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Verbatim: Why Suncor’s former CEO Rick George isn’t exactly the retiring type

“I retired from Suncor. I didn’t retire from life. I love the oil patch and I love the industry," says George.

Apr 17, 2013

Rick George spent 21 years turning an underperforming oil producer into Alberta’s largest publicly traded company. Upon his retirement, you might expect the former president and CEO of Suncor Energy to want to slow down.

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Speaker, author and Osum Oil Sands chair Rick George
Photograph Bookstrucker

He’s not interested, though. Within six months of his May 2012 retirement, George published a book (Sun Rise), joined the speaking circuit and became the chairman of a junior oil sands company. And while he’s using his retirement to pursue his hobbies – which include skiing, game-bird hunting and riding bicycles around places like India, Vietnam and Morocco – he’s spending the bulk of his time discussing the issues that Alberta’s energy industry still faces, from production problems to new markets. This month, the man once dubbed Mr. Oil Sands shares his thoughts on retirement, energy policy and the joys of working for a smaller company.

On his motivation for writing a book
“Suncor is a great Canadian success story, and I know there are other Canadian success stories out there, but I thought it was a tale worth telling. It shows you that you can take a company that had not been performing well and turn it into the biggest company in its industry in Canada. The story is compelling if you think about its juxtaposition with Nortel and RIM and other stories here in the oil patch that haven’t gone so well.”

On why he joined Osum Oil Sands six months after retiring
“I retired from Suncor. I didn’t retire from life. I love the oil patch and I love the industry. It’s really a lot of fun to go and work with some smaller companies. The reason Osum attracted me is that I really liked their asset base and I really liked their people.

Their biggest holdings are in the carbonates and I think that is one of the future areas that this industry is going to unlock. So it is fun because of the technologies. I’m telling people that it’s not a matter of if we figure out how to produce from the carbonates, it’s when and how we’re going to figure out how to produce from the carbonates. The industry will figure this out and that will unlock a lot of oil here in Alberta.”

On joining a small, unproven company
“It is more nimble and it’s more entrepreneurial. When you get to be a huge organization like Suncor, your appetite for risk and for change is lower – and the world changes. Remember, when I took over the leadership position at Suncor in 1991, it was a company with a $1-billion market cap. People think of it now as a huge company, which it is and I’m very proud of it, but I miss working with smaller companies.”

On the energy industry’s safety record, and moving crude oil on water in places like Kitimat, B.C.
“Pipelines are the safest way to move crude – that’s a proven fact. Moving crude in these northern latitudes on and off the water is something that’s done every day, whether it’s off the east coast, the port of Vancouver, in the U.K., in Norway or in Russia. There are shipments of crude on the water every day with a 30-year safety record that’s quite enviable. Nobody can guarantee that nothing will happen but the likelihood is very low. Everyone will point to Valdez or the Star of the North, but there are plenty of safety applications and this industry actually has a good track record. So it is a risk and reward type of issue, but I would say that it’s so important to the future of Canada that we need to have an even-handed discussion about it.”

On how to fix the current price differential between Canadian crude oil and the world price
“When you see this kind of differential, people are looking at everything from trucking to more fluids movement by rail to moving crude north as opposed to south. The market will solve this, but if you think about it from a Canadian viewpoint, from a nationalist viewpoint, Asia is the growing market. It’s where demand for fuels is going to continue to rise as they continue to improve their standard of living and grow their middle class. Our trade with Asia is up, whether that’s potash, coal, ore or timber, so oil and gas exports to Asia makes a lot of sense for this country.”

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