Q&A with Stephen Lewis of SWL Consulting
Stephen direct messaged me on LinkedIn last fall after a few people had referred me for design work. We met and almost immediately we created a proposal for the branding of a new energy company that was in the process of being carved out from a set of existing assets. Within a month, we had a name and logo approved and signed off by the new company’s executive team. We then created additional branding elements including a website, stationery and business cards as well as developed a social media presence for the company on LinkedIn and Indeed. Now that we’ve caught our breath (and the company Campus Energy Partners is launched), I wanted to connect with Stephen to see how he ended up in his role as a communications consultant after 25 years working in companies and how he’s managing to stay crushingly busy as a new freelancer/solopreneur.
What is your career background? Why communications and public relations?
It feels like I’ve been doing communications and public relations work my entire career. Oh, that’s because I have been. I come from a time when you got an Arts degree in Political Science and English at UBC and then you might try your hand at writing and journalism. Like really try. But in that field there is a real challenge in terms of getting consistent and profitable work so when an opportunity to work on writing an annual report and the employee newsletter for an energy company in Vancouver came about, I jumped at it. My father had worked in public affairs at IBM so I had a feel for this area of work. Then I was just plain lucky — I had great bosses early on at Westcoast Energy who got me working on executive speeches, news releases, branding projects and community relations for this growing company with operations across western Canada.
You stayed on the client side working for companies for many years?
I did. I spent many years in corporate communications on what people call the “client side.” I worked for three companies in vastly different industries. After Westcoast, I joined Uniglobe Travel International in Vancouver and worked with the Charlwood family and that included with travel agency franchisees in various parts of the world helping them promote their businesses and communicate their services. It was a very creative, entrepreneurial environment and included a public online travel booking start-up company as well. After that, it was on to Newalta.
It sounds like you really enjoyed the work you were doing at these companies?
Over those years, I’ve been fortunate to work for companies where I’ve been able to do corporate messaging, advertising campaigns, employee communications, responding to activist investors, M&A communications, change communications, marketing, media relations and social media. The work has been wide-ranging and always interesting. I’ve been able to focus on one client and with that you know the hierarchy for where requests are made, the timing for the projects, and who needs what. You also know that more projects will come — you don’t get too concerned as the company will keep you busy.
So Newalta is where I knew you had worked most recently. How did you join Newalta?
I joined Newalta in the mid-2000s. I was headhunted to come to Calgary by CEO Al Cadotte and start up a communications department for a company that wanted to expand across Canada. It was a cool challenge and I knew I could make my mark. Plus it worked well for us family-wise as our kids were young and my wife is a teacher so she could teach in Alberta. And I can tell you we have loved Calgary and I loved every minute at Newalta. We built a great brand with a real focus on providing innovative solutions to customers in the environmental services field. So many people there I’m proud to have worked with. I lived the brand, and we did industry-leading and award-winning communications work. A major highlight has to be the national advertising campaign we created to help take the Newalta brand into eastern Canada and prepare the ground for acquisitions. I worked closely with PR-veteran Tag Watson on that project and we worked with a cool agency in Toronto. The ads we did were bang on and the company ended up making a string of acquisitions in Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic.
So how did it end with Newalta?
The company grew across Canada and even had dipped into the U.S. It had oil and gas operations but also industrial activities. Unfortunately we decided to split the Industrial division away and sold it. That was the same time the oil patch took that hit in late 2014 and Newalta was one of the companies that just could not survive the aftershocks, especially with the focus and exposure now solely on oil and gas. We ended up selling the company to a competitor last year, and I became a free agent in the summer when the deal closed. It was most disappointing in that people at Newalta had something special – we collaborated and worked well together.
Why did you decide to then consult versus finding another full-time position?
I had spent those 25 years working in a company. I really felt it was time to try something new, something that would engage me in a different way. I had built a network with other creative people; it was time to work that network and see what I could do as a consultant to other businesses. I have always been what I would call customer-focused so I thought my working style might translate well into consulting.
