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Change at the Top: Meet six of Alberta’s new senior executives

These senior executives took over six of the biggest organizations in the province

Sep 1, 2014

by Michael Ganley

Change often makes people feel uncomfortable. We like what we know and, when faced with the unknown, we frequently turn to our leaders for reassurance and guidance. So what happens when the change that is engendering the uncertainty is in the very leadership that we would otherwise have turned to for a sense of calm? Well, that’s when the new person in charge really needs to show a steady hand. With these photographs and stories, we introduce six people who have taken on that challenge by taking over six of the biggest organizations in the province.

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John Stevens, Entrec
Photo John Gaucher
John Stevens, Entrec

President and CEO since January 5, 2014
2013 revenue: $213 million
V250 rank: 135

Entrec has moved into a brand new, 76,000-square-foot facility in Parkland County. Until the move, the three-year-old company was operating out of two  locations in Nisku and one in Spruce Grove. “We just ran out of space,” says president and CEO John Stevens. “We had office people in Atco trailers.”

It’s been quite a run for Entrec in its short life.

Not only has it risen to #135 on the V250 list (from #170), but it has altered its business from strictly heavy haul services to an equal amounts of heavy haul and crane operations. “Our competitors across the U.S. and Canada are in both heavy haul and cranes,” Stevens says. “The customer doesn’t want to pay for the trucks to sit there while the crane company shows up or vice versa.” He expects that ratio to continue to tilt in favour of the crane operations, and sees growth opportunities not only in the oil sands but in LNG operations, from Grande Prairie to Kitimat.

The other big change for Entrec this year was a move from the TSX Venture Exchange to the TSX. “Most of the Canadian institutions don’t care but as you start to draw more institutions from the U.S. and overseas, they want to see you on the big board,” Stevens says. “It was a natural progression for us.”

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Chuck Magro, Agrium
Photo John Gaucher
Chuck Magro, Agrium

CEO since January 1, 2014
2013 revenue: $16.7 billion
V250 rank: 6

In the brave new world of farming, it’s all about big data and “precision agriculture,” says Agrium CEO Chuck Magro. His company is looking to cash in from start to finish. “I call it going from the ground to the grower,” he says. “We go from fertilizer production right through to agricultural retail and we also sell $5.5 billion of crop protection and feed products directly to farmers.”

The company’s consultants work with farmers by analyzing soil samples, planting seeds, providing advice on what to apply when and offering advice throughout the growing process. “Farms are so big and sophisticated and many growers don’t want to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a piece of machinery they use a few months a year,” Magro says, “so they turn to us.”

The approach has made Agrium the largest agricultural retailer in the world, operating more than 1,400 facilities in seven countries and working with more than half a million farmers.

“The one thing that is not changing is the need for food,” Magro says. “The global need is a huge responsibility for Agrium and other companies in the space, but it’s also a huge opportunity. By the year 2030, there will be another billion people on the planet and the global GDP will almost double. We’re going to have more people with more money so they’re going to need and want more food.”

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Mick Dilger, Pembina Pipelines
Photo John Gaucher
Mick Dilger, Pembina Pipelines

CEO since January 1, 2014
2013 revenue: $5 billion
V250 rank: 20

Pembina Pipelines’ CEO Mick Dilger says that infrastructure companies like his are to the oil and gas industry what rebar is to construction: relatively boring when compared to the architecture, perhaps, but when there isn’t enough rebar, buildings fall down. And as everyone knows, Alberta’s suffering a shortage of rebar. “We have $5 billion of committed projects over the next few years and another $2 billion of projects under consideration,” Dilger says. “That $7 billion is almost half of our enterprise value. We’re pretty busy.”

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Pembina is known for pipelines, but Dilger says that over the past decade the company has moved up and down the value chain. “Processing plants feed our pipelines and so we thought we should get into processing,” he says. “We did and it was successful and then we realized that fractionation capacity was a barrier for producers so we got into it and then we realized end markets were an issue and now we’re trying to develop end markets for propane and ethane and products like that.”

The changes have helped Pembina’s stock price, which has shot up 60 per cent in the last 18 months. And Dilger says Pembina has a few residual strengths, too: The vast majority of its assets are in energy-friendly Alberta, it has been operating in some areas for as long as 60 years and much of its future expansion will be along existing rights of way. “If we’d been doing a shitty job, following existing rights of way would be the kiss of death,” Dilger says, “but if you’re doing a good job, following your rights of way makes things a lot easier.”

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Rob Dutton, Devon Canada
Photo John Gaucher
Rob Dutton, Devon Canada

CEO since January 2014
Replaced Chris Seasons
2013 revenue: $2.7 billion

Rob Dutton hasn’t just taken on a new job at Devon Canada, he’s taken over a vastly different company from the one that existed at the beginning of the year. That’s because in February, Devon Canada’s parent company, the U.S.-based Devon Energy, sold its conventional assets in Canada – primarily natural gas – to Canadian Natural Resources for $3.1 billion. “The rationale was to rebalance the overall Devon portfolio across North America to become a little less weighted on the gas side and a little more weighted towards the oil side,” says Dutton, who was the company’s vice-president of capital projects before the promotion. The sale has reduced Devon Canada’s overall production on a barrels-of-oil-equivalent measurement by about half. The company will now focus on its heavy oil assets near Lloydminster and on the Jackfish and Pike oil sands projects south of Fort McMurray.

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Mark Ward, Syncrude
Photo John Gaucher
Mark Ward, Syncrude

CEO since April 1, 2014
2013 revenue: $16.7 billion
V250 rank: 6

Mark Ward left his job running ExxonMobil’s operations in Nigeria to take the top job at Syncrude in Fort McMurray. “The single biggest change has been the weather, from tropical climate to something different than tropical,” he says, wryly. “But from a business standpoint, the two are remarkably similar: both are joint ventures, both are large enterprises in complicated, challenging operating areas, both are very large, long-term resources and both have challenging cost structures.”

In fact, Ward eschews any discussion of marked change, preferring to emphasize a steady-as-she-goes approach. “The enterprise has a long, successful history. The direction we’re on now is a good direction.

I don’t see the need for any major shifts or major changes.”

Instead, Ward identifies three overarching objectives: to reduce “high potential incidents,” be they safety, environmental or reliability failures; to improve profitability by squeezing everything possible from current investments and equipment; and to prepare for the future. “We have a long-term focus on what we need to do to ensure the continued viability and profitability of the enterprise,” he says. “Let’s continue to mine out our existing sites, and we have a couple of new sites for which we’re early in the permitting process that will continue to keep the mine site fully loaded.”

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Vickie Kaminski, Alberta Health Services
Photo John Gaucher
Vickie Kaminski, Alberta Health Services

CEO since May 26, 2014
2013 revenue: $13.2 billion

Many people would say AHS has experienced too much change over the last few years, beginning with its creation as a single, unified provincial body in 2008, through a number of leadership changes, the firing of the entire board in 2013 and now its pending reinstatement.

The AHS’s new CEO, Vickie Kaminski, wouldn’t disagree. “It’s been a bit too chaotic, and while chaos can be exciting, it can also be somewhat detrimental to organizations,” she says.

But even as she’s looking to bring some stability to the organization, she also thinks well-thought-out, structured change is crucial. “We’re looking at bringing back patient and family focused care in all parts of AHS right across the province,” she says. “We’re looking at how we can maximize individuals in their scope of practice and ensure they get job satisfaction.” Right now, many AHS employees are reporting low levels of work engagement, and Kaminski says ensuring that nurse practitioners, licensed practical nurses, registered nurses, social workers, pharmacists and even volunteers are used to the fullest extent possible will help correct the problem. “We need the right person providing the right service at the right time,” she says.

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