Be an intrapreneur: How to bring the entrepreneurial spirit inside a corporation
November 24, 2014
By Tony Wanless
One clear day in Vancouver, Mark Stephenson was looking out his office window, watching large container ships enter and leave the harbour. He thought: Isn’t it amazing how many goods are transported through just one port? The infrastructure system is enormous, he observed, and the logistic challenges must be formidable. Yet it all works — just as it does with every port, railway and trucking company on Earth.
And thus an entrepreneurial idea was hatched.
Mr. Stephenson has been an entrepreneur for most of his life, though often in a corporate setting. In other words, he is an “intrapreneur” — a person with an entrepreneurial spirit embedded within a large organization. Today, many organizations are employing people like Mr. Stephenson to inject dynamism and decalcify operations. Often, companies are allowing — and sometimes encouraging — intrapreneurs to create innovative new products or services.
Currently, Mr. Stephenson is vice president for Informa Canada West, a branch of an international publishing, events and business intelligence provider based in Britain. Last year, his idea led to Informa’s first annual Cargo Logistics Canada trade show in Vancouver and an accompanying magazine. The next trade show is planned for January 2015. There are also plans for a Cargo Logistics America trade show in San Diego as well as plans to launch similar trade shows in other major ports around the world.
Although today he works for a company that operates in 45 countries, has 8,000 employees, is on the London Stock Exchange and can trace its origins to the original Lloyds shipping lists, Mr. Stephenson approached his concept like any entrepreneur would. He researched the idea, wrote a business plan, pitched it to Informa — as an entrepreneur would to an investor — and then proceeded to act on it.
It’s the way he has been operating since 1996. Then a salesman for Southex Exhibitions, Mr. Stephenson was contacted by a small publisher and events organizer in Toronto that produced an annual trade show and corollary magazine for property managers. The two connected and formed a company, Buildex.
Buildex quickly expended from its property management show, launching a construction show and then a show for commercial designers. All three were accompanied by show magazines. They also published a business magazine, since sold, which covered the industries. By the mid-2000s Buildex had trade shows and accompanying magazines in Calgary, Edmonton and Seattle. Mr. Stephenson was in his element — making good money and enthusiastically growing his business.
Then, in 2007, MMPI, a large Chicago-based property manager of exhibition sites, bought Buildex, and Mr. Stephenson became a division manager in a larger company. Almost overnight, Buildex changed from small to big. He moved from a 1,500 square foot office to a 5,000 square foot office, and his employee count ballooned from a few in Vancouver to 20 in various locations throughout Canada.
The change was not for the worse. “They let me do my own thing,” says Mr. Stephenson, and in five years he had doubled business. By 2012, eight companies had lined up to buy Buildex (now officially known as MMPI Canada, although everyone still called it Buildex). The suitors loved that the founder still ran the operation. So Mr. Stephenson and his partners in MMPI Canada held a Dragons’ Den-like event and listened to the suitors’ pitches. The partners chose Informa, largely because they planned to keep Buildex remaining intact.
Now operating within an even larger organization, Mr. Stephenson plans to continue to do what he does best: grow the business. “I’m an entrepreneur playing the corporate game,” he chuckles.