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The Penn West saga: Tom Budd, Rick George and a drama in the making

Rick George is the current chairman of Penn West Petroleum Ltd.

The war of words over Penn West Petroleum Ltd. has barely started, but it is already shaping up as the oil industry's version of the street fighter versus the statesman.

Tom Budd, a self-proclaimed clueless art collector and retired financier, spent part of the week slamming Rick George, Penn West's chairman and one of Canada's most recognizable executives. Mr. Budd believes Mr. George's year in the chairman's seat has been a failure because the stock has lagged its competitors and skidded further after the company disclosed accounting irregularities on Tuesday. Mr. George is staying mum.

The battle, for now, is unofficial. But if it morphs into a proxy fight for control of Penn West, their reputations and professional backgrounds will be key considerations for investors. And the outcome could reshape the $4-billion oil and gas producer.

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There are few similarities between the two combatants.

Mr. Budd, the colourful challenger, made his millions buying and selling assets and raising money as an investment banker. His Porsche Carrera GT sports vanity plates that read "ICLOSEM," a gift from a client, he says, who admired his dealing prowess. His Ferrari Enzo once went up in flames on a highway in the Okanagan Valley and he launched into the art world three weeks after reading his first book on the subject and then plunked down $350,000 on a painting by Tom Thomson called Untitled - Dawn on Round Lake (Kawawaymog Lake). His financial background includes co-founding GMP Capital Inc. and serving as its president, vice-chairman, and head of investment banking.

Mr. George, born in small-town Colorado, is a long-standing member of the Canadian establishment. He spent two decades running Suncor Energy Inc., is an officer of the Order of Canada, and wrote a book chronicling his years leading Suncor. He is an engineer, has a law degree, and was at the helm when Suncor took over Petro-Canada. Before his rise in Canada, Mr. George cut his teeth at some of the world's largest oil majors, including Texaco and Sun Oil Co.

A senior Calgary financial-industry executive who knows the pair said their personalities could not clash more. On Mr. George: "He's got a long-standing star status as a CEO." On Mr. Budd: "Tom – he enjoys combativeness and enjoys the heat of the battle."

Now, Mr. Budd is using Penn West's slumping stock price, exacerbated by the accounting scandal to a float a trial balloon to test his chances of knocking out Mr. George and his team. Mr. George and Penn West have not commented since the accounting problems were disclosed.

Calgary is a clubby place. Corporate bigwigs rarely get into public spats. But the battle over Penn West is Round Two between Mr. Budd and Mr. George. The two sparred when Mr. Budd stepped in to sell Renegade Petroleum Ltd. last year. FrontFour Capital Group LLC, a hedge fund run by Mr. Geroge's son, Zachary, launched an unsuccessful proxy battle to depose Mr. Budd and his team. Mr. George went to bat for his son on TV. Mr. Budd came out on top and sold Renegade. And now he appears to be looking for payback.

"Rick George doesn't seem to be the right guy to do the job or have the right qualifications," Mr. Budd said Wednesday. "He should be embarrassed and he should step down based on the stock performance."

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Mr. Budd has said that Penn West shareholders have urged him for a while to take on Penn West but he demurred. This week's accounting revelations at the company have him reconsidering.

The accounting issues are potentially staggering. Penn West said the irregularities total $381-million in 2013 and 2012, according to preliminary findings. It is now reviewing the last four and a half years of its financial statements, looking for more problems, and it has notified Canadian and U.S. regulators about its woes.

Lawsuits tied to the accounting issues are already flying, with one in Canada seeking up to $400-million in damages. More than half a dozen U.S. firms are also seeking shareholders for class actions in the United States.

Brad Allen, founder of Toronto-based Branav Shareholder Advisory Services Inc., said bad blood between Mr. Budd and Mr. George has a long way go before it could become a full-fledged proxy battle.

"Definitely there's a personality issue at stake here. There have been proxy fights launched for much less than that," said Mr. Allen, who advises investors on proxy actions. "I would presume [Mr. Budd] ... would probably caution to say, 'Let's see exactly what's going to come out of this accounting issue. ... Based on that outcome, you may have a really easy way to a proxy contest. You may not even need one, you may end up with directors stepping down. So it's too early to have a proxy contest."

Mr. George, who has won some plaudits for picking up the pace of restructuring at Penn West, describes himself as someone with an "anti-herd mentality," in his autobiographical book Sun Rise, published in 2012 after he stepped down as Suncor's CEO. The book focuses on his tenure at Suncor, his management philosophy as well as his rebuttals to critics of oil sands development.

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Investors, analysts, and bankers have long mused about breaking up Penn West – a deal-maker's dream. Mr. Budd on Friday said folks interested in buying Penn West assets have already approached him, though he did not reveal names or pricetags.

Penn West's assets can be divided into three chunks: its share of the Cardium, which it says "represents the future of the company"; its Viking property, which is part of its long-term game; and its slower-moving and riskier Slave Point carbonates project. The company intends to direct 95 per cent of its development capital to these three areas as part of its long-term plan, according to a presentation last month.

It also holds a collection of other assets, including an oil sands joint venture project with China Investment Corp. The so-called "non-core" assets are the ones that have hit the auction block or are destined that way. CIC is Penn West's second-largest shareholder, controlling about 5 per cent of the company. Mr. Budd will not say whether he owns stock in the company, or how widespread he believes his support to be.

There is a decent chance Mr. Budd will stand down. The potential class action lawsuits are giving him pause, and he still has not made up his mind. "I'm retired," he said on Friday. "I did Renegade as a favour ...I t is not like I'm in any financial difficulty in life."

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