Kim Sturgess is a self-proclaimed “water person” – undoubtedly a useful quality for the founder and CEO of WaterSmart Solutions, a water advisory services company, and Executive Director the Alberta WaterPortal Society, an education-driven not-for-profit organization. Sturgess’ goal is to promote the concept of water as a value-adding resource: “Water is a passion, and water people have a feel for it. It’s a really great community – it’s a bit of a tribe. A water tribe.”
“Water people are born. I’ve always identified with water; I’ve been in and around water my whole life. This will be our 30th year camping in a tend beside the mighty Athabasca.”
Sturgess moved to Alberta after completing her engineering degree at Queen’s University: “I decided very young that I wanted to be an engineer. Build things. Spaceships. Stuff like that. I was always quite fascinated. My father was a military test pilot, so we had that going from a pretty young age. I wanted to be an engineer even before I knew what an engineer was.”
After graduating, Sturgess went to work for the National Energy Board in the gas and pipelines group, where she had her first career success with an idea to send a magnetic field through the pipes to identify any weak point – thereby saving companies millions of dollars in repairs. Though Sturgess got “absolutely nothing for it other than a pat on the head,” she caught the bug of invention, and moved to Alberta to cash in on the high-energy, entrepreneurial environment. Sturgess got a job at Imperial Oil, where she stayed for five years.
“One of my mentors there, Doug Baldwin, had a conversation with me and said ‘Well Kim, you can either be a big fish in a little pond or a little fish in a big pond, and you are a big fish in a little pond type of person.’ That’s when I began to look for ways to set up my own company.”
Sturgess launched into preparing for business ownership. She achieved her MBA and spent four years at McKinsey fine tuning her management skills. The opportunity finally arose when Sturgess was working at Nova Corp on the magnetic bearing file, eventually spinning that business into Revolve Technologies and Revolve Magnetic Bearings in 1992. Sturgess built Revolve over ten years, eventually engaging in a partnership with SKF, “the biggest magnetic bearings company in the world,” with SKF eventually buying the business.
“That business is still operating as FKF Revolve Magnetic bearings in North East Calgary. The same people are there. When companies get bought, the CEO, CFO and marketing guys are usually paid out, but everybody else stayed and had great careers, right here in Alberta. I don’t think the story is told enough, about what amazing things these people have done supplying equipment to the world right here from Calgary.”
Sturgess’ passion for water and her entrepreneurial spirit collided when she began to work at an energy-from-water company in 2003-2004. “That company is not going to save the world any time soon, but the team really learned a lot about water and the importance idea. It gave us the idea that maybe we could find a way to make water an issue. It was always an environmental issue, but now we can think of water in terms of a sustainable economy.” It was at that point when some of Sturgess’ mentors, Peter Lougheed and Fred Stewart, encouraged her to build a business plan. In 2005, Sturgess started WaterSmart, originally a not-for-profit enterprise “to look at how water is managed through better practices and technologies,” which is now a for-profit company that works on water issues for a variety of organizations. The not-for-profit part of the business is now the Alberta WaterPortal Society, dealing with water education and awareness.
Sturgess values Lougheed and Stewart’s mentorship highly – along with various other mentors that she has collected during her career. Members of WaterSmart’s original board, Brenda Kenney, Stella Thompson, and Nancy Blair, among others, helped steer Sturgess’ career trajectory. Along with her board, Sturgess has been part of the International Women’s Forum and the Young President’s Organization for years, gleaning valuable information from the varied perspectives and backgrounds of her fellow members. Those mentors have encouraged her to grow but have also taught he when to step away.
“I was blessed to be in Peter’s [Lougheed] life and to be able to learn from him. He was chancellor of Queen’s when I was a trustee. When I was coming to the end of my time as a trustee, I asked him ‘How did you know it was time to not be premier anymore? How do you know when to move on?’ And he said “Kim, the time to go is when you hear the same issue you started your tenure with coming back again. Then it’s time.’”