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The Globe and Mail

Bill Sembo, banker who oversaw birth of Cenovus, Nexen, retires

The Royal Bank of Canada offices in Toronto are seen on Thursday March 1, 2011.


Calgary is about to lose another big-time investment banker to retirement.

Bill Sembo, vice chairman of RBC Capital Markets, is packing up his office after 27 years at the bank. He retires at the end of October and plans to fill his calendar with a slew of volunteer projects.

Mr. Sembo does not want to name a signature deal – "I don't want to offend anyone by pulling one or two," he said – but instead praised the energy industry's ability to adapt to the market's curve balls through mergers and acquisitions and serving as "good financial stewards."

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"What I appreciated was the capacity of the industry to keep changing itself and find ways to innovate and improve," he said. "The remarkable thing about this community and this industry here is that it is very dynamic, it is responsive to the market. And by and large, 90-plus per cent of the decisions made by chief executive officers and their teams are spot on, and they do improve corporate outcomes."

While Mr. Sembo declined to name his favourite deals, he has handled one of the industry's most notable and complex transactions in recent years. He was on the case when Encana Corp. spun off its oil sands, conventional oil, and refining business – a move that created Cenovus Energy Inc. The deal proved tricky. It was originally announced in May 2008, but shelved in October of that year because the financial crisis paralyzed the market. The split was revived in September 2009 and done by the end of November.

The banker also played a role in Canadian Occidental Petroleum Ltd.'s 2000 divorce from its U.S. parent, Occidental Petroleum Corp. CanadianOxy was renamed Nexen Inc., becoming one of the country's most recognizable energy companies.

Mr. Sembo's current senior partners, such as Derek Neldner and Gordon Ritchie, will help fill the void. Mr. Neldner is another long-serving RBC banker and head of its Alberta division. Mr. Ritchie has logged over 30 years at RBC Capital Markets and serves as a vice chairman.

Mr. Sembo joins another 30-year industry veteran, Mike Tims of Peters & Co. Ltd., in retirement.

You won't find Mr. Sembo gallivanting around the world. He's travelled about 500,000 miles over the past four years, taking the shine off airport lounges. Instead, he plans to direct his time, energy, and connections to volunteer projects.

For example, he plans to give Pat Daniel, Enbridge Inc.'s former top boss, a hand raising money for a new cancer care centre in Calgary. The province has committed about $1-billion, and now fundraisers are trying to find even more cash from the community.

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Mr. Sembo also wants to wrap up a project he started a few years back. He is again looking for money, trying to fund a new anatomy lab and a teaching lab at the University of Calgary's Faculty of Medicine.

He's also teaming up with Alan Norris, Brookfield Residential's CEO, to help develop about 3,500 living units for Calgary's homeless and low-income residents. This project, like the cancer facility, is a joint effort between the government and the private sector. The private sector, he hopes, will toss in 30 cents for every 70 cents the government ponies up.

Mr. Sembo said he is not sad to leave.

"I've got more than enough to keep me busy."

Editor's note: An earlier online version of this article incorrectly stated the year that Canadian Occidental Petroleum split from its parent. This has been corrected.

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