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streetwise

The chief executive of GMP Capital Inc. is betting on a rebound for Canada’s energy sector, but even at today’s deeply discounted crude prices he doesn’t foresee having to trim staff.

Oil and gas will be back,” Harris Fricker said in an interview at the firm’s Toronto office Monday. “It’s too important for us as a country to not get this right.”

Earlier this year, the independent brokerage firm laid off roughly 20 people, or 7 per cent of its total headcount, largely owing to a slowdown in financing activity in the energy sector. The layoffs primarily affected Calgary-based GMP First Energy, a boutique brokerage that GMP acquired for $98.6-million in the fall of 2016.

The Canadian energy sector has been in a protracted downturn for much of the past four years. While U.S. benchmark oil prices have somewhat recovered since the 2014-15 oil price shock, Western Canadian producers are forced to accept a steep discount for their oil because of a lack of pipeline capacity and maintenance shutdowns at U.S. refineries.

The energy surplus in Alberta has led to a slowdown in equity-raising and merger and acquisition activity by energy companies, resulting in lower fee revenues for Canadian investment banks.

Although Mr. Fricker is hopeful that financing activity in the energy sector will bounce back, he says the economic viability of GMP First Energy is not hinging on it.

“We’ve run the business anticipating that the current conditions are the conditions,” Mr. Fricker said. “We are not losing money in our oil and gas business.”

He recalled how, in 1997, many Bay Street firms shut down their mining operations amid lagging commodity prices – but GMP did not.

“In 2000, the mining market, much to the shock and surprise of people, turned, and suddenly you could talk about mining and not be thrown out of the room by people,” Mr. Fricker said.

He added that he doesn’t foresee the need for further restructuring, either at GMP First Energy or elsewhere in the company. That’s because GMP has already made a number of moves over the past three years, including cutting costs through technology and focusing more on Canada, to make the business viable in today’s challenging operating environment, Mr. Fricker said.

In the meantime, emerging sectors such as cannabis and blockchain technology have been a bright spot for independents such as GMP and its rival, Canaccord Genuity Group Inc.