Disrupting the energy industry

Graeme Edge discusses his daring Energy Disruptors project

by Jamie Schmidt
Graeme Edge is the co-founder and self-described chief instigator of Energy Disruptors.

Graeme Edge is the co-founder and self-described chief instigator of Energy Disruptors. — Photo courtesy Graeme Edge

The Oxford Free English Dictionary defines disrupt as to “drastically alter or destroy the structure of.” That aptly describes the recent fate of the Canadian oil industry.

Since the last oilsands boom ended in 2014, Alberta has endured near-historic disruption in all sectors of the industry that defines the province. If Graeme Edge has his way, more is coming.

Calgary isn’t the most obvious choice to host a global summit embracing the very disruption that knocked Alberta to its knees. Then again, creating a global summit isn’t your typical reaction to an early mid-life crisis. But that is exactly what Edge did in May 2018 with the inaugural Energy Disruptors: Unite 2018 summit.

The oilpatch giveth and the oilpatch taketh away

Growing up near Aberdeen, Scotland, Edge loved sports. A one-time scratch golfer, he dreamed of a professional golf career. Dreams too often fade in reality’s glare, and like many denizens of petroleum towns, Edge would stumble into an oil-related career at an executive search firm.

Global expansion of the U.K.-based firm afforded Edge the opportunity for he and his wife, Michelle, to move to Canada. They settled in Calgary with Edge advancing to general manager.

Then came 2014 and like elsewhere in the oilpatch, the executive search space struggled. By early 2016, the parent company was insolvent, leaving Edge the manager of a still-profitable but rudderless branch office.

Opportunity, regret and discovery

Edge and team member Rachel Maxwell bought the Calgary operations and rebranded it as McLaren, Dion, Edge. The second-guessing began almost immediately.

“I made a horrible mistake. I don’t want to just be in executive search,” Edge recalls himself thinking.

He still had passion for the job but wanted to contribute something more. He also recognized the need to diversify beyond the struggling petroleum industry. Media was saturated with stories about electric vehicles and renewable energy. 

“We [needed] to go and understand much more about this world . . . to get more connected to the technology space,” Edge said, referring to a conversation with partner Maxwell.

That lead to a summer of discovery culminating at a London, England, event hosted by Virgin Group founder Richard Branson and moderated by Australian entrepreneur Holly Ransom.

“[Their purpose was to] bring entrepreneurs into the same room as multi-nationals,” Edge lauded, “the [same] entrepreneurs trying to disrupt the multi-national’s traditional businesses.”

Go big or go home

On the plane ride back to Calgary, Edge first imagined what would become Energy Disruptors: Unite (EDU).

Edge said of his thought process, “What if we could create a forum that brought together a bunch of different energy stakeholders under one roof? Wouldn’t it be interesting to do something like this in a place like Calgary? Could this be a catalyst to get the oil and gas companies to be a bit more ambitious about … energy transformation?”

Edge cold-contacted Ransom whom he knew only as moderator of the Branson event. Edge had no experience, no funding, no speakers and no dates to offer, but Ransom responded nonetheless. They immediately found rapport, and Ransom committed to hosting EDU if Edge put it together. With Ransom on board, EDU began to gestate with Edge’s life partner and his business partner on the team.

Richard Branson (far left), founder and president of Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd., was the headliner at Energy Disruptors Unite 2018. Also shown are (from L to R) Dave Mowat (former president and CEO of ATB Financial), Peter Tertzakian (chief energy economist and managing director of ARC Financial Corp), Susan Cain (author) and Holly Ransom (Energy Disruptors co-founder and host).

Richard Branson (far left), founder and president of Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd., was the headliner at Energy Disruptors Unite 2018. Also shown are (from L to R) Dave Mowat (former president and CEO of ATB Financial), Peter Tertzakian (chief energy economist and managing director of ARC Financial Corp), Susan Cain (author) and Holly Ransom (Energy Disruptors co-founder and host). — Photo courtesy Graeme Edge

Success hinged on having a world-class speaker lineup, so they immediately focused on finding the most high-profile speaker they could think of. The answer was obvious: Richard Branson.

Utilizing his executive search network, Edge connected with Branson’s team. To emphasize their sincerity, the EDU team made a non-conditional contribution to Branson’s charity. Branson accepted. The embryonic EDU had a headliner and credibility.

The puzzle pieces fall into place

Funding such a summit required significant financial investment. Wanting to keep it apolitical, Edge specifically avoided government funding, choosing instead to fund EDU2018 solely through business sponsors and admissions.

“We were really lucky,” said Edge of landing ATB Financial as title sponsor. “They took a huge leap of faith on us to come in as the initial partner.”

A nervous seven months later, a second sponsor, Royal Dutch Shell, signed on. A crucial representative from the petroleum industry, they were a company Edge intentionally targeted.

“The last couple years Shell had been talking a lot about energy transformation and investing beyond oil and gas,” Edge explained. “They have this world-class oil and gas business but at the same time they recognize the world needs to decarbonize.”

With Shell in the fold, the remaining sponsors quickly fell into place. With no advertising, relying solely on word of mouth and social media, EDU2018 brought together more than 60 business leaders, 1,600 delegates and 150 students to discuss energy transformation over two days.

Looking to the future

Edge’s team took EDU2018 from concept to reality in 15 months. Since, they’ve heard anecdotally of startups forming by people who met at the summit and petroleum companies altering their tech strategy. Edge would love to further facilitate summit-inspired collaborations as EDU becomes more established, but for now resources are limited.

Such success begets opportunity. Edge has been approached about bringing Energy Disruptors to Europe, potentially for 2021. He also sees the United States and Asia as intriguing locations for future summits.

Meanwhile, Calgary will continue to host EDU, building the brand and the vision. This September, popular author Malcolm Gladwell and renowned education expert Sir Ken Robinson will headline at Energy Disruptors: Unite 2019.

With the energetic and optimistic Edge at the helm, it’ll be hard for Calgary not to embrace the disruption.

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