Theresa Keeping, owner of the Port of Stephenville, is the quintessential serial entrepreneur, with over forty years of experience building several businesses. But it wasn’t until she moved back to Newfoundland — where she was born and raised — that her entrepreneurial aspirations have been connected to revitalizing the area her ancestors have called home for over a century.
by Shelley White
Over the span of 40 years in business, Theresa Keeping’s life has come full circle.
Theresa is the CEO and owner of the Port of Stephenville, located on the west coast of the island of Newfoundland. The port is a Transport Canada-approved facility, bringing in international and domestic ships year-round. It’s a part of the country that Theresa knows well — she was born and raised in the area, the fifth child in a family of 11 children.
But like many Newfoundlanders, Theresa moved away from Newfoundland to Fort McMurray, Alberta in the 70s, to pursue career opportunities. Over the next three decades, she would successfully launch and develop several businesses in Fort McMurray, including a printing, promo and sign company and a commercial development and real estate firm.
Theresa returned to her native Newfoundland in 2007, investing in and acquiring more businesses when the Port of Stephenville opportunity arose.
“My partner and I had a business building ocean-front subdivisions, and were leasing an ocean-view property to a gentleman from Charlotte, North Carolina. He introduced us to investment into this port which was being offered for sale,” Theresa says. She became a minority investor in the port in 2012, took over as majority shareholder in 2015, and recently bought out the last three shareholders to become the sole owner.
Theresa says it has felt very special to own and develop the land that her family once called home. A woman of both French and Indigenous heritage, Theresa is a member of the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation. Her Acadian ancestors settled in Stephenville from Cape Breton in 1848, and her Indigenous ancestors originated there too.
“The mountain behind the port is called Indian Head, and most of the people that lived around there were Mi’kmaq. So for me, it was gratifying to be able to be back on the soil where there were footprints from former family,” she says.
Theresa has big plans for the port site over the next few years, including developing a mining facility from an existing granite quarry, fin-fish and shellfish aquaculture facilities, a soil enhancement business, and alternative energy projects such as wind farms.
The idea for the soil enhancement business originated from a former paper mill site that adjoins the port. “Many tonnes of wood chips and decomposed bark were being stockpiled on the property for years. They have very little value in the raw, but when it comes to soil enhancement, they are like liquid gold,” she says.
Her drive to develop the port site is borne out of both her keen ability to spot opportunity and a desire to bring new energy — and jobs — to the area.
“It’s much needed,” she says. “This part of the coast in western Newfoundland has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. We would like to see more young people able to stay home or return home, and also bring immigrant populations into the area.”
“After school, my children would come to the office where I was, do their homework and play there, before we went back home to have dinner, I involved them into my life so I could be with them, they could be with me, and we could be a part of each other’s lives.”
With such ambitious plans, raising capital is an ongoing challenge. Theresa says her relationship with BDC, the bank of entrepreneurs, has been extremely helpful.
“When we first started in 2015 with the port, I tapped into some assistance with them — not a large amount, but just enough to make sure our operations would be smooth. Since then, what I really like about BDC is the fact that they seem to really care about what they fund. They give you the opportunity to meet their people, something I find more difficult with other institutions,” she says, adding, “I really like the personal touch. Computers are wonderful, but I like people’s faces too.”
Another boon of Theresa’s relationship with BDC was their suggestion she get involved with Cisco’s Women Entrepreneurs’ Circle (WEC) — an initiative that BDC supports. As part of this program, the Port of Stephenville was paired up with an intern, Matthew Mather, a third-year student of management engineering at the University of Waterloo. Matthew spent this past summer working with the Port of Stephenville on an integrated management software platform to automate, plan and support all the on-going operations and future projects.
“As we build, we would like to be able to more easily manage everything. We have different entities — as many as seven before we’re finished — so, we need to keep a really good handle on them and grow with the business,” Theresa says.
With Matthew’s help, they are well on their way to developing the platform, she adds.
“Matthew was a great asset and gave us the knowledge of how to get started doing this,” she says. “He’s very knowledgeable and has assisted us in ways that we didn’t think would happen.”
In keeping with the Newfoundland way, Matthew was invited to visit Theresa and her team for a week to get to know everyone, and he was excited to take part in a traditional rite of passage, being “screeched in.” (The ceremony involves the kissing of a cod, among other things.)
“Now he’s an honorary Newfoundlander,” she says.
Theresa says she would definitely recommend the WEC program for other women entrepreneurs. She’s passionate about supporting other women founders, having faced her own challenges in the early days of building her companies — particularly the pressures of raising four children.
“After school, my children would come to the office where I was, do their homework and play there, before we went back home to have dinner,” she says. “I involved them into my life so I could be with them, they could be with me, and we could be a part of each other’s lives.”
She says she would like to see more support for women entrepreneurs to unlock the potential, innovation and economic power of women for the betterment of future generations.
“I would like to see assistance for women who are burdened with family responsibilities, like better opportunities for daycare, for instance,” she says. “Also, ways for entrepreneurs to find other entrepreneurs who are like-minded, so they can connect and build businesses together.”
The Cisco Women Entrepreneurs’ Circle — a program led by Cisco in partnership with the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) — addresses some of the obstacles women-led businesses face in building their tech capabilities. Are you a business owner? Fill in a short survey to register for free virtual training from the Cisco Networking Academy and fill in your knowledge gaps. Are you considering becoming a business owner? Access BDC’s free How to Start a Business module to discover everything you need to be a successful entrepreneur.