People to Watch

Bill Stewart

Sustainable Intelligence

By Beka Shane Denter

Our photo of Bill was taken at one of many green spaces for which Ottawa is famous. Photo: Miv Fournier.

Bill Stewart has a lot of energy and an ability to make everything sound exciting. His enthusiasm has served him well since his arrival in Ottawa at age 23.

Born in Brockville, Ontario, and coming from “a simple background,” Bill realized that staying in his hometown meant limited career choices. A move to the capital was essential. “I recall it being a challenging time in that my first job here was based on 100 per cent commission.”

The work experience as director of dealer and distribution sales for Rogers Wireless for 18 years was invaluable as “it exposed me to many different elements that prepared me professionally for creating the terra20 concept.” Dealing directly with customers “helped me to better understand how to create an ideal customer experience. And, in working with independent dealers, I learned about managing a business, which would prove to be very useful as president of terra20.” 

What inspired Bill to shift his professional focus from sales to sustainability? “Change. There comes a time when you begin to ask, do I still add value; am I still contributing to success, and if so for what?” Ten years ago Steve Kaminski, a close friend of Bill’s, was frustrated by how difficult it was to incorporate sustainable solutions in his new home build. Steve, a “serial entrepreneur,” asked Bill if he thought there was an opportunity to build a company together that would fulfil these needs for sustainability. “Call it fate, luck or good timing, but I had time on my hands to do some research, as I had just left an 18-year career in the wireless industry. I recall telling Steve that perhaps he had the wrong guy as I knew little to nothing about the sustainability industry and had no formal experience in building a company. He pointed to my 18 years of experience and, more importantly, said that my lack of knowledge in the sustainability industry would be an advantage as the company would be aimed at people like us who didn’t have industry knowledge.” 

Adria Vasil was Bill’s role model when developing the concept of terra20. “Adria is a columnist for Now magazine’s Ecoholic column and author of three books. “She takes a common-sense approach to conscious consumerism and provides in-depth reviews and insights to educate and influence Canadians. It was the first book I read to educate myself on the topic, and it became a foundation to build from as we developed the business model for terra20.” Bill and Steve had an opportunity to present the terra20 concept to Adria before it went public “to seek her advice and guidance on what we were attempting to create.” Bill will never forget her initial comments after the presentation: “Not only is this type of business important to Ottawa, but it is important to Canadians.”

Bill began to research wind, geothermal and solar power. Before delving too deep into this possible venture, he and Steve determined that the bigger consumer need “was in making it easy for people to buy healthy and sustainable consumer products; everyday items like shampoos, cleaners, cosmetics and body lotions.” Bill points out that 10 years ago, if you were a conscientious consumer, oftentimes you would have to buy from several retailers, many of them either online or in the United States. Further research showed that the retailers that did sell sustainable products either lacked product knowledge or were not appealing to the mainstream consumer. “It was at that point the terra20 concept was born, and, from there, I turned my research to building a viable business model, sourcing agencies to create a store design and brand identity, building the initial assortment and recruiting and training our first members of the team.” It was three years in the making, and on September 12, 2012, terra20 opened its flagship store in the Pinecrest shopping mall. 

What Bill believes makes terra20 work is the fact that both he and his partner Steve are “representatives of the type of customer we seek to attract to this concept. A mainstream consumer concerned and curious about the health effects of everyday products and the impact we have on the environment. I felt as long as we built a store that would appeal to us, we would be onto a good thing.”

The terra20 concept is designed to appeal to a wide range of customers as is reflected in the brand identity at the front of the store that showcases varying shades of green bars. “This is to suggest that all levels of conscientious consumers are welcome at terra20. Our customers range from new moms concerned for the health of their families, people with skin sensitivities to someone who wants to remove chemicals from their products, buy local or avoid animal testing. They all share common values of health and sustainability.”

Bill attributes the success of the concept – one-stop shopping for healthy, sustainable products – to several factors. “I did not do it alone. I did so with a great deal of assistance and professional guidance from Steve. He was an instrumental partner every step of the way in providing strategic direction and constantly challenged the model on a weekly basis.” As well, “We’ve had the good fortune of employing some incredibly talented young individuals who are committed to the success of our company and support our vision. They are active participants and contributors in guiding and implementing our growth strategy.”

Since 2012, terra20 has proven that the concept is a viable one. As a result of its success, “we recently embarked on executing a franchise model. We are thinking big but acting small in focusing on reaching consumers one community at a time.” The immediate intention is “to establish two pilot locations here in Ottawa and expand out from there over the next 12 to 18 months.” 

Bill’s personality is such that being on the floor and interacting with terra20 customers is one of the highlights of his job. It’s hard for him to pick out a favourite customer experience, as there have been many since terra20 opened. He recalls one couple who came into the store within the first weeks of opening. “What drew me to them is that they were really taking in the environment of the store in its entirety and carefully giving thought to each and every purchase. I welcomed them to the store and casually asked them what brought them in. Their response surprised me: ‘We realize now that we screwed up on the choices we have made and the impact on the environment, and we are here today so that we don’t mess it up for our grandchildren.’” 

When not researching new products or promoting terra20 Bill and his family enjoy travelling to and experiencing new places together. “My two daughters are at an age now where they truly appreciate other cultures,” he notes. My travels have made me realize we are responsible for the environment today, tomorrow and beyond, as such consideration must be given to our children’s children with the goal for them to inherit the planet in the same state as we did. This inevitably forces us to separate our requirements into needs versus wants. I include myself when I say we all appreciate the luxuries in life, but we need to find a balance and for those that negatively impact our environment, we must relentlessly pursue and invest in alternatives because our children are worth it.”

Bill’s predictions for the top-selling sustainability products in the next year:

  • Household cleaners/alternative cleaning solutions (check out the ecobar at terra20)
  • Cosmetics

Three things you can do to be a more conscientious consumer?

  1. Educate yourself about products and the impact those products may have on the environment.
  2. Change your products.
  3. Change your thinking. The assumption eco-friendly products cost more is a myth. With little effort and no sacrifice in quality or your budget, you can have a significant impact on both people and the planet.