From Classroom to Wall of Fame: Alumna Denise LaForge Shares Five Lessons Learned

Author: Engineering Alumni Office

Posted on Oct 30, 2018

Category: Alumni Spotlight

Denise LaForge (BScME’88) has always been determined to succeed. She came to UNB from Edmundston knowing very little English to take mechanical engineering. She excelled and stretched out of her comfort zone once again by applying during her final year to jobs outside of the province. Upon graduation, she became an Engineer-in-Training at Petro-Canada’s head office in Calgary.

“It was a big move but I was determined to embrace change. And it changed the whole course of my career and life,” LaForge says.Denise LaForge UNB

After gaining experience in the oil and gas industry, Denise moved to Zedi Inc., where she spent five years as Vice President of Marketing and Sales. During this period she also served as President of its US-based subsidiary and was involved in raising funds for the IPO. Zedi specializes in production operations management and the delivery of systems and services that help oil and gas producers better manage people, assets and information. At Zedi, Denise was instrumental in commercializing the main technology, a remote wireless gas production and management monitoring system, which is the backbone of the company’s profitability today.

In 2003, she co-founded and served as Chairman of the Board of Tarpon Energy Services, a leading supplier of electrical and instrumentation services, control systems and modular solutions. Tarpon is a private company providing a comprehensive range of services worldwide from design and engineering to project management, construction, commissioning and maintenance. In the early stages of the company, Denise was responsible for mergers & acquisitions, sourcing and managing investors and driving strategy and value creation. During her tenure, Denise also served as Executive Chair during the turbulent 2008 financial crisis and was also active on all committees of the Board. Tarpon was sold in April 2014 to a New York-based private equity fund and at the time of the sale had over $500 million in annual revenue and in excess of $45 MM in earnings. The company had over 40 offices throughout the world, employing in excess of 2300 employees. Denise co-led the liquidity event and was able to ensure the organization stayed focused during significant change.

Denise is currently Chairman and CEO of Denco Financial Holdings. Denco is a company with investments focused on technology, energy, real estate and the wholesale distribution sector.

Along the way, Denise also earned a Master in Business Administration from the University of Calgary and graduated from the Institute of Corporate Directors, a program dedicated to promoting improved corporate governance. She has served on the Board of Directors of various privately held companies and in addition to these roles has held volunteer positions with the Impact Society, the “Escale Madavick” Women’s Shelter in N.B., and various other community and charitable organizations. She’s given generously to UNB and has also helped raise money for the Heroes Leadership Program for youth in Alberta, the American Heart Foundation and “La Fondation Lina Cyr”, an organ transplant foundation based in Montreal.

Denise’s determination to push herself to succeed pops up in her spare time as well; she runs marathons and triathlons and is learning to play the piano and speak Spanish.

In October, Denise returned to the UNB campus to accept the Engineering Distinguished Alumni Award and be inducted into the Engineering Alumni Wall of Fame, the first female bestowed with that honour. The award is presented to trailblazers in industry, those with extraordinary career success who have contributed to the community through volunteer, philanthropic or advocacy efforts.Denise LaForge UNB Engineering Wall of Fame

At a ceremony in Head Hall, she accepted the award and was able to speak with the full cohort of first-year engineering students. “I’m very honoured by this award and so proud to be able to be back on campus to share the insights I’ve gained throughout my career”, she told 250 students in the Dineen Auditorium. “I went from sitting in the very seats you’re sitting in to having my photo on the Wall of Fame outside in the lobby. I’m here to say that you can do that too.”

“One of the reasons I was excited about speaking to you is that I’ve been given the opportunity to address the engineers of tomorrow. You will all actively have a tremendous impact on the lives of others and the world around you for years to come. That’s exciting!”

Here are the five lessons Denise shared with students which contributed significantly to her career progression and personal development:

Lesson #1: The audacity to embrace change; to be Darwinian

“I had big dreams. What I really wanted was an opportunity to start with a clean slate and learn something completely new where I would have very few known connections.
That meant that if I got in a jam, I would be on my own. I could not go see anyone at work that I had established a relationship with - I would have to build new relationships. I wanted a new start, with people judging me for what I knew and what I could do, not who my family was - good or bad. I was attracted to change. As I said, I had big dreams and I aspired to achieve significant accomplishments.

So I started to go to the UNB student employment office on campus and apply for jobs that were a far stretch. And I ended up landing a job at Petro-Canada headquarters in Calgary, of all places. It drastically changed the course of my career. With this one single decision, I learned an entirely new industry which I knew nothing about before. I ended up going through their EIT 2-year program and completed a 20-course Petroleum Engineering Certification.

When I made this decision, I was very excited and felt really positive about the idea even though people thought I was crazy to pack it all in and move to something completely unknown. I am not suggesting you move far away from NB to move your career forward. I am simply suggesting you embrace change - whatever form that may take - by keeping an open mind. 

By embracing change with full confidence, I allowed myself to tap into opportunities that would not have otherwise been obvious or available to me. I always kept in mind that if I was able to complete an engineering degree then I was capable of doing anything that I set my mind to. It gave me the confidence to embrace change and realize my dreams.”

