Clayton Woitas, Encana Corp.'s new but temporary chief executive officer, is no stranger to Canada's oil patch. He has racked up wins as a Calgary executive, and investors are happy to have him at the helm of one of North America's largest natural gas companies.
But is he happy to be there?
Mr. Woitas has not always been a fan of running public companies. Private companies are his preference, he told a Calgary audience nearly a decade ago.
"[Private companies] deal in fact, not perception," he said at a lunch in the heart of Canada's energy patch, according to a Calgary Herald report dated June 1, 2004. "There's no reason to be public in this commodity price environment."
Natural gas's average wellhead price in the United States at the time was $5.82 (U.S.) per thousand cubic feet – a remarkably high price compared to previous years. Oil traded at $38.44 – again, a high price in that era – the day the story was published. Natural gas' wellhead price in October slumped to $3.03 per thousand cubic feet and North American's benchmark price for crude closed at $93.20 Friday.
Mr. Woitas was unavailable to comment.
The local newspaper's paraphrasing of Mr. Woitas's 2004 speech was sharp: "A public listing is a toxic recipe for bad decision-making, [Mr. Woitas] recently told a lunch-time crowd, fraught with headaches, conflicts and voodoo economics that can rear up and bite even the best companies," the reporter wrote.
Leaders at private companies do not have to worry about share prices, takeover threats and boosting production at any cost to please investors, Mr. Woitas said, according to the paper's summary of his speech.
Mr. Woitas was running privately held Profico Energy Management Ltd. at the time, trumpeted as the "oil patch's most successful junior player," by The Globe and Mail. He was known for his time at Renaissance Energy Ltd, which analysts praised for its management when the company was in its glory days. Mr. Woitas said he was much more strict with the purse strings at the private company.
"There's no room for niceties [at a private firm,]" Mr. Woitas said.
Renaissance, the public outfit, lost its shine in the late 1990s. Mr. Woitas left the company in the spring of 2000. Husky Energy Inc. then bought it for $2.3-billion and then sued Mr. Woitas and Profico.
Husky alleged "Mr. Woitas used privileged information he learned at Renaissance Energy Ltd. to help Profico develop the Shackleton natural gas play in southwestern Saskatchewan. Mr. Woitas said he used his own experience and Profico used public information," the Globe reported on Oct. 5, 2000, when the legal wrangling wrapped up.
The battle ended with Husky receiving a multi-million settlement. Mr. Woitas had already dropped his countersuit.
Randy Eresman, Encana's chief executive, surprised the market by retiring Friday. The company has struggled with low gas prices, which haunted Mr. Eresman's tenure in the corner office. Mr. Woitas took over as interim CEO the same day.
Mr. Woitas joined Encana's board in 2008, meaning he was a director when the board approved some of Mr. Eresman's controversial decisions, such as the 2010 plan to double natural gas production in five years.
Mr. Woitas runs Range Royalty Management Ltd., a private company, and serves on other boards – both private and public.