When electric lights came to Edmonton 126 years ago, so too did innovation, entrepreneurship and a relationship between a company and a city unlike any other. It started on October 23 of 1891, when a group of businesspeople banded together to get a 10-year permit to build the Edmonton Electric Lighting and Power Company. By 1902, it became Canada’s first municipally owned electric utility company.
Year over year, the company grew and innovated, keeping pace with the expanding city and its residents’ utility needs. A coal fired plant and water treatment facility were built at Rossdale in 1903. Traffic lights were introduced in 1933. Underground power lines were planted in 1947. By 1955, the Rossdale plant switched from coal to gas – an emission-reducing move that was ahead of its time.
It wasn’t just the processes and plants that were making great strides in the Capital City. The business itself was constantly evolving. Shortly after Edmonton Power’s 100th birthday, EPCOR Utilities Inc. was created to become the first utility company in Canada to consolidate power and water, and later, added natural gas. In 2009, Capital Power Corporation was spun out of EPCOR as a publically-traded company to take over the power generation business. By 2016, EPCOR expanded well beyond Edmonton and it now has facilities across Alberta and in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and soon, Ontario.
No entity survives with this much vitality for well over a century without expert leadership. EPCOR’s leaders have always been forward thinkers; progressive men and women that led, not followed, the demands for clean, stable, efficient utilities. Today, EPCOR is helmed by president and CEO Stuart Lee, and his career path to EPCOR demonstrates how the company has always been led by those that think outside of the box.
“It was not a straight trajectory or one that was well planned!” laughs Lee of his journey to EPCOR. “I graduated from the University of Alberta’s (U of A) commerce program in 1986, and at the time, the advice from my dad was, ‘get a technical background, and then you can spread your wings.’ Following his good advice, I got a degree in accounting and articled with an international firm in Calgary.”
Lee worked for a number of small-to-mid-size companies for several years, then spent time overseas experiencing, living and working in China and Bermuda. He spent three years working on a startup in Seattle, then returned to Edmonton in the late 1990s to put down roots and start a family.
“In 2003, a corporate controller position at EPCOR became available. I jumped at it,” explains Lee. Later, he became a key player in the initial public offering that created Capital Power, where he spent six years as the CFO. Two years ago, he rejoined EPCOR as CEO.
“My father was a teacher in entrepreneur studies. When I came out of university in 1986, I thought I was going to be an entrepreneur and start my own business. I was fortunate enough in my career to have that opportunity, but also found there was opportunity in larger companies, too. I didn’t set my sights on becoming the CEO of EPCOR, but when I stop learning, I get bored and look for something more challenging. I’ve been very fortunate to come to EPCOR where things are growing and happening.”
Lee is proud of EPCOR’s impact on the city and across North America.
“To me, EPCOR has been a tremendous success story for the city. The City of Edmonton made a very brave decision to set up EPCOR with an independent board structure. This allowed the company to grow its business without being limited to its municipal boundaries. EPCOR has generated two of the largest public offerings in Canada and has expanded to the United States.
“However, its success is not well understood by Edmontonians. People don’t realize, or appreciate, the significance of the company. We provide services that are essential to life. We have 1.9 million customers across North America that, when they turn on the tap, need fresh, clean water every time. Our customers expect lights to come on when they flip a switch and to always have power. It’s a huge responsibility, but we do it well.”
EPCOR is proudly headquartered in Edmonton.
“We evolved from Edmonton,” says Lee. “We were part of Edmonton Power and Edmonton Water. Our roots are here. Looking at the water industry and environmental sustainability – Edmonton has incredible expertise in this area. EPCOR has been very successful in expanding its water operations inside and outside of Canada: Stantec is North America’s largest engineering company specializing in water, PCL does a large number of water infrastructure projects, the U of A has over 200 people researching various aspects of water and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) has excellent training programs for water and wastewater operators.” The combined Edmonton industrial water ecosystem is second to none in North America.
It’s not just the leading edge Edmonton has in water and utilities that Lee loves. “The people here have a very strong sense of community. It’s a great place to raise kids. It’s a community that has not lost its core values. It’s a value-based city and a great place to live.
“EPCOR has always had a strong sense of community and giving back. We have pride in what we do in the communities in which we operate. Giving back as an organization gives us a strong sense of purpose. People come to work knowing they make a difference and that their job is important, providing value back to the community. Talk to any of our employees and you get a sense a pride. It comes back to our philosophy of investing in our community.”
In 2016 alone, EPCOR’s employees raised over $500,000 to support the United Way. The company does a lot of work in providing under-privileged youth with the educational opportunities and other tools young people need to be successful. The EPCOR Community Essentials Council donates half a million dollars annually to non-profit organizations, and the company and staff quickly raised $130,000 for the Red Cross to support victims of Fort McMurray’s “The Beast” fire last year.
“EPCOR has a culture that is invested in community,” smiles Lee.
As for personally leading EPCOR, Lee has his own way and style of balancing the very high demands of work, and the needs of millions of customers, with the rest of his active lifestyle.
“Having worked for lots of different bosses, I know that no single style of leadership is the most effective,” says Lee. “Really strong leaders use different styles at different times. You can start out as more directive, but as your career evolves, your leadership style changes as well. It turns to being more strategic and providing vision for an organization, or more participative in getting people involved in the decision making. The best leaders can go into the toolbox and use different styles to be effective.
“It is interesting for folks that aspire to senior leadership. It can be challenging, and there are compromises along the way. I wouldn’t want to suggest you always have work/life balance. You have work/life choices. You must make decisions around priories and focus on them. Functioning effectively in senior positions demands a lot of time and effort. I’ve been fortunate that, between my wife and I, we have been able to manage and provide that balance for our family, but it’s not without compromises on both sides.”
He notes that much of the success is due to having a truly outstanding team that he is fortunate to work with.
“It’s so important to build effective teams. We’d get nothing done without having strong people.”
Lee names Hugh Bolton, the non-executive chair of EPCOR Utilities Inc.’s board of directors, as a man that has been, and continues to be, instrumental to ECPOR’s success. “He’s been the chair since 2000 and he’s really helped to shaped the organization and be a leader. Mr. Bolton is hugely respected across Canada,” says Lee.
The multi-talented and charismatic CEO makes the most of his downtime, spending quiet moments enjoying his hobby of fly fishing, but back in the 70s, he had a much more rambunctious hobby.
“I competed in the Canadian National Final Rodeo, roping 500-600 pound steers. I had the fastest time!” he confides.
EPCOR is still evolving and after a city council decision in April, the City’s drainage utility will be transferred to EPCOR effective September 1. With the transfer, EPCOR will welcome more than 700 drainage employees and be responsible for the City’s entire water utility cycle.
“It is a great opportunity for us to take that business on, integrate it with our water operations and provide great service to the city of Edmonton, and to also take those skills and market them into different communities that don’t have those skills. EPCOR has been very successful in water and wastewater, and the company is excited to extend that success to sanitary and stormwater systems,” says Lee.
Since Edmonton first turned on its lights more than 100 years ago and sparked the inception of what would become EPCOR, the company has always focused on moving forward, providing excellence in services and products, respecting the environment and doing right by its staff and customers. As EPCOR moves its way towards two centuries of services, Lee is very excited to be a part of the company’s future.
“I’m still early in my tenure, and will continue to be fully engaged in helping the company grow and be successful for years to come.”
When you turn on the lights, when you run the tap, when you enjoy the comfort of a well-lit and powered home, remember to thank one of Edmonton’s oldest institutions. EPCOR is a company that has proved time and time again that it has what it takes to really light up the Capital City.