For the 15th consecutive year, Junior Achievement (JA) of Southern Alberta is inducting four business greats into the Alberta Business Hall of Fame – Southern Alberta. While this year’s laureates boast varying achievements in a number of businesses, their stories share a common characteristic: humble leaders who put people first.
“We have such a rich history of entrepreneurship and innovation and it is good to remember and celebrate it,” says Melissa From, president and CEO of JA Southern Alberta. “Even when times are a bit tougher, there are good things happening. At JA, we take great pride in bringing these stories forward to the community and to our students. Each of our inductees, present and past, serve as incredible role models for the youth in our programs.”
This year’s laureates are Murray Cobbe, chairman and former CEO of Trican Well Services Ltd., who grew the small company into the largest oilfield services corporation in Western Canada; Lorenzo Donadeo, co-founder of Vermilion Energy Inc., a highly-successful international energy producer lauded as one of the best places to work; Dr. T. Chen Fong, a retired radiologist and former head of diagnostic imaging for the Calgary Health Region who has funded and mentored no less than 60 startups; and, David E. Mitchell (1926-2010), a man known as much for his contributions to Alberta’s energy industry as to the social fabric of the province.
“Inductees for the Alberta Business Hall of Fame – Southern Alberta are selected by an independent selection committee that is overseen by Marnie Smith and the team at Korn Ferry, a global consulting firm,” From explains. “The selection criteria include success in business, entrepreneurial thinking, being a role model for our youth, and being a community builder and philanthropist.”
In addition to their business achievements, this year’s laureates have given much to the community’s youth. “Mr. Cobbe has invested a great deal into SAIT,” says From. “Mr. Donadeo continues to support the University of Alberta and youth initiatives through the United Way; Dr. Fong was instrumental in bringing the Creative Destruction Lab to Calgary; and Mr. Mitchell was actually one of a group of three or four businessmen who are responsible for bringing JA to Calgary from south of the border.”
JA Southern Alberta works with over 30,000 students each year, teaching them financial literacy, work readiness and entrepreneurial skills. “These are things that are not being taught in school and these are the things that ultimately bridge the gap between education and the workplace,” From says. “Students who participate in JA programs are more likely to start their own business, create jobs for others, rise to the top of an existing business, stay out of debt, and far less likely to ever rely on social assistance.”
JA has been offering programs such as these in southern Alberta for nearly 60 years. “We see increased demand for our programs every year,” From says, “so we know that parents, teachers and students see the value in what we bring to the table.”
The induction ceremony took place at a gala dinner on October 25, 2018 at the Calgary Hyatt Regency.
With over 40 years of experience in the oilfield service industry, Murray Cobbe knows a thing or two about success. As CEO of Trican Well Service Ltd., Cobbe grew the company from a fleet of a few cement trucks into the largest supplier of fracturing, cementing and associated services in Western Canada. This was after spending almost 20 years with Nowsco Well Service Ltd., where he grew that company’s Southeast Asia, Middle East, European, Canadian and U.S. operations.
Success, he concludes, comes down to people. “It’s really important, in any endeavour, to have a good team. Don’t be afraid to hire people smarter than you, or play with people better at the game than you, because that’s what will make it successful.” It’s an attitude derived from Cobbe’s youth, when he played many team sports, including junior hockey.
Born and raised in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, Cobbe was involved in business from a young age, working on his grandfather’s farm and at his father’s mechanical contracting business every summer and during holidays.
“I came out to Alberta for the opportunities,” he recalls. “The petroleum industry attracted me.” After completing a diploma in petroleum engineering (reservoir) at SAIT in 1970, he accepted a job at Shell Canada.
“I did a lot of offshore work there,” he says, “in the Arctic, Quebec and East Coast. It was great training.” He joined Atwood Oceanics in 1974, working in Australia and throughout Southeast Asia, overseeing the drilling of offshore wells. He joined Nowsco in 1977. “I moved around with Nowsco a lot,” he says. “It was a tremendous place for training. It had great leadership.”
Soon after settling back in Calgary with wife, Connie, the opportunity to take Trican – a private Lloydminster company at that time – public, arose. After putting together a team that included many ex-Nowsco people, Cobbe took the helm in 1996.
In addition to domestic growth, Cobbe oversaw Trican’s success in Russia, where it became the largest supplier of well-site services in that country, eventually employing over 2,000 people.
While he “retired” in 2009, Cobbe remains busy as ever. He is chairman of Trican, director at Bellatrix Exploration Ltd., lead director at Secure Energy Services Ltd. and chairman of Resource Merchant Capital. “I enjoy working with young people who are in most cases a heck of a lot smarter than I am,” he chuckles.
He’s still involved in the family business – Cobbe’s Plumbing and Heating – in Portage la Prairie, which today employs around 60 people, and is past director and chairman of the Petroleum Services Association of Canada.
