“Governance is when a board knows its role well and is able to ensure the right people are doing the right things and going in the right direction for the benefit of the organization. Different from U.S. law, Canadian directors must think about employees, customers, the community, their shareholders and bondholders.”
Stella Thompson has been involved in Calgary’s business community for over five decades as an economist, governance leader, mentor and advocate for women. A true trailblazer in Alberta’s energy industry, Stella became a thought leader on governance practices long before it was an agenda item.
Charles and Margery Lee welcomed Stella Margery Lee on January 11, 1945, in Pointe-à-Pierre, Trinidad. Hers was a British family, including sisters Anne, Olive and Jean, who moved throughout the Caribbean following their geologist father as he explored for oil with Trinidad Leaseholds Ltd. In 1951, Stella’s family moved from Barbados when Charles was transferred to Calgary. That’s when, at the age of five and a half, Stella became an “absolutely ardent Albertan.” In 1956, she left for Queen Margaret’s School in Duncan on Vancouver Island, where she completed Grades 7 through 11. These were challenging years for Stella.
“Life for me didn’t begin until I was 16,” she remembers. That’s when Stella returned home to complete Grade 12 at Central High School in Calgary. The following year, she completed the equivalent of Ontario Grade 13 at Neuchâtel Junior College in Switzerland, living with a Swiss family in a small village. Despite the exotic locale and international travel, she yearned to return to Calgary.
In 1963, Stella returned home and registered at the then University of Alberta in Calgary. Interested in business, she majored in economics. Within her first half hour on campus, she met Derrick Thompson, who would become her husband in 1967. Stella graduated in 1966 with her bachelor’s degree.
That summer, she landed her dream job: an internship with W. J. Levy Consultants Corp. in New York City’s Rockefeller Center. Walter Levy was the world’s leading petroleum economic consultant. Stella was fascinated by her work forecasting oil and gas prices all over the world. She thrived for five happy months.
After her internship, Stella moved to Edmonton where Derrick was studying medicine and enrolled at the University of Alberta. She began graduate studies in economics, focusing her thesis on the regulation of the oil industry. When she received her master’s degree in 1968, she was one of only two women in her graduating class, and one of the first women to earn an M.A. in Economics at the university.
When the couple decided to move to Australia in 1969, Stella was offered a job with oil and gas company Broken Hill Proprietary (BHP) before she even set foot in Melbourne. Once there, at the young age of 24, she represented the industry at a Royal Commission studying potential drilling on the Great Barrier Reef. After a few years, with Stella pregnant, they headed home so they could start their family in Canada, taking seven months to travel the world on the way to Calgary. Baby Justin was born at the Foothills Hospital in 1973.
After a year, Stella began work as an oil and gas consultant. She also helped her father Charles, now CEO of Western Decalta Ltd. and President of the Independent Petroleum Association of Canada, by writing his speeches. But after he broke his leg skiing, Charles needed her to deliver his speech to Canadian oil executives at Simon Fraser University. After that, the job offers started to pour in for Stella.
When she was offered a job with PanCanadian Petroleum Limited in 1975, Stella embarked on a long career in both the upstream (exploration and production) and downstream (refining and marketing) operations of major oil and gas companies. She went on to work for several of Calgary’s large energy companies, either as an executive or as a long-term contractor. In 1988, she was named Vice-President of Planning, Business Information and Systems in the Products Division of Petro-Canada, becoming one of the first women in the oil and gas industry to become an executive at a large energy company.
In 1991, Stella left Petro-Canada, preferring work as an energy consultant. That same year, she was invited to join then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s National Advisory Board of Science and Technology (NABST). The minister in charge of the board not only put her on the executive committee, but also made her the chair of a committee looking at the role of science and technology in Canada’s oceans.
One of Stella’s fellow NABST board members was Ben Torchinsky, founder and CEO of Agra Inc., an international engineering firm. Ben was impressed with her intellect and asked her to join Agra’s board. From there, she was asked to join more well-known, publicly traded boards. As Stella’s board service increased, so did her interest in board governance.
A few years later, Stella was inspired by a 1994 report called Where Were The Directors? written for the Toronto Stock Exchange. It caused her to focus even more on best practices for board independence and oversight.
As co-founder and principal of Governance West Inc. from 1996 to 2008, Stella led one of the first consulting firms in Canada exclusively focused on providing executive and governance expertise to top-tier corporations. She has since become recognized as a key contributor to the evolution of corporate governance in Canada, providing her expertise to over 250 organizations ranging from multi-billion-dollar companies to Crown corporations and not-for-profits.
Stella was the first woman in Western Canada to be a director of multiple publicly traded companies. Highly intelligent and curious, she served on boards spanning various sectors, including science and technology, transportation, higher education, innovation, insurance, pharmaceuticals, the financial industry and the environment. She sat on more than 20 boards between 1991 and 2021. Just a few include Alberta Research Council, Talisman Energy, Enmax, Canada Foundation for Innovation, Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, Laidlaw Inc., Allstate Insurance Company of Canada, the Electricity Balancing Pool, Calgary Airport Authority, and the Alberta Provincial Audit Committee.
During this time, Stella served on the Advisory Committee of the UCalgary Faculty of Management (now the Haskayne Business School), as well as the Mount Royal College board. She also served on the board advising on Canada’s “Top 40 Under 40” contributors and on the Calgary Herald’s Citizens’ Advisory Board. Most recently, Stella served as a director of Connect First Credit Union. She also recently completed her terms as chair of the board of WaterSMART and chair of Genome Alberta.
Stella is a natural mentor. She continues to inspire the next generation of female professionals by supporting women in leadership roles. In 2003, Stella was one of the first members of Calgary’s chapter of the International Women’s Forum (IWF) serving on the local executive. In 2013, she was elected chair and president of the Canadian forum, one of the largest in the world. Her leadership of IWF Canada led directly to her spearheading support for more women in executive leadership and on corporate boards through the Ontario Securities Commission’s “comply or explain” requirement for all TSX-listed companies regarding corporate policies on gender diversity.
Stella’s family’s connection with YW Calgary goes back to the 1970s when her father headed the capital campaign to build a new YWCA facility. Fast forward to 2014, and Stella’s daughter-in-law Kate is YW board chair as the old building is sold and a new one is built. Stella joined the capital campaign in 2023 to build YW Calgary’s new Sheriff King Home.
Stella’s contributions have been celebrated across the country. The Women’s Executive Network recognized her as one of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women (2005). She received the YW’s She Who Dares award as one of the 150 female leaders over the last 150 years who contributed significantly to change in Calgary (2017). The University of Alberta presented her with an Alumni Honour Award (2018), and she was made a Luminary by the IWF of Canada (2020). She is a recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee Medal (Alberta).
Stella and Derrick parted ways in 1996. A few years later, she met Bob Millar on a plane to Ottawa, and her life changed. Stella and Bob have been together for 25 years and counting. Bob brought his adult children Grant (Heather) and Kristi (James), along with three beautiful grandchildren, to the union. With Justin and Kate’s boys, Stella is overjoyed to be a grandmother to five treasured grandchildren.