My Story: Renee Mousseau

Renee back in her Race City Speedway days.

If an oil and gas career could be predetermined for anyone, Renee Mousseau would have been a likely candidate. Her father, a retired petroleum engineer, whose contributions to innovative removal techniques while working at Devon Energy have become commonplace in the industry—methods such as SAGD, fracking, and coal-bed methane extraction—was fully supportive of his only child’s knack for engineering. At a very young age, Renee was prone to assembling IKEA furniture and building Lego models; and, later on, she took a keen interest in space and astrophysics. Her mother, too, was deeply rooted in oil and gas as a joint venture manager at Trilogy Energy and Paramount Resources.

She was enrolled in “Honours Everything” at her small, traditional high school where Home Ec was an option but not Shop class. Growing bored with schoolwork, she spent more time visiting friends at the larger high school down the street; a school that was home to a fully equipped automotive shop filled with cars. While it wasn’t the oil and gas career her parents were rooting for, her analytical mind was captivated by both the inner workings of these machines and the gleam of a well-polished exterior. At 14, she was drag racing down 14th Street in Calgary, and at 15 she landed her first car, a VW Golf, that she spent more time detailing and driving than she did attending classes. The speed and adrenaline associated with her new hobby may have gotten her hooked, her parents weren’t rejoicing especially when she’d land herself in trouble while steering further away from the oil and gas dreams they had for her.

At 18, she moved out of her parents’ house as her mother pleaded for her to pick a stable career and “get things sorted out.” At the time, the only program that had not closed for applications was the Business program at the University of Lethbridge, so she enrolled, got accepted, and learned that she hated Economics. Her love of cars, however, landed her a rare right-hand drive Japanese sports car which caused her to spend more time at Race City Speedway than doing her schoolwork. She finished her first semester in Lethbridge with a GPA of 0.1 and found herself once again at a career crossroads.

Having failed her one and only university experience, she was astute enough to realize that she would need to boost her GPA in order to pursue any post-secondary option, so she opted to take some upgrading courses at Mount Royal College between 2005 and 2006. She also moonlighted as a vehicle importer and made a few bucks reselling trendy right-hand drive cars. After upgrading her grades, she took a year off and worked two jobs simultaneously — a server at Denny’s and a car audio installer at Future Shop — and funneled whatever money she made into modifying her cars. At this point, her mother thinks she’s a train wreck and her dad is losing his mind over how derailed her life had become.

Left: Renee and her father, Murray Weatherhead, at her SAIT graduation. Middle: Showing off her Petroleum Geology diploma from the UofC. Right: Outside the entrance to the NASA research facility at the UofC.

With the urging of her parents to just finish something at school, she enrolled in the Automotive Service Technologies program at SAIT and graduated in 2009. Her motivation for completing the program had less to do with wanting to work on someone else’s car and more to do with just making her parents happy.

While she was at SAIT, she began detailing (i.e., cleaning) cars out of her mom’s unheated garage to make some extra money. After two years, her attention to detail gave her a reputation amongst some local dealerships that she’d make a great service advisor. Several such offers came in but it was when a particular fellow—a casual acquaintance of hers—approached her at a restaurant one day and suggested she move her operation out of her mom’s garage and rent one of his work bays at a reasonable rate. The anticipation of working in a warmer environment combined with the fact she still had a few right-hand drives to sell and needed the extra space, she signed a subletting deal in January 2009.

At age 21, she was now the proud owner of Chatelaine Auto Spa. She had a $50,000 small business loan, no house, and no collateral, all of which would have been manageable had the stock market not crashed in 2010 and the bank calling in her loan. With an unsuccessful appeal to her dad to swap detailing for an investment in the lucrative 3M protective film market instead, she closed the doors to Chatelaine on November 31, 2010.Renee came out of that experience with literally nothing. She’s living in a basement suite and found herself just as lost as she was a few years earlier.

