Photograph by Colin Way
Nancy Southern is all-Albertan. She was born and raised here. She’s a lover of horses and the foothills. She is graciously humble in person but can be audacious in business dealings. She greets me on the 16th floor of Calgary’s Atco building with a firm handshake and unwavering eyes – no doubt valuable assets for a woman operating in a man’s world. She’s tall and speaks with a smooth, assured voice, not quite a drawl, but leaning that way. She apologizes for being late (although she is by no more than a minute), has one final brief discussion with her executive assistant and guides me into her formidable office.
On the right is a pair of couches and matching chairs, a sculpted horse galloping on the coffee table. The mahogany-paneled walls are adorned with paintings of horses and Albertan landscapes. Equine sculptures and family photographs cover most surfaces. On the left is her desk, of a size and style befitting the president, CEO and deputy chair of a group of companies with annual revenues of $3.5 billion. The wall of windows looks northwest, over the Alberta foothills to the Rockies, a mountain chain as indelible in the provincial landscape as the company over which she presides.
Southern led Atco Group – an Albertan stalwart with an impressive 64-year history – to its best-ever year in 2010, when it made $296 million (up 126 per cent from 2003, the year that she took over). And she recently closed the company’s biggest-ever purchase, a bold $1.1 billion deal for assets in Australia. You might expect Southern to boast about these accomplishments. Instead, she’s actually a little embarrassed by the whole business-person-of-the-year thing, and that she was cajoled into submitting an application by her colleagues.
“I don’t feel very comfortable with the recognition,” she says. “I’m deeply honoured, but I have such an incredible team of people that make Atco work, and I really feel that this is their recognition. But I’m happy to be their spokesperson.”
She admits to a general reluctance to interact with the media, saying it is simply her chosen style. She’s busy running a business and would rather be known for her actions than her words. “I have often felt that taking a lot of time to talk about what the company is or what we’re doing is a distraction,” she says. Colloquially, it’s known as “just gettin’ ’er done,” and is a provincial hallmark
“History demonstrates our ability to continue to grow through all the cycles and weather all the storms that are thrown at us. That’s my philosophy, which I believe I inherited, to some degree, from the chairman.”
“The chairman” is her father, the legendary Ron Southern who, together with his father, S.D. Southern, bought 15 trailers for $4,000 in 1947 and formed the Alberta Trailer Hire Company. Atco now has assets worth over $10 billion. Ron Southern remains influential on the company board, but he handed the reins off to his daughter in 2003.
Southern with her husband, Jonathan Asselin, and children Kelly Koss, Ben Asselin and Kyle Koss. With her father and co-founder of the Atco Group, Ron D. Southern
And there’s no doubt Southern has made a name for herself since taking over. Her list of accomplishments is long and impressive: She’s a member (among many organizations) of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, the Joint Public Advisory Committee for the North American Agreement for Environmental Cooperation and the C.D. Howe Institute. She was the only Canadian asked to join the U.S. Business Council, where she gets to rub elbows with the heads of American Express and FedEx, among others (“They give you really good numbers and indications of delinquency or lower volumes,” she says.)
Most recently, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty asked her to be on his financial advisory board, and she knows the kind of advice she intends to give. “I believe that fiscal restraint from governments throughout the developed world is a necessity,” she says when talking about the world teetering on the brink of another recession.
Southern answers questions thoughtfully, often pausing for long periods to consider her answer. She says she has always been cognizant of the scepticism that followed the familial succession. To combat it, “right off the bat” she met as many people in the company as she could. She spent the better part of three years doing town halls, question and answer sessions and one-on-one meetings with Atco employees.
“I had to prove myself,” she says. “I had to make sure that people knew that I was really sincere and committed.” She now cites the acceptance of her by the rest of the company as one of her greatest accomplishments. “It took time to demonstrate that I am here for the long-term,” she says. “That I am dedicated to the people and this organization.”
The other highlight of her years at Atco, she says, is the purchase of Western Australia Gas Networks (WAGN), a deal that closed last August. “I have to say there were a lot of butterflies in my stomach,” she says of working on the billion- dollar deal. “That gut-wrenching, ‘Are we doing the right thing?’ A lot of sleepless nights.”
But the move into Australia was carefully calculated, made only after long deliberations and tough negotiations. Atco has a strong market share in Western Canada, and was looking for a region with similar characteristics where it could create the same diverse model that it has in Canada. That diversity has given Atco a natural hedge against uncertainty, Southern says. “When commodity prices are down in the mid-stream business, we look to one of the other companies to make up for it.”
The company originally entered the Australian market in 1961, and things went very well, with “Atco hut” quickly becoming the generic term for “trailer.” But everything changed in 1980, when Atco bought Canadian Utilities – a U.S.-based company that distributed gas and generated power in Alberta – for over $300 million. Atco borrowed the money for the purchase at floating interest rates. The plan was that cash flow from Atco Drilling would pay off the debt.
But then came a global recession compounded by the National Energy Program, and drilling activity in Canada all but dried up. The cash flow disappeared and Atco saw its interest rates climb to 22 per cent. “We were stuck to keep the company together,” Southern says. “We had to sell our Australian operations at that time. It’s what allowed us to manage through difficult times.”
A 10-year non-competition clause came with that sale, and Atco didn’t re-enter the Australian market until 1995. But those experiences gave Atco considerable knowledge of the Australian market. The difficulty this time came about because of a complex ownership structure of the assets Atco wanted in Western Australia.