Did you take any time off between Newalta and starting your own firm?
No, I did not take any time off and I jumped into the consulting world with both feet! But I was ready to leave Newalta as the company had been making plans to be acquired and as it wound down I also had a lengthy departure phase. So no, I didn’t really take any time off — I felt like I had too much to do and I wanted to get after it. I wanted to get my consulting business set up. There was the logo, beginning to market myself, and networking to meet people and see what was needed in the market. Calgary’s been hit hard the past few years so I thought it might be a tough time in terms of companies spending money on consulting, but maybe that was also where the companies would spend their money.
Any tips for making the transition to being a consultant?
I was able to really lean on others who knew what they were doing. I knew other consultants and solo practitioners so I could ask them for input. An aspect of my departure from Newalta included support with career planning and I worked with a dynamo in that field named Roxanne Cramer. She helped me get started, pushed me out of my comfort zone. And she’s still pushing me.
Has working as a consultant been as rewarding as your past roles?
That’s a great question. I really did enjoy working within a company and serving that one organization. I was a loyal team player and I really enjoyed my fellow employees. Now working on projects as SWL Consulting, it’s a different reward. You are your own boss and you’re responsible for the work you get and how you manage that work. For me this means seeking out and working with great clients, diverse clients. Doing well feels great because you know it came from you. But it also comes with some apprehension. Will the work continue? Will the clients keep coming? There is definitely not the security you feel when you work in a company.
You talk about some early successes as a consultant. Can you share those?
I’m quite new to the consulting world so I always preface my comments about how it’s going by saying it is very early. It’s like a couple real fast shifts at the start of a hockey game. I’ve hit a few guys and pushed the puck at the net. I’m hustling. But it’s a long game and I know it’s going to be a grind at times. So far, I’ve worked on a few branding projects which I have really enjoyed. One of those was the project with you Shannon where we named and branded a new company, Campus Energy Partners. We did good work and our client -- the senior leaders here in Calgary and the backers from a private equity firm from Toronto -- were a dream as they wanted to work fast and smart. We did both for them. Another example is a retail player in the new cannabis market that is very entrepreneurial and focused on developing a solid national brand. For this company we’re using the full range of communication tools to promote them with investors and earn them the awareness in the public which they’ll need to be a winner in this highly competitive space.
I see you also do work with the communications agency NATIONAL Capital Markets. How does that work?
This is another example of where you find a client early on and it just works. NATIONAL has a number of clients in their Calgary office who require investor relations and corporate communications services. I provide those services to them and in doing so I’m linked up with one of Canada’s leading agencies and I get to work with really smart and capable professionals. The clients are also very diverse so I have exposure to oil and gas, agriculture, transportation, heavy equipment and cannabis. I’m really enjoying the variety of work and the challenge of servicing the clients and piecing together solutions for them.
Do you like where you’re at? Would you ever go back “client side”?
I never say never. I did the consulting to see where it would lead me. I thought it was a good fit for me. I’m enjoying the work now, but I’m also open to working on the best projects and placing myself where I can add value and be compensated for that. And who knows what will open up in the future? I like where I‘m at now. I have my SWL Consulting to do projects and to collaborate with other small creative shops and practitioners. And I have a prominent national firm I can take larger clients to, where there is a support network already built in.
It sounds like you plan to continue growing your consulting business so how are you finding new clients and contracts?
So far I’ve leaned on the community of people I know. It’s a tight group and folks will take the time to help you. So many people took an interest in helping me get launched and that was just awesome. I’ve been able to connect in with great designers and developers and push for branding work with some clients. Working with executives and up-and-coming entrepreneurs has also been a good starting point to get me acquainted with other companies and related opportunities. I want to do my work with NATIONAL with larger clients and fill in around that with branding projects, especially if those can be with entrepreneurs with a real passion for their business. And Shannon, you know I’m looking forward to working with you again real soon.