the way they do business and to enhance its image. My biggest takeaway from what Suzanne and her company and her philosophy are about is simply this: You’re going to get what you focus on. And that’s where we are seeing the shift in our industry: recognition that meeting the minimum is, effectively, accepting a limitation on what you can achieve. It really limits your economic potential. This is an exciting discussion. The growth potential of going beyond compliance is enormous.”
Growth. That’s something the industry certainly likes to hear. And that will be West’s, and Imaginea’s, test. Will the company grow? Will it make Lime Rock and others money? If it does, others will follow. And people-planet-profits could become the new modus operandi for the oil patch. But if it doesn’t? “I’m trying not to drink my own Kool-Aid too much here, but I’m not living a delusional life either,” West says. “The change that we’re trying to enact here, it’s so important, it’s so meaningful, so needed – it has to happen. I am not worried about it not happening. I’m a possibility junkie. The world occurs to me as positives first. You just have to be willing and you have to try. You have to have confidence and imagination, and capability and determination … And when you know you’re doing the right thing, it’s not acceptable to just give up.”
A Growth Profile
West graduates from the University of Calgary with a BSc in Chemical Engineering.
Joins Imperial Oil, where she would work in a variety of roles for almost 10 years.
West crosses over to Gulf Canada, where she would spend two-plus years.
West re-mortgages her house and does a round of friends-and-family financing in order to found Touchstone Petroleum, a publicly-traded entity that peaked at approximately 280 boe/d before being sold in 2001 to Case Resources.
West forms Chariot Energy, a company that stitched together non-core asset purchases in Alberta into 3,700 boe/d of oil-weighted production. Kareco Energy bought it in April 2005 for $188 million, a deal that left West’s investors – a group headlined by a Texas private equity firm called Natural Gas Partners, which put in $20 million at the outset – with a four
bagger on their hands.
West doesn’t sit on the sidelines for long, and just a few months after the Kareco deal closes she starts another company called Auriga Energy. But this one doesn’t go quite as well as the first two did, and the gas-weighted company runs into a bunch of problems, including a third-party gas plan insolvency that costs Auriga $11 million, a collapse in natural gas prices and creditors who suddenly turned off the taps. In December 2009, West sells Auriga in an all share deal to Orion Oil and Gas valued at $130 million.
Undeterred, West gets right back into the game with Black Shire Energy, a private oil and gas company that turned non-core oil assets sold by Cenovus Energy and Penn West Petroleum into almost 7,000 boe/d of production. In October 2013, Twin Butte Energy purchases the company for $358 million in cash and shares deal. Once again, West’s shareholders do very well.
West announces the formation of Imaginea Energy. In March 2014, it closes a $300 million investment from Lime Rock Partners – one of West’s private equity backers at Black Shire.
I’m based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Happy to explore opportunities or possibilities–or just enjoy your stellar company and listen to your story–over a cup of coffee. Shall we say, Vendome, next Tuesday?