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Business Person of the Year 2011: Nancy Southern, CEO of Atco Group

Nancy Southern led the Atco Group to its best year ever in 2010, and now she’s making it a global powerhouse

by Michael Ganley

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.”

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