After learning she had poached quite a few of their detailing clientele, a local high-end sports car dealership offered her a Detail Manager position in their shop. Being babysat by a supervisor she felt was less qualified than herself was frustrating, so before long, she and her mother were scribbling career pros and cons on the paper table cloth at Montana’s…eventually settling on Petroleum Geology as a suitable career choice. Unlike her father’s engineering background, Renee wasn’t interested in an oil and gas office job working under artificial lighting, so the geology angle allowed her to venture out into the field to get her hands dirty. She saw herself channelling her obsession with detail and perfection into a new pursuit, not unlike what she experienced as a vehicle detailer.

Applications were still open at the University of Calgary and to her surprise, she got accepted into their Petroleum Geology program. But the adventurer in her felt that one degree wasn’t challenging enough so she did a double-degree along with Geophysics.

In addition to a field school that took them to Death Valley in California—which was a highlight for her—the University of Calgary’s geology program also had a NASA track which combined her love of astrophysics with her new geology interest. (The university had developed the electron spectrometer that analyzed the rocks collected by the Mars Rover. NASA opted to retain the UofC as the host institution.) Renee’s parents were ecstatic that the stars were finally aligning for their daughter.

When she enrolled at the UofC in 2011, the price of oil was at $110 per barrel; she was actively courting job prospects the entire time she was a student and when graduation drew near, she had six job offers lined up. When she graduated four years later in 2015, the price of oil had fallen to $35 per barrel which was cast a dark shadow over the entire industry. Having lived through the volatility of the oil industry themselves, her parents were quick to dismiss the downturn as only temporary: ”It’ll only be three months.” “It happens all the time.” “Six months maybe.”

Renee and members of her Petroleum Geology cohort visit a Devon lease for a rig tour.

Her six job offers were rescinded just as quickly thanks to the recession that was now bearing down on Canada’s resource industry. Renee recalls the moment she had no choice but to rethink her petroleum ambitions due to no fault of her own…before graduation she was pre-hired for a project down by Frank Slide in the Crowsnest Pass area of Alberta. At the time, she was working at a dealerership (again!) so when the contract to work on a big pilot project involving 400 wells came up, she believed her time to move away from cars and into oil and gas was finally here. The money was great and she’d be living and working amongst geology colleagues on site. All looked great on paper, so she quit her dealership gig two weeks after getting the Frank Slide contract. Two weeks after that, they laid her off before she even had a chance to start! She went from having two jobs to no job. My parents went from having a big high about their daughter…to going right back to where they were before.

She saw this as the last straw. It just so happened that the economy collapsed and she found herself having to re-jig her passion in order to survive. She had hit rock bottom before but now she committed herself to making a serious effort at running her own operation again, applying lessons learned from past mistakes.

When she was Detail Manager at the high-end sports car dealership a few years earlier, they asked her to apply 3M protective film on ten Aston Martin V12 Vantages and have them completed within a week. She had no idea how to do this but with her uncanny ability to turn stress into motivation, she hunkered down, learned how to apply film, and worked from 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m. each day to get all ten vehicles wrapped…all to perfection and with no complaints from the customers, including Tony Delawri. This was her baptism by fire in learning how to work with film.

The clientele for Renee’s film shop continues to be high-end sports cars, although she’s happy to wrap a Kenworth or Odyssey.

Now, ten years after her first unsuccessful pitch to her father to invest in the 3M protective film market, she had come full circle. She had hit rock bottom several times, had finished post-secondary twice, and become a victim of the oil and gas downturn along with thousands of others. But what she gained along the way was an unmatched proficiency with film, a sizable client base she’d met in shops over the years, and a reputation of being the best in a niche market expected to grow in popularity. So this time, her dad fronted the $10,000 she needed to get the plotter that would enable her to set up her own shop. When Ultimate Auto Protection launched in October of 2017, she repaid him within two months and Ultimate is on track to doing $1 million in sales for 2020.

So, in hindsight, the only time she actually worked in oil and gas was in high school helping her mother with joint ventures and contracts. Ironically, now it’s her retired mom that helps Renee around the shop.