What is most rewarding to him? “The opportunity to work with tremendous teams of people to build companies that were able to prosper and provide meaningful jobs and growth opportunities for thousands of people,” he says.
His charitable contributions have the same objective. “I don’t give money for the sake of giving money; I want it to help people move forward.” For example, in 2010, he donated $5 million to SAIT’s Johnson-Cobbe Energy Centre. “SAIT was turning away thousands of applicants each year because there was no space,” Cobbe laments. “The centre has had many graduates who have started their own companies, employed other people and been very successful.”
Success in all spheres of life has Cobbe humbled. “It doesn’t seem like it should have all happened. I guess I’m getting old when it’s my 50th wedding anniversary and I’m being inducted into the Hall of Fame, but I don’t feel that way. It’s been fulfilling.”
Ask Lorenzo Donadeo what’s most important to him, and there’s no hesitation: “Family comes first,” he affirms. “Strong family values provide the roots to the tree of la dolce vita – the sweet life.”
The co-founder, current chair and former CEO of Vermilion Energy Inc., an international oil and gas producer, Donadeo’s devotion to family is evidenced in Casadona Group (which translates to House of Donadeo), his family-owned investment company started in 2011. “Our focus is to provide competitive market returns with a weighting towards long-term capital preservation,” he explains.
Two of Donadeo’s three sons work at Casadona, facilitating a transfer of his business knowledge to them. “It’s not just about financial transfer of knowledge,” he adds. “It’s also about reinforcing important family values, including the importance of giving back to the community.”
Indeed the Donadeo family gives much to the community. In 2015, their significant contribution to the University of Alberta’s faculty of engineering was recognized in the creation of the Donadeo Innovation Centre for Engineering. “The centre allows the university to expand its engineering graduates on an annual basis in a cost-effective way,” he explains. “We wanted to support that.” Other areas of charitable focus include the United Way and several organizations focused on helping to improve the lives of the disadvantaged.
Donadeo didn’t start out so well off. Born to Italian-immigrant parents in Mercoal, a northern Alberta coal-mining town long since abandoned, he was raised in Red Deer. “We had a simple childhood,” he recalls. “We didn’t have much but we had all we needed.”
First jobs included paper-boy for the Red Deer Advocate, cement worker and rail lineman. “It was some very physically demanding work and it taught me the importance of getting a good education,” he smiles. Accordingly, he enrolled in the welding engineering technology program at SAIT. After completing his diploma in 1977, obtained his mechanical engineering degree from the U of A in 1981.
His first job out of university was at Hudson’s Bay Oil and Gas Company, soon acquired by Dome. He eventually became area engineer responsible for Dome’s oil production in southeast Saskatchewan and after Amoco acquired Dome, was an area exploitation engineer.
By the early 1990s, Donadeo’s dream of owning his own company was calling and in 1994, he co-founded Vermilion. “We started out as an acquisition-based company and took a very patient approach,” he recalls. “We didn’t want to get big for the sake of getting bigger. We were focused on adding value on a per-share basis.”
Global expansion began in 1997 when Vermilion acquired assets in France. “International acquisitions added considerable value,” Donadeo says, “and turned out to be a great niche for us.” For his contributions to France, Donadeo received an official appointment to the National Order of the Legion of Honour in 2015, France’s highest order of merit, at the rank of chevalier.
Following France, Vermilion expanded into the Netherlands, Australia, Ireland and central Europe. “We’ve got a very diversified portfolio which has worked out well for us,” he reflects. “Our starting share price was around $0.30 per share. Today, if you take the current share price plus the dividends we’ve paid to date, we’ve delivered total value close to $77 per share.”
Vermilion has been named a Best Workplace for the past eight years by the Great Place to Work Institute. “We worked really hard at building a strong corporate culture,” he explains. “We care about our people and give back to the community, but we also take time to celebrate our successes and have fun along the way.”
Dr. T. Chen Fong
For Dr. T. Chen Fong, business is a second, post-retirement career. After practicing radiology at Foothills Hospital for 25 years – 13 as the head of diagnostic imaging for the Calgary Health Region and as the head of radiology at the University of Calgary – the Chinese-born Dr. Fong embarked on his next job as a “venture philanthropist” in 2006. Simply put: he funds and mentors startups.
“My wife laughs at me,” he reveals with a chuckle. “She says: ‘Oh yeah, venture philanthropy makes perfect sense. If you win, you’re a brilliant venture capitalist, but if you lose you’re a philanthropist. Either way, you’re winning!’”
