Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Janet Holder (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
Janet Holder (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

Enbridge's Janet Holder: Pushing west, with muscle Add to ...

To understand Janet Holder, you could start with the surprising image of her at age 32 – a five-foot-nothing power-lifter tipping the scales at 112 pounds and, by some miracle of muscle and mechanics, dead-lifting nearly three times her weight. Or you could start six years later, when she discovered she had cancer, but managed to do so much work through six months of chemo and the three subsequent surgeries that she was promoted while she was being treated.

From the Lunch archive

But given that the now 54-year-old recently signed on to what is arguably one of the toughest corporate positions in Canada, it’s worth starting last June, at the Calgary headquarters of Enbridge Inc. The conversation around the boardroom table had settled on Northern Gateway, Enbridge’s $6.6-billion proposal to build a twin-pipeline system to the Pacific coast, carrying Canadian crude for export to California and, more importantly, Asia.

The project is among the highest-profile targets for environmental and first nations critics, many of whom see Gateway as a threat to their culture and to the livelihood of Northern B.C., as well as to the salmon and sea life that would be endangered should one of the pipes or tankers spill. And its profile has risen even higher in recent weeks, as problems with TransCanada Corp.’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline bring even greater attention to a West Coast alternative.

For Enbridge, that June meeting came at something of a corporate crossroads. After years of preparation, Gateway was preparing to enter a new stage, with hearings set to start in the New Year. Many negotiations remained with first nations, and Enbridge wanted a new face atop the project. Executives discussed who might be a good fit.

They called on Ms. Holder, then the company’s Toronto-based president of gas distribution, for her opinion.

“I said, ‘I agree with everything we’ve been saying. I agree with the people we’re discussing. But we’re missing one probably very key person to do this job,’” she recalls, between bites of grilled chicken salad, as she sits atop a bar-height chair at Sociale, a swish Calgary restaurant.

“They said, ‘Well, who’s that?’ I said, ‘It’s me.’ ”

She had just volunteered to upend her comfortable Toronto life. And she had not, at that point, broached the subject with her husband, Neal, who restores and races vintage cars, and whose access to a racetrack would be severely curtailed in northern B.C. She flew home to talk it over. (He agreed.)

Ms. Holder takes a sip of water, then compares building Gateway, which stands to end Canada’s utter dependence on the U.S. for oil exports, as being on the same scale as construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway a half-century ago. “Not a lot of people have the opportunity to say that they were involved with something as significant to Canada as this project,” she says.

She acknowledges that it won’t be easy. But, she adds, “everybody would have put up their hand if it were a slam dunk.”

Ms. Holder is, by most measures, an odd choice to head up Gateway, as the company’s executive vice-president, western access. She has spent nearly two decades at Enbridge, but most of her recent executive experience is in gas distribution. Delivering blue flames on stoves is far different from getting crude oil to ocean tankers. Add to that some high-profile roles in Toronto’s business community – chairman of the city’s 2011 United Way campaign, the biggest on the continent, and a director with Hydro One Inc., among others – and Ms. Holder does not seem like the kind of person eager to leave the country’s corporate mecca.

In other ways, Ms. Holder’s move makes eminent sense. One of the most pressing ambitions for Canada’s energy sector today is to open up exports to Asia. That effort is being largely led by women: both the past and current leaders of the Kitimat LNG project are women. The head of Royal Dutch Shell PLC, which is leading another major LNG project, as well as the Premier of B.C., who will play an important role as these projects come forward, are both women.

Perhaps more importantly for Ms. Holder, however, she holds deep connections to the region. She grew up in Prince George. While she was at university in New Brunswick, she worked back at the pulp mills in Northern B.C. during the summer. Her childhood neighbour was a game warden who took kids along when he set bear traps. She is avid enough about rural living that she has already selected the ATVs she plans to buy (Polaris), the car she will use to brave winter (a Subaru), the number of horses she will own (three) and the type of meat she will raise for herself (chickens, in summer).

