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Illustration of Hal Kvisle, chief executive officer of Talisman Energy Inc. (ANTHONY JENKINS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Illustration of Hal Kvisle, chief executive officer of Talisman Energy Inc. (ANTHONY JENKINS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

THE LUNCH

Hal Kvisle: A second course in the CEO suite at Talisman Energy Add to ...

Hal Kvisle misses his brief time in retirement. He misses zipping down ski hills, preferably the expansive runs at Lake Louise, 25 days a year. He has less time to take road trips on his Harley with his buddies, and when he’s trudging through the forest, sometimes his mind drifts to work.

In September, he abandoned retirement after just two years to clean up Talisman Energy Inc. – its overspending and sprawl, both at home and abroad. He imagined a tidier Talisman, one that had been trimmed to focus on stability.

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The allure of such an ambitious restructuring was enough to tempt him away from the ski hills and back roads. But occasionally, he regrets tackling the challenging gig.

“When I’m out of the office on a weekend, I agonize a little bit about whether working flat out at Talisman is the best use of my time,” the chief executive officer says over lunch in the small boardroom across the hall from his office.

“But when I’m at work, I never think about that. When you’re immersed in the workplace and the work is interesting and the people are great, work is a very interesting thing for me. So I like being at work and I like what I do here, and I feel good about it all the time I’m here.

“But sometimes, on the weekend, when I’m going down a ski run or walking through the bush, I’m thinking to myself: ‘Gee, I’d sure like to be doing this next Wednesday.’”

Even before Mr. Kvisle was frolicking in retirement, Talisman morphed into a company with global growth ambitions. It went on an acquisition spree that its balance sheet could not support, a strategy made even more problematic by crashing natural gas prices.

Fixing the mess appealed to Mr. Kvisle, who had smoothed out a similar tangle at TransCanada Corp. as its CEO. “I’ve always been interested in performance improvement and restructuring,” he says. “We did a lot of that at TransCanada. My first three years there, that’s what we did. Tore it apart.”

Over a light lunch, Mr. Kvisle explains how he is now looking to repeat that feat at Talisman, selling properties on the company’s fringe, and even some that seem central to Talisman’s business.

We’re eating foccacia bread, presliced seasoned chicken breasts, and white quinoa salad from Fork and Farm Catering. We fill our own plates, and leave the desserts untouched. Mr. Kvisle, who wants to return to Talisman’s board when he’s done reorganizing the company, occasionally tips back in his chair – in a relaxed way, rather than coming off as cocky or off-putting. He’s wearing a patterned blue tie, and if he came to Talisman’s head office in downtown Calgary wearing a suit jacket, he ditched it for lunch.

Mr. Kvisle has always been an Alberta boy, born in Innisfail, about 120 clicks north of Calgary, and he’s always been an oil and gas man who lived a life outside Calgary’s office towers. He reckons he’s put in well over 600 ski days at Lake Louise over his lifetime – “I’ve had a pretty long life” – as well as plenty more at other snowy spots. The 60-year-old, built more like a desk jockey than Olympian, is a minority investor in Chatter Creek, a back-country cat-skiing operation north of Golden, British Columbia, and spends six or eight days in the fluff there each year. He has eight pairs of skis, mostly Blizzards, and his wife Diana wouldn’t tear up if he got rid of some of them.

Mr. Kvisle appears to have found a balance between work and relaxation, although he’s struggling to get in a dozen days on the hills this season. He talks tractors with Marcel Coutu, CEO of Canadian Oil Sands Ltd. He rides a Harley-Davidson Road King on long highway trips and uses his BMW GS bike on gravel roads commuting to his ranch in the foothills. He and a friend rode bikes to Chatter Creek last summer, albeit when he was retired, playing on old logging roads once they got there.

“To see that countryside and the forest and the big trees and the creeks and everything in a summer setting, when I’ve seen them doing downhill and in deep snow, that’s all pretty interesting.”

Mr. Kvisle is fixated on shrinking Talisman to make it focused and more profitable. He’s even selling hot energy properties such as the north Duvernay and land in the Montney region to get there. The Montney is a natural gas play with huge potential if liquefied natural gas exports take off. But that is years away, and Talisman can’t develop the property solo. As a result, it needs a partner with a fat wallet.

The chief executive officer wants Talisman to mimic royalty trusts, the cash-spewing outfits the federal government snuffed out because of their unfair tax advantage.

His strategy is dull but potentially effective. He plans to fatten Talisman’s hedge book to bring certainty to the company’s results. He wants to bring spending under control, hardly a revolutionary concept, although it will be a culture shift for Talisman. Canada, the United States, Colombia and the Asia-Pacific region will make up the heart of the revamped company. For those who still crave a little spice, Mr. Kvisle intends to hold on to Talisman’s interests in Kurdistan, at least for now.

Mr. Kvisle is undoing much of what his predecessor at Talisman did. Indeed, Mr. Kvisle is undoing his own handiwork, in a sense, since he was on the board when the previous strategy guided the company.

“I think about the best defence a board could offer to that comment is that it seemed like a good strategy at the time. Not just us, but to a lot of companies. Nobody really appreciated the degree to which shale gas was going to just overrun the whole continent.”

Mr. Kvisle hasn’t put a timeline on his tenure. But he knows he wants to get back on his skis and bikes. “I have two objectives here: One is to revamp the company, to reset the strategy, to adjust the cost structure, to get everything going in the right direction,” he says. “The second objective I have is to assist in getting a new CEO in place. Then I’m out.”

In short, Mr. Kvisle is a relaxed man on a mission.

CURRICULUM VITAE

BACKGROUND

Born in Innisfail, Alta.

Age: 60

Married to Diana; three children between the ages of 25 and 32

EARLY YEARS

Bachelor of Science with distinction in engineering from the University of Alberta and a Master of Business Administration from the University of Calgary

First job: Refinery shift operator with Shell Canada

TOYS

First memorable skis: Head Standards his dad bought for him back in 1966

Motorbikes: Harley-Davidson Road King for long highway trips and a BMW GS bike for gravel roads

IN HIS OWN WORDS

On a sales taxes in Alberta: It can’t be one of those untouchable topics that you’re not allowed to talk about. And for the last 20 years, it has been. Only a fool would talk about a sales tax. Well, I’ll be one of those fools.

On climate change: Natural gas has tremendous upside not just for Canada but the U.S. in terms of the environment. And I don’t know what the impact of CO2 is. I’m neither a global warming person [believer] nor skeptic. This is very complicated stuff and when I say I don’t know, I say that on the basis that I think I’ve studied it in more scientific detail than most people I know. And I don’t know.

On natural gas prices: I think $4 to $7 is the range that I foresee. We’re just coming off the bottom of that range now. We may go back to the bottom of that range before we even see $5, if everyone responds with the drill bit and there’s some switching away from gas back to coal.

On the Canadian economy: Overspending on projects is good for the bigger economy. It is just bad for the shareholder. So there’s two different perspectives here. I would argue high-cost oil production is much better for the national economy than low-cost production because a high-cost production results in all kinds of spending.

The Lunch is a weekly feature that looks at the personalities behind the money and the markets. Explore the archives: tgam.ca/the-lunch

Follow on Twitter: @CarrieTait

 
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