While he didn’t invent the term, the self-deprecating doctor-turned-businessman is intent on owning it. As a venture philanthropist, he has invested in a total of 60 startup companies, mostly in the medical technology field. “During my years as head of the CHR and at the U of C, I became somewhat frustrated because innovation generally wasn’t allowed,” he explains. “I’ve seen a few good things, but it wasn’t enough to satisfy my curiosity. So I dabbled in my spare time and started investing.”
As a rule, he prefers to be a minor investor, remaining below 10 per cent. “What I do well is find a young person with an idea and help them to become a real company,” he explains. “Validate the science, go to the FDA, those kind of things. After that, I’m just a passive shareholder.”
Four years ago, he was introduced to the Creative Destruction Lab at the University of Toronto and immediately sold. CDL helps young entrepreneurs shape or pivot their nascent ideas into science-based companies. Dr. Fong was instrumental in launching CDL at the Haskayne School of Business, all with philanthropic dollars.
“I’m a CDL groupie,” the 69-year-old admits. “I go to CDL in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Calgary [he is a fellow in all four cities]. It’s my full-time job right now – going to different cities and mentoring young companies.” He has funded a staggering 33 CDL companies to date.
His enjoyment with venture philanthropy is apparent and he highlights just a couple of his past ventures, including a company that invented a wireless, hand-held ultrasound machine and another one that invented a nano-material strip which can be used to test and identify oil and gas varieties. “It’s really cool stuff,” he smiles, “and a lot of fun hanging around with all these young people.”
During his first career too, he was busy in the philanthropic world. He was a prominent fundraiser for the U of C and in 2002 started the Imaging Research Group. “That was all with our own philanthropic dollars,” he says. “The group began with three people and now has close to 300.” Ten years ago he funded the Helios Fellowship for medical specialists to leave Calgary for training. To date, the fund has supported 49 specialists. “That has brought a lot of new expertise back to the city,” he says.
He and his wife are also in the Million Dollar Donor Circle of the United Way of Calgary and Area.
For his work in the philanthropic space and his contributions to the medical device industry, Dr. Fong was invested into the Order of Canada in 2017. “My wife and I don’t seek recognition for our work,” he says. “So to be noticed and given the Order of Canada was huge for us.”
Were David E. Mitchell alive today to be inducted into the Business Hall of Fame – Southern Alberta, he’d probably ask what all the fuss is about. “He was, despite all his great successes, a humble guy,” says his son, David Mitchell. “But if he knew it was helping young people he would be quite happy and proud.”
Mitchell passed away eight years ago, but for his surviving family, including his wife of 60 years Doris, this recognition is special. “Everything he touched turned to gold,” says Mitchell Jr. proudly. “Whether it was business or family or his horse, he just had a way of doing things that very few people have.”
Born in Calgary in 1926, Mitchell held a series of jobs – including as a Calgary Herald delivery boy and digging ditches in Turner Valley – before joining the Royal Canadian Air Force underage at 17.
Out of the Air Force, he found a job as a janitor at the Hudson’s Bay Company downtown. “Many years later he became the 35th governor of the Hudson’s Bay,” laughs Mitchell Jr. “It proves you can go from janitor to the big boss!”
After obtaining his petroleum engineering degree from the University of Oklahoma in 1950, he was hired at Great Plains Development Company of Canada Ltd. as a trainee engineer. Fourteen years later, he was appointed president and CEO. “Back then it was extraordinarily unusual to be made president of a big oil company before you were 40,” says Mitchell Jr.
Great Plains was sold in 1974 and soon after Mitchell was asked by his friend and next-door neighbour, Premier Peter Lougheed, to start an Alberta-owned energy company. In 1975, Alberta Energy Company was born. Mitchell was CEO and had just four employees.
He led the company for 18 years, growing it to over 5,000 employees at his retirement in 1993. In 2002, when AEC merged with PanCanadian Energy Corporation to form Encana, Mitchell, who was then officer emeritus at AEC with an office for life, provided advice.
When not running his ranch in Priddis, Mitchell used that office a lot. He was a director of 10 companies including Scotiabank, Air Canada and Lafarge Corporation, president of the Independent Petroleum Association (now CAPP), general campaign chairman of the Calgary United Way and chairman of the Calgary Police Commission for two terms, among other things.
In addition to helping bring Junior Achievement to Alberta, he also founded the Ernest C. Manning Innovation Awards in 1980, and ran them for close to 30 years. “He believed Canadians are great innovators but don’t get recognized like they should so they end up going to the U.S. to raise money,” explains Mitchell Jr. “He wanted to encourage them to stay at home and develop their ideas here.”
Today, the awards include a network of nearly 3,000 young and adult innovators across Canada with four awards – from $100,000 to $10,000 – handed out each year.
To his family, Mitchell remains the wise patriarch. “He said: ‘Try and touch the earth, touch the family and touch the future as often as you can. That way, you’re very well grounded.’”