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Suncor's head office in Calgary. (TODD KOROL)
Suncor's head office in Calgary. (TODD KOROL)

Suncor starts to feel Petrocan payoff Add to ...

Suncor Energy Inc.'s massive bet to create a Canadian champion is starting to pay off as the company moves past a slow start after buying Petro-Canada.

The Calgary company has struggled in recent months as it digested the large acquisition. Suncor suffered two fires that waylaid its oil sands operations and it reported weak financial results in its first full quarter together with Petrocan.

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Now, Suncor is poised to focus on growth as it prepares a detailed plan to be issued in the fall. It will outline what steps the company plans to take to reach a goal of as much as 12 per cent annual growth in the oil sands over the next decade, including when to build the Fort Hills mine.

Already, signs of the potential are clear. Suncor's oil sands production in April was a record 333,000 barrels a day, 10 per cent higher than a year ago. And on Tuesday the company put out first-quarter results that exceeded the expectations of analysts.

Suncor is looking like a company finding its feet, the growing pains largely overcome.

"The short answer to the question of, 'Rick, how's the merger going?' is I actually feel really good about where we are," said Rick George, chief executive officer of Suncor.

The Petrocan deal, worth $19-billion when it was announced, was well timed, Mr. George said, unveiled around the market bottom in March, 2009. And while there were struggles, Suncor has fared better than most companies integrating two firms, based on the assessment of consultants higher by Suncor, Mr. George said.

In one example, predicted savings of $1.3-billion have turned out to be conservative and the final figure will likely be several hundreds of million of dollars more.

"That doesn't mean it's perfect, it doesn't mean we're done, but it does mean that I think we feel really good about the track we're on," Mr. George told investors and analysts on a conference call Tuesday ahead of the company's annual meeting.

Investors were impressed. Suncor stock slipped just 0.9 per cent as oil prices tumbled Tuesday, a much-smaller decline than the 2.1-per-cent slide for the TSX energy index. Among those that liked what they saw was analyst Greg Pardy of RBC Dominion Securities Inc., who increased his rating on Suncor stock to "outperform" from "sector perform." He said skepticism around the company's ability is fading as attention turns to growth in 2011, adding that the 333,000 barrels a day in the oil sands in April is "impressive and affords added confidence."

"They never lost my respect," said Ari Levy, a vice-president at TD Asset Management, a large Suncor shareholder. "They're on the right track."

Among the company's growth initiatives is the freshly started third-phase of the Firebag project, where more than 2,000 construction workers are now on-site north of Fort McMurray to build the $3.6-billion expansion. The first barrels of an expected 62,500 barrels a day are expected to flow a year from now, which will likely deliver increased dividends to shareholders, Mr. George suggested Tuesday.

A big question mark is the Fort Hills mine, part of the Petrocan portfolio that saw soaring cost estimates in its drawing-board stages. Suncor owns 60 per cent and minority partners Teck Resources Ltd. and UTS Energy Corp. own the rest. Timing and size of the development are unclear.

Suncor also focused Tuesday on the fires at its oil sands operations, discussing it in detail ahead of talking about the merger. The company had brought in three different consultancies to figure out what went wrong and how to ensure the facility works better in the future.

Putting the discussion of the fires right up front Tuesday is part of Suncor's strategy to reassure investors who have been concerned about the company.

"Suncor has been battling some uncertainty around the reliability of its operations," said analyst Chris Feltin at Macquarie Securities.

The fires, however, will have an impact on full-year production numbers. The oil sands, which account for about half the company, will produce 280,000 barrels a day this year, Suncor said Tuesday, less than its previous prediction of 300,000 a day.

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