A number of side deals had to be struck to allow Atco to get 100 per cent of WAGN while leaving bits and pieces of other companies that Atco didn’t want. “We didn’t want to take the whole thing and be minority owners,” Southern says. “Not that we won’t take on partners, but we wanted to have control.”
Through it all, Southern showed herself to be an excellent strategist. “She’s very good at taking a complex situation and looking at how we can break it down into executable components,” says Siegfried Kiefer, the chief operating officer of Atco Group Energy and Utilities.
“It looks difficult to execute en masse, but she’s good at looking at that complex situation, breaking it into a few bite-sized chunks and setting the course and strategy for getting it done.”
She also relied extensively on the expertise of Atco’s board of directors. Don Mazankowski, a former deputy prime minister and a member of Canadian Utilities’ board of directors from 1993 until joining Atco’s in 1999, says one of Southern’s strengths is her ability to draw guidance and wisdom from the board.
“She uses the board to get feedback and try out visionary things,” he says. “She’s not afraid to mix it up and we don’t always agree, but she uses the board to help mould and form the direction of the company.”
Negotiating a deal of this magnitude and complexity was new for Southern. She says she wanted everyone to walk away feeling good about it, but that it was difficult to know what to give up and when to draw the line in the sand. Still, and despite negotiating with people halfway around the world, she says she managed to enjoy it.
“There’s a lot of science that goes into negotiating because you have all the modellers creating the financial numbers for you, but there’s an incredible amount of art,” she says.
“I love working with people, and I love talking with people, and I love how the interaction happens and the twists and turns that it takes.”
Bill Downe, the president and CEO of the Bank of Montreal, has watched Southern mature as a corporate leader for the last two decades. She served on the bank’s board and its risk review committee from 1999 until last year. He says the deal for WAGN shows a new level of maturity in her leadership. “It reflects her confidence in her point of view,” he says.
“She’s demonstrated the ability to change Atco, setting a new direction for the company.”
After an hour, we walk to The Ranchmen’s Club, a private club founded in 1891 by a group of cattlemen, for lunch. It didn’t allow women members until 1933, and, with a well-appointed billiards room and walls festooned with hunting trophies, still has a strong air of masculine energy. Even until 1982, there was a front door through which women could not enter. Southern refuses to be perturbed by its history. “The club has its traditions,” she says diplomatically
It’s not that Southern has ever shied away from taking public positions on contentious issues. She has been a vocal advocate of strong public health and education systems and of responsible environmental stewardship. And she’s shown herself to be a progressive business leader, introducing one program that supports employees who volunteer in their community with time and money and another that allows employees to use up to 10 per cent of their salary to buy company shares. The company adds 15 per cent, and dividends are reinvested. They can cash out anytime. Over 40 per cent of Atco’s employees have taken advantage of it.
On the federal scene, she has been a strong advocate for Alberta’s commercial interests, and will no doubt bring a Western perspective to Minister Flaherty’s committee. She would like to see the federal government champion the industries that are really driving Canada’s growth.
“With or without a second global recession, the true economic driver in Canada is mining, oil and gas and agriculture,” she says. “The manufacturing jobs we have tried to protect and spent so much money on protecting are valuable jobs but the reality is the Koreans, China, India, all of those developing countries have far more competitive, low-cost structures.”
For recreation, Southern says she likes to hike and walk her dogs around her acreage southwest of Calgary. But her main off-hours pastime, she says, “is cheering my family on at show-jumping competitions.” Her daughter Kelly, 26, is a rider, as is her son Benjamin, 17 (Kyle, 24, has taken a more orthodox path, working as a banker and enrolled for his exams with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission). Her husband, Jonathan Asselin, recently came out of show-jumping retirement and rode for Canada at the Pan Am Games in Mexico (he finished eighth, the highest-ranking Canadian).
I check my notes to see what else I wanted to ask Southern. She jumps in. “OK, are we done?” I hesitate for a moment. “Now we can get on to talking about things more interesting than me.”
Nancy Southern during her days on the Canadian equestrian team in the early 1980s
What is the Atco Group? Atco is a Calgary-based group of companies with its hands in power generation, natural gas distribution, manufacturing and infrastructure development. It has more than 8,000 employees spread around the world. For the complete corporate structure, visit albertaventure.com/atco.
What is Nancy Southern reading for pleasure? The Hunger Games, a trilogy of teen novels set in a post-apocalyptic North America ruled by a totalitarian regime with one small, hold-out region. Her son Ben, 17, was reading it. “I thought, ‘Why is he reading this,’” she says. “He said, ‘It’s really good,’ so I started reading and got hooked. I highly recommend it. It’s fast reading and a great story.” She’s just finished book three.
Bet you didn’t know: Southern never did finish her university degree. She was studying at the University of Calgary (economics and commerce) but after six years found that other interests kept getting in the way and decided to follow them. Primary among those interests was show jumping, and
she had a stint on the national team. For a time, she was also a colour commentator for show jumping and rodeo on CTV.
On Spruce Meadows: Southern’s parents, Ron and Marg, built Spruce Meadows –
a world-class show-jumping facility southwest of Calgary – in part to allow Nancy and her sister Linda to pursue their horse-riding passions. “It’s a hallmark of the family,” says Siegfried Kiefer, chief operatingofficer of Atco Group Energy and Utilities. “When they become interested in something they pursue it with unequalled passion.”
The 2011 Business Person of the Year is presented in association with the Chartered Accountants of Alberta and MacPherson Leslie & Tyerman LLP. Nancy Southern wears a time-piece provided by Brinkhaus Jewellers, official timekeeper for Alberta’s Business Person of the Year.