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Feature: C-Suite Energy Executive – Public Affairs Executive of the Year – Munaf Samji – Imaginea Energy

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Imaginea Energy is the first company in the energy sector with a branding director – and it shouldn’t be the last

Csuites SamjiBranding isn’t an area that energy companies tend to spend much time or money on even in the good times, much less the bad ones. But Munaf Samji is aiming to change that. He’s the director of brand and digital growth at Imaginea Energy, an upstart private oil company whose stated mission is to change the way the oil patch does business. “In this industry, I think people still don’t understand what a brand director does,” Samji says. “People don’t even understand what a brand is. But what I love about my role is actually showcasing what that means.”

What that means for him is finding a way to connect the heart and the mind when it comes to the oil and gas industry. That, Samji says, is the essence of any strong corporate brand – and something the energy sector has been missing. “There’s a lot of push happening, but there’s no pull. And that’s the essence of a brand. People are naturally attracted to your brand because they believe in its core values.” Imaginea’s core values, he says, include things like vulnerability and transparency – words that are rarely associated with an industry that’s heavy on knowledge, expertise and proprietary technology. “We want to become an open-source model, just like Tesla. The goal is to showcase our successes, but also share our failures so that people don’t replicate them. In order to do that, we have to make sure that we’re an open book, and that we share everything. That adds another layer to that brand experience, where people can start to trust us.”

His decision to join Imaginea in the first place was, in fact, an act of trust. After all, while he grew up in Calgary, Samji wasn’t destined to work in the oil and gas industry. Instead, he says his dream job was to work for GQ. He’d spent time owning a Second Cup franchise, doing its marketing and media buying and running an oil and gas publication – one, fittingly enough, that he rebranded himself. But after nearly a decade with the magazine and with his 30th birthday around the corner, he decided it was time for a new creative challenge. He’d met Suzanne West, the CEO of Imaginea Energy, a few years earlier, and says he “randomly” went to have a coffee with her in order to ask what he should do next. She didn’t pull her punches, either. “Right there at that table, she said ‘I’m starting my fifth company – and you’re coming along.’ I thought she was crazy. First of all, you’re asking an entrepreneur to come work for an oil and gas company at a nine-to-five job. I’ll kill myself. But she told me to trust her, and said the concept was completely different. And I bought in.”

Now, it’s his job to get other people to do the same thing. And while a clearly articulated brand might seem like a luxury for a privately held company, Samji says that there’s a method to their madness. They see the company becoming much larger than it is today, and want to lay the groundwork for that future before it’s too late. “The biggest value of a brand comes from the emotional connection somebody has with it. Look at all the cult brands today – Lululemon, Patagonia, Apple – they all create such a movement and such a strong connection that even if they do one thing wrong they still have a support mechanism and a foundation of followers. That’s why I think if we do the foundational work to create a powerful brand right now, we’ll still be okay when times get better because they will only amplify our success.”

Those foundations are already being poured online, where Samji is the director of digital growth.

Unlike most E&P companies, which tend to turtle on social media and other online environments, Imaginea is happy to put its head above the digital parapet. “If we can create discussion and dialogue, both online and offline, about what we want to change and how we want to change it, that’s where mutual understanding is going to be built. Transformation takes shape from that mutual understanding.” And, he says, it doesn’t hurt that the company’s digital presence aligns it with the inclinations and expectations of people from his generation. “I’m focused on what our future leaders are going to want from our industry. That’s where our transformation takes shape. I’m not discounting the wisdom of the experts and senior leaders, but we’re trying to bridge that gap.” If it can, the payoff, he says, could be huge. “We’re not even a product, so if this is actually a success, we’re creating something that’s a commodity-based business and turning it into a movement. And that is the end goal.”

Q + A with our Public Affairs Executive of the Year: Munaf Samji

What is the most important quality that a senior executive can have? 
Leadership by service. Leadership that involves truly understanding and serving the varied interests of the people you are leading, and doing so because of an appreciation that the success of the company is intrinsically linked to the satisfaction and growth of the people working within it. A senior executive who can lead by serving is one who will unlock the potential in those he or she leads and in turn build the success of the company as a whole.

What is the least important quality that a senior executive can have?
Ego. Ego clouds an executive’s ability to lead with “we.”

What is your greatest fear?
Death, but more specifically, the complete uncertainty and randomness that often accompanies death. What is unnerving is not knowing and not being able to control how much time we have left in this world or under what circumstances we will leave. Death is a constant reminder that our time is finite, and that another force has more power over our lives than we do. The recent death of Calgary MLA Manmeet Bhullar is a prime example of a young life taken too soon in an entirely unexpected, uncontrollable situation.

Which living person do you admire? 
My father-in-law, Rahim Lakhoo, having immigrated to Calgary from East Africa in the 1970s with very little. I admire how his discipline, tenacity and philosophy in life has allowed him to reach financial success, and give back so much to both the local community in Calgary and also to thousands in parts of the developing world where he grew up surrounded by poverty. Despite his success he lives a humble life with a focus on those in need. His philosophies about life and success remind me that the accumulation of wealth is not about the accumulation of things in the short-term, but more importantly about financial discipline and restraint, balance, and a constant re-evaluation about what is really important in life: health, the ability to give back to others, and creating long-term stability and security for your family so that they too can give back. I admire the way he also worked to instill these philosophies in his own children from a very young age enabling them with similar freedoms and success in their adult lives.

What is your greatest extravagance?
I would say my car, but marriage changed all that. I would say my suits, but Imaginea Energy changed that. Kidding. I would say technology. When it comes to fancy new tech, the sky’s the limit.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
OCD [obsessive compulsive disorder]. No, seriously it’s bad. I know it’s self-imposed but one day I would love to just let go and say, ah f@$k it!

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
As an entrepreneur, you know that thing everyone tells you not to do or that can’t be done? And then nine years later you look back and in front of you is this brand you built from the ground up. A business that has allowed you to experience every emotion known to man – a rollercoaster of daily highs and lows. But the kind that would drive you to do it all over again just to immerse yourself in that high. A high no drug can duplicate and only a startup entrepreneur can appreciate. A business that has provided immeasurable value shaping your professional journey and helped establish a network no money can buy. That business and my greatest achievement thus far – The OGM.

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