There is little doubt that Ms. Holder does not fit the mould of a typical oil suit. While her competitive weight-lifting days might be over, she remains a fitness buff; she’s a regular downhill skier and travels the world to scuba dive. She has also bred and showed dogs.

One of her all-time favourite Christmas gifts – from her husband, eight years ago – is a chainsaw and a splitting maul. She says she intends to hammer together her own fences on the acreage that the couple, who have no children, own near a lake just outside of Prince George. They had already bought that property a half-decade ago, and considered retiring there, before this promotion brought her home.

The questions she now faces: Will her comfort in living in Prince George pay professional dividends? Will having an executive stationed at the mid-point of the Gateway route prove persuasive to the dozens of first nations that have staunchly opposed the project? Will Enbridge’s promise of Little League sponsorship and local benefits change minds among those convinced that the pipeline will leak into their rivers and poison their way of life?

Ms. Holder acknowledges that Enbridge has made missteps along the way. “I wouldn’t call them mistakes,” she says, though she allows that the company has underestimated the value of communications. In its focus on what she calls the “ ‘big picture’ value equation” to industry and the Canadian people, Enbridge has struggled to enunciate what it means on a local level: “What does it really mean for Kitimat? For Terrace? For Burns Lake?”

By being in Prince George, in a place where people can come to her rather than just have her fly in when she chooses, she hopes to be able to address some of those concerns.

“It’s not until people believe that you really are going to be part of their community that they’ll even start listening to you,” she says. “You have to show value. You can’t just walk in and say, ‘Here we are. We’re great. Trust us.’ ”

Ms. Holder left Toronto for Prince George on Friday, but has already met with some municipalities and first nations. She has flown the pipeline’s 1,177-kilometre route, from east of Edmonton to tidewater at Kitimat, B.C. She hints that things aren’t as bad as they may seem.

“We’re making progress. And there’s a lot more ‘yeses’ out there than people would be led to believe,” she says, suggesting more first nations supporters will emerge.

But the list of Gateway doubters is formidable and growing longer. Former Indian Affairs minister Jim Prentice has suggested that first nations legal issues could stymie the development, while this week a senior executive at rival TransCanada Corp. predicted Gateway will face a rougher ride than its Keystone XL pipeline. Other observers have also made unflattering comparisons with the proposed Mackenzie Valley natural gas pipeline – a project that, four decades on, appears to be shelved.

But Ms. Holder is optimistic. She does not take it for granted, for example, that work crews might be met with blockades. “We’re trying to do this without any opposition, once we get the approval.”

There is little doubt that she is energized by the project – enough so that part of her hopes she will be around to see it not only win regulatory approval, but also deliver its first barrel. A chemical engineer by training, Ms. Holder thinks there is something appealing about overseeing a massive construction project such as Gateway: “The techie in me wants to build it, too.”

______

CURRICULUM VITAE

- Born in Prince George, B.C.; maternal grandparents were pioneers to Northern B.C. nearly a century ago, and ran a sawmill.

- Married, no children. In the process of moving to Prince George, B.C.

- Graduate of University of New Brunswick, with degree in chemical engineering.

- Master’s degree in business from McMaster University, Hamilton.

Career

- Started at Union Gas in Chatham, Ont., working in operating standards, rate design, gas supply, and sales.

- Joined Enbridge Inc., moving up the ranks to become president of gas distribution. Held a series of vice-president roles in gas supply services, marketing, operations, market services and support services.

- Now executive vice-president, western access.

Community

Director, Hydro One Inc., Saint Elizabeth Health Care, Saint Elizabeth Health Care Foundation (Chair), University of New Brunswick Campaign Chair, 2011 United Way Toronto.

Management style

Quick decision-maker. Counsels subordinates that if she’s off-base, to tell her immediately, because she makes up her mind quickly. A consensus-builder, particularly after a fight with cancer made clear the importance of delegating over micro-managing.

Personal

Outdoors and animal aficionado. While in Chatham, bred golden retrievers. At one point, while living in Chatham, she had 10 dogs, nine puppies, two horses, a goat and four cats. Today, she’s down to three dogs.

Single page

In the know

Most popular videos »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular