To Guy Turcotte, ethical leadership is straightforward. “It means being an honest person,” the well-known Calgary businessman says, as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world. “Living with a strong sense of honesty and integrity and a value system that means you do the right thing. You don’t cut corners, you don’t lie and you don’t cheat.”
This innate ethical sensibility has been instrumental throughout Turcotte’s 42-year career. It guided him in founding no less than six companies: oil and gas darling Chauvco Resources Ltd., a company he formed for $2 million in 1981 that sold for $1.3 billion 16 years later; Veresen Inc. (formerly Fort Chicago Energy Partners LP), which was instrumental in building the Alliance natural gas pipeline; Western Oil Sands Inc., a 20 per cent partner in the Athabasca Oil Sands Project (AOSP); Stone Creek Resorts (SCR), the owner and operator of Silvertip Resort in Canmore and Eagle Ranch Resort in Invermere; Field Upgrading, which has developed a breakthrough sour heavy sulphur removal and upgrading process; and, Western Hydrogen, developer of a new hydrogen manufacturing technology called molten salt gasification.
Throughout each of these business endeavours, Turcotte has maintained his reputation – in Calgary, across Canada and internationally – as a great leader.
A truly worthy candidate, Turcotte has been named this year’s recipient of the Distinguished Business Leader Award (DBLA). In its 26th year, the award, co-presented annually by the Haskayne School of Business and the Calgary Chamber, recognizes outstanding leaders with superior business ethics. Past recipients include Clive Beddoe, Patrick Daniel and Leslie O’Donoghue. At the awards gala on June 21 – proceeds from which fund an annual scholarship for a Haskayne student as well as the Chamber’s Emerging Entrepreneur Scholarship – Turcotte will join their ranks.
“I’m very humbled and honoured,” the down-to-earth Turcotte says from his beltline office, headquarters for SCR. “I’ve spent my entire business career in Calgary, so it’s a really nice recognition.” It’s a business community, he offers, with ethics. “We’re a relatively small community and it’s a self-policing exercise, because if you want to be unethical, you’ll probably only get one or two chances to do so.”
“Calgary is entrepreneurial spirit. It drives us, defines us, and is fuelled by the exceptional contributions and community-building initiatives of business leaders like Guy Turcotte,” says Sandip Lalli, president and CEO of the Chamber. “From oil and gas to real estate to fuel cells, Guy has shown leadership and innovation in a variety of industries, all with a commitment to paying it forward.”
Known best for these achievements, the unassuming Turcotte began from humble beginnings. The third of nine children, he grew up on a small mixed farm just outside Chauvin. “I had a wonderful childhood,” he reminisces. “A lot of time spent outdoors in wide-open spaces.”
The oldest son, Turcotte was given responsibility at a young age. “I was milking cows by hand at eight years old,” he recalls. “I didn’t see it as a hardship – I saw it as an important contribution to my family.”
He also gained an appreciation for business. “My father was a very happy guy because he was his own boss. Being a farmer is serious business – you put up with bad weather, bad years, unforeseen circumstances. I learned a lot about business from him.”
It was on the farm where Turcotte first glimpsed Alberta’s oil and gas industry. “There were oil wells all around,” he says. “I was interested in what was coming out of them; how much money they were making.”
After high school, Turcotte attended NAIT. He graduated in 1972 and decided to complete an engineering degree. Unable to transfer his NAIT credits to a university in Alberta, he enrolled at the University of Tulsa. “Sometimes fortuitous things happen,” he reflects. “The experience of going to another country was life changing. I gained a lot of confidence and it opened up the world for me.”
He completed a chemical engineering degree in 1975, followed by an MBA in 1976. Turcotte’s first job out of university was at the Federal Business Development Bank (BDC today), where he was in charge of recommending loans to various businesses. He again witnessed the benefits of being one’s own boss, solidifying his desire to be a business owner.
Opportunity soon came knocking, when a loan-seeking woodworking company asked Turcotte to become its CFO. The 26-year-old, lacking any knowledge of woodworking, accepted. He also paid $25,000 to purchase one-sixth of the business. “I’d paid off my student loans, saved $3,000 and got up the courage to ask my father to loan me the other $22,000,” he explains. “I didn’t even know if he had $22,000, but he loaned me the money.”
Turcotte learned valuable business ethics early on at his new job: two weeks in, he discovered the president had been stealing from the company. “It was eye opening,” he says. “I had to approach the board and tell them what I’d discovered. So they let him go and put me in that position, if you can believe it!”
Two years later, Turcotte and his partners sold the business. “And that’s where I made my first $50,000. It was the start of my business career.”
He spent the next year working in venture capital for Dick Bonnycastle in Calgary, learning how to valuate a company, an invaluable skill throughout his career. But deep down, Turcotte knew he couldn’t remain someone’s employee. “I started to plan my own oil and gas company.”
At the ripe age of 29, Turcotte started Chauvco (named after his hometown). “I needed $2 million to list on the Alberta Stock Exchange,” he recalls, “but it was a difficult time to raise money.” Prime was at 23 per cent and Government of Canada bonds were paying 19 per cent. Nonetheless, he was able to sign up enough shareholders (including some from Chauvin) and secured the $2 million – with one day to spare.
