Rick George calls it “the afterlife.”
It is life after Suncor Energy Inc., the company Mr. George joined in 1991, took public in 1992, transformed into an oil sands giant and, made into a Canadian champion – a description one can employ straight-faced about a company that has flirted with top spot on the Toronto Stock Exchange – by swallowing Petro-Canada.
Over those two decades, he became one of Corporate Canada’s most recognized faces, a square-jawed executive with a gleaming smile, a commanding presence and an undying allegiance to his industry.
So it’s a bit surprising to learn that Mr. Oil Sands is not only preparing to recede from the limelight – though the afterlife has given him a new frankness – but that he’s suddenly developed an affection for natural gas, that other fossil fuel he spent years pruning from Suncor’s portfolio. And that he’s going to have plenty of time, space and money to invest in new playgrounds, with a new private equity company – Novo Investment Group – that he is working to stock with $200-million to $300-million. Some of that money will go to start-ups with good ideas for oil sands technology.
But “we’re looking beyond oil, for sure,” he says. Not to renewable energy, after his experience at Suncor, whose wind investments generate some of the lowest returns in its corporate stable. But “gas is the first step, absolutely.” So are small players. He is moving from the yacht that was Suncor – or was it an oil tanker? – into the speedboats that are junior companies, where the ideas come fast and furious and the future is something to be moulded rather than endured.
Mr. Oil Sands is “not starting over,” he says, as he sips sparkling water at Calgary’s Centini, a downtown Italian spot high on his list of go-to restaurants. But he will be “using experience I’ve had over the last 40 years in a different way completely. Hopefully it’s kind of an energetic, creative process.”
The afterlife began in May, when Mr. George left behind 21 years of battling costs, fighting against failure, tussling with environmental critics and navigating thorny first nations issues. It would be a stretch to say his mark on northeastern Alberta stands almost as large as the gaping mines he helped to build. But not much of a stretch.
You could call it all a pretty unlikely story for a kid from Brush, Colo., population 5,000 – a Prairie town with dim prospects and limited horizons. The son of a TV repairman, the young Mr. George climbed towers to help the family business. He and his brother made a pact to leave town as soon as they could, but Mr. George didn’t step on a plane until he was a fourth-year university student at the University of Colorado, in his early 20s.
Two decades later, he had degrees in law and engineering, had helped to build a massive floating production platform in the North Sea and had accepted a job in Toronto, to run the oil sands division for Sun Oil Co., Suncor’s owner at the time. Two decades after that, Mr. George had transformed Suncor into a Canadian corporate icon, had taken Canadian citizenship, been named an officer of the Order of Canada and penned Sun Rise, a book coming out this weekend that traces his own journey and sets in print a manifesto of sorts for the oil sands.
One of the hallmarks of Mr. George’s latter years at Suncor was his ardent defence of the oil sands’ environmental record. “If you look at the last decade, improvements on air, land and water emissions, it’s crazy good,” he says. “On every single count – CO2, water use – they’re all dropping like a stone.”