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nation builder: business

Rick George

Birthplace: Brush, Colo.

Age: 59

Rick George came up through the ranks of Sun Co., rising to managing director of Sun Oil Britain, before being appointed president and CEO of Canada's Suncor in 1991. In 1992 and 1993, when the Ontario government divested its interest, Suncor was valued at about $1.2-billion; today, it has grown to a market value of $60-billion.

At the start of the decade, Rick George placed a $2.8-billion bet on the oil sands, a gutsy, contrarian move that ignited the massive expansion in Canada's most valuable, and controversial, natural resource play. At its end, he engineered the $19-billion merger with Petro-Canada, the country's former national oil company, creating an energy colossus in the company he commands, Suncor Energy Inc.

Between these events, Mr. George, the CEO of Suncor, emerged as the most transformative figure in Canadian business, and the human face for our industrial hopes and fears.

Whatever you think of the oil sands, there is no denying Mr. George's vision and energy in building a company with immense market value, and setting the public agenda - and doing it all with robust, face-crinkling good humour.

He symbolizes a new age in the oil patch, where the dominant players are no longer owners and entrepreneurs in exploration ventures, but managers of large organizations with vast balance sheets - the only companies capable of playing in the capital-intensive oil sands. He also exemplifies the shift of wealth and economic power to Western Canada, and particularly to Calgary.

There are other people who helped shape the energy industry in this decade, but Mr. George stands out for sheer durability and results. He has spent 18 years at the helm of Suncor, which he has taken from a sad sack to a powerhouse - Canada's largest energy company and the fifth largest in North America.

Mr. George has also managed a delicate balancing act, presenting himself as open-minded on the environment, while forging ahead with vast investments in bitumen mining and upgrading near Fort McMurray. Suncor has invested in so-called alternative energy through wind power and ethanol.

Even before Copenhagen, Mr. George was running a company laden with symbolism: Suncor is a former chattel of a U.S. oil multinational (Sun Co., now Sunoco), and has been a vehicle of Canadian industrial policy.

His defining moment came in the late 1990s, when Suncor, a pioneer in the oil sands, dramatically boosted production through its new Millennium project.

"We made the decision when crude oil was at $12 (U.S.) a barrel," he once recalled. "And that was within a month of when The Economist put out a front-page story saying it was going to $5 a barrel."

Oil, of course, did not fall to $5 but soared to as high as $147, thus ushering in a period of rapid expansion, and escalating costs, in Alberta's Athabasca region. In 2008, the price tumbled again as the global economy teetered. Mr. George, always the opportunist, then did the merger with Petro-Canada.

This U.S.-born lawyer-engineer, now a Canadian citizen, finally put an end to the age of Petrocan, which was the last redoubt of Trudeau-era energy policy, and the final whisper of the National Energy Program. But he also created a national champion that can probably never be acquired by a foreign buyer because it is simply too important to Canada.

Gordon Pitts is a senior writer with The Globe's Report on Business.

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