Chauvco’s initial strategy was to drill with partner companies, but once cash flow developed and Turcotte gained experience, it starting making acquisitions. “With the high interest rates a lot of companies were going broke,” he explains, “so there were a lot of good deals to be had.”
The oil price crash of 1986 – when the price dropped to $10 per barrel – was rough for Chauvco, and Turcotte was soon looking for opportunities outside Canada. A Chauvco director suggested Argentina.
After travelling to Buenos Aires to evaluate the opportunity, Chauvco spent US$48 million on oil and gas assets purchased from the state oil company. “It’s probably the best purchase we ever made,” he reflects. “Over the next five years, we spent about a quarter of a billion dollars in Argentina and developed about a hundred million per year of cash flow. It changed our company.”
When Chauvco was sold in 1997 to Texas-giant Pioneer Natural Resources Co., the Argentine business accounted for just over 40 per cent of the company’s business.
The sale of Chauvco excluded a 20 per cent stake in the Alliance pipeline, something Turcotte had acquired a year prior. “We had been selling our gas for so cheap for so long because we didn’t have pipeline space,” he says. “I saw the pipeline as a good opportunity.”
Turcotte formed Fort Chicago to maintain the pipeline interest, which eventually grew to 50 per cent. The company’s name was later changed to Veresen. It was purchased last year by Pembina Pipeline Corporation for CAD$9.7 million.
“It’s very tragic,” Turcotte laments of the current pipeline crises. “Every product consumed – all gasoline, all diesel, every fossil fuel product – runs through a pipeline, or many pipelines, before it gets to the consumer. Pipelines are very safe. And it’s not like the rest of the world is going to stop consuming oil; it just won’t come from Canada because we can’t get pipes built. That’s going to affect our country and our economy.”
Turcotte’s involvement in the oilsands – as CEO and the largest individual shareholder of Western Oil Sands – came about in 1999 when he was approached to partner with 20 ex-BHP Billiton Ltd. employees left jobless after BHP pulled out of its partnership in the AOSP.
The ex-employees wanted to continue BHP’s 20 per cent stake in the project, but needed cash. “My job was to raise capital,” Turcotte explains. And raise it he did: within a few months of becoming involved, he secured just under $1 billion to keep the newly-born Western Oil Sands alive. “I invested quite a lot of my own money,” he adds.
The 155,000-barrel-per-day project included a mine in Fort McMurray and an upgrader in Fort Saskatchewan. Turcotte remained CEO until 2004. In 2007, Western Oil Sands was sold to Marathon Oil Corp. for $6.5 billion.
“It was a great project that created a lot of jobs,” he says. “Fifty-three million hours of work were generated from that project. The income tax generated from the construction of the project put our governments way ahead of the game, before we even turned it on. And that’s what people don’t realize: energy makes an economy go around.
“Our oilsands industry is probably the most environmentally-conscious industry on the planet,” he continues. “When I was running Western Oil Sands, we’d have an all-day meeting every month: the first thing on our agenda was human safety; the second thing was the environment. We wouldn’t move until we were top drawer on both of those.”
It was Turcotte’s love of the natural world – and a desire to diversify his portfolio – that led him to start SCR. Originally involved as a one-third investor in the Silvertip land in 1993, he bought his partners out in 2005. “The Canadian Rockies are an incredible place,” he praises. “I saw an opportunity to build a business here where we could invite visitors from all over the world.”
Today, Silvertip includes a 600-acre, par-72 golf course and approximately 350 home sites, with zoning for another 400 home sites, 1,300 hotel rooms and 800 staff housing units. There are plans for a conference centre and gondola too. “I believe strongly in the business plan, the opportunity and the project,” Turcotte says. “I’ll probably be working on that for a few more years.”
SCR also acquired Eagle Ranch in 2000. Currently a golf course and restaurant, Turcotte has plans to develop lodging and residential units.
In 2006, Turcotte founded both Western Hydrogen and Field Upgrading. “We have a real global opportunity for upgrading and desulpherization of hydrocarbons,” he explains of Field. “It works for oilsands but also many different parts of the oil industry.” Field owns the global rights to the technology and operates a pilot plant in Fort Saskatchewan. A commercial plant is in the works.
“The DBLA recognizes ethical leaders who realize transformational results,” says Jim Dewald, dean at Haskayne. “Guy Turcotte is a living legend in the conventional energy industry, having founded three highly successful energy companies. As a true visionary and disruptor, he has more recently become a leader of Calgary’s emerging cleantech energy ecosystem. In all his ventures, Guy has a unique gift to see opportunities and create lasting value by mobilizing strategic resources.”
“I’ve been very blessed,” Turcotte concludes. “Every day I come to work and it’s fun for me. I feel very fortunate.” He and his wife, Dawn, share much of that good fortune with local charities. He prefers not to single out any one charity, and in fact does most of his charitable giving anonymously.
With four adult children, most of his free time is spent with his family. “Family is for sure the most important thing in my life,” he says. “We have a wonderful life. My wife has made our life very nice and comfortable; she is the heart and soul of our family.”
A distinguished business leader in every sense, Turcotte is the perfect DBLA recipient. His life’s work is a testament of his business acumen and ethical fortitude, and provides a legacy for many to be proud of. He is an example for all to follow.