Lesson #2: The value of writing goals and objectives

“I truly believe that a significant difference between thinking it and putting it on paper is the link that becomes your commitment to yourself. It has been a critical part of my own development and achievements and continues to be. By having a plan, I have a deeper sense of accomplishment; my brain sends me powerful messages as to how well I am or am not doing according to my plan. And just because I have a plan does not mean I cannot change it. I can always calibrate it along the way.

I have often seen flourishing businesses attribute a significant part of their success to having a solid business plan with well laid out strategies - Apple, Amazon to name only a couple. A closer example is Tarpon Energy Services, the company I co-founded. I was often asked ‘what was the foundation of our success?’ In just over a decade, Tarpon reached over $500 million in annual revenue with 40 offices across the world employing in excess of 2300 employees before we sold in April 2014 to a New York-based private equity fund. I personally believe that a key element was the discipline of having established a well-defined strategic plan early on in the life of the company. And further to that, having the discipline to measure ourselves against our plan and adjust the course of our business as we made progress.

I realized that personal lives are no different. It is a fundamental management principle that one cannot change what is not being measured. The magic of this process is that if I define and keep track I am more likely to execute and get results in the different areas of my life.”

Lesson #3: The power of communication

“Over time I realized that effectively communicating the ideas, points and value of any design or any project required more than scientific knowledge. I learned by experience that you can be the top in your field and they may call you an expert, but if you don’t know how to effectively share with others your knowledge, you will not likely be as successful as you may desire.

How I got better:  practice, practice, practice. I learned from listening, from textbooks, from other people and from classes. The bottom line is that famous theory from Malcolm Gladwell in The Outliers that 10,000 hours makes you an expert at anything. I am not suggesting that I invested 10,000 hours in learning to communicate better. I simply know for a fact if I invest enough time in something with the focus of learning and improving I will eventually become better at it. The fact that I put my mind to becoming better at writing and delivering reports was a key turning point in my career, and furthermore it was crucial during my MBA studies. I would have never gotten through without those communication skills, let alone be here sharing this with you today!”

Lesson #4: The importance of mentorship

“Growing up, I was told on many occasions who and who not to hang out with. In other words: whom it was in my best interest to surround myself with. As I grew into a young adult those choices became mine alone. I was now in charge of making those decisions and I started to notice that they were having an impact on who I was becoming. However, what I want to focus on with you is more about what I would classify as a bucket of people that I met along the way that had a significant impact on my personal and professional development. I would call them mentors.

As I reflect upon different stages of my life and career, I realize how important it was to surround myself with people that had succeeded and acquired wisdom in the areas of my interests, and also in their own personal life. With sincere introspection, I can name on one hand people that made a significant difference – today I would like to focus on 3 mentors; my grandfather, a Physics Engineer and an entrepreneur lawyer business titan.

Upon reflection, I now realize that these mentors had likely faced similar challenges as I did, and they showed me how to avoid a painful way of learning. They challenged me and didn’t always tell me what I wanted to hear. They criticized me when appropriate and guided me when they thought I needed guidance. The outcome really propelled my career and helped me become a person with clearer values.

First, my grandfather taught me that education was the most precious thing that I could offer myself; that with this single investment, the dividends would be enormous and my payback would be self-confidence, resiliency, endless opportunities…the list goes on. I can tell you with confidence that I am glad he taught me this!  It gave me the confidence to first get my engineering degree and then make bold career choices.

Secondly, Ed was a physics engineer that came across my path and taught me patience. He coached me in the value of investing time - whether it is in a relationship, in projects, in tasks or in anything else – if you do something long enough and you learn from your past experiences, you will eventually succeed. I learned that with time genuine efforts pay off.

Finally, Murray, a lawyer and business titan, taught me many things, but the one that sticks with me the most is that while you can be naive in your personal life as you discover the world, in business there is not much tolerance for being naive. I learned part of this the hard way as I started and participated in different business ventures. A good example of this was while I was at Zedi and met with a PHD in Mechanical Engineering to assess the opportunity to commercialize a product. I was very naive when I thought the project was far more advanced than it actually was. I thought it was in the late stages of development when it was only in the conceptual stage – a huge difference! I had not assessed the opportunity properly or asked the right questions. Those are not easy things to hear but they paid off as I listened; I adjusted my plan and buckled down. In the end it took six times more money to develop the product and triple the amount of time with less functionality. It was a very painful but worthy lesson.

Lesson #5: The significance of giving back

This lesson I would like to share with you is simple but nonetheless important. I’ve found it is essential to give back. This is an invaluable piece of the success factor. Once you discover the pleasure of giving, you realize it far exceeds the pleasure of receiving.

Over the years I have found it very rewarding to give without expecting anything in return. In addition, I found it is essential to recognize the contributing elements in our achievements and give back accordingly. My contribution over time to UNB is an example of my recognition of UNB’s contribution to my success. UNB provided the foundation that helped me build a successful career, and certainly giving back allows others the same opportunity I was extended.

And while it is important to give it is equally important to celebrate your accomplishments, but most important to give by sharing your experience and knowledge by inspiring others. Just as my mentors did for me, when I had acquired knowledge or skills I then shared them with others so that they benefited from what I had learned and experienced. I have found knowledge becomes only truly powerful when it empowers others around us.”