Can Steve Williams lead Suncor Energy to new heights?

'You shouldn’t expect to see Suncor take a sudden left hand turn,' new CEO says

September 01, 2012

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Steve Williams got a taste of what life will be like running one of the Canada’s biggest and most profitable publicly traded companies during a July teleconference discussing Suncor Energy Inc.’s 2012 second-quarter results.

In many ways it was a solid quarter for Suncor. Its revenues, cash flow from operations, return on capital and production were all up compared to the second quarter of 2011. But the analysts and reporters who listened in on the call were more interested in what Suncor was going to accomplish rather than what it had just accomplished.

They seemed particularly interested in the health of three of Suncor’s biggest growth prospects – the proposed Fort Hills and Joslyn North oil sands projects and the Voyageur upgrader – that the company is developing jointly with France’s Total E&P Canada.

In a press release announcing its second quarter results, Suncor said it intended to present development plans for each of the projects to its board of directors for approval by the middle of 2013. (Total would also have to approve the projects for them to go ahead). But as analysts quizzed Williams about the future of Fort Hills, Joslyn North and Voyageur, the man who replaced retired CEO Rick George as the company’s chief executive officer in May indicated that timeframe was a moving target and that Suncor wouldn’t be sanctioning them if they weren’t the best projects out there. “Growth for the sake of growth doesn’t interest me too much,” Williams said in July. “What interests me is profitable growth.”

The comment was telling. It signaled that Suncor was distancing itself from the wild days of 2006-2008, when the company advanced expansion projects on its own at great costs. But then the global recession hit, oil prices collapsed and Suncor was forced to shelve projects like Voyageur. It also found itself with over $13 billion in debt.

George helped turn the company from a money-losing operation into one of the country’s most successful companies during his 20-year reign as Suncor CEO. That transformation required some bold moves on George’s part – such as the 2009, $22.9-billion deal to acquire Petro-Canada. But as Williams takes over as the public face of Suncor, bold may be replaced by bland at Suncor. Yet shareholders won’t mind if Williams can avoid the pitfalls and still lead the company to greater heights.

While the 56-year old Williams has a new role with Suncor, he is not new to the company. When he took over for George as Suncor CEO on May 1, 2012, the date marked his 10th anniversary with the Calgary-based company. During that time, Williams filled some key roles with the firm – vice-president, corporate development and chief financial officer, executive vice-president, oil sands and chief operating officer.

A leadership change at a company Suncor’s size is big news in the oil and gas business. But Suncor is not keen on giving herd-driven markets any reason to doubt where the company is headed under its new CEO. Williams and Suncor have been trying to fly under the radar so far, positioning the succession as a well-planned, well-executed leadership change. The company declined requests to interview Williams for this story.

While Suncor board chair John Ferguson also turned down an interview request to talk about why the board had chosen Williams to succeed George as CEO, he did provide some insight into the decision through an e-mailed response. “I’ve known and worked closely with Steve for a number of years. I can’t think of a leader who is better equipped to face both the challenges and the opportunities for the future of the company,” Ferguson said. “He knows the company, the operations, and the people. He has the support of the entire board of directors and Suncor employees. Steve was the perfect choice – without question.”

Suncor has 27 billion barrels of resources on the books, 23 billion of it oil sands. Williams, in his comments during the company’s July teleconference, made it clear the future is bright for Suncor and that he wouldn’t be charting a drastically different course for the firm. “You shouldn’t expect to see Suncor take a sudden left hand turn,” he said.

However, that doesn’t mean it will be business as usual with Williams at the helm. As the man responsible for leading Suncor’s oil sands operation before becoming company COO, Williams gained an appreciation for the challenges an oil sands-weighted firm like Suncor faces. The resource is huge, but it’s also expensive to extract and produce. Williams has stressed that the company won’t wantonly spend capital in pursuit of the company’s goal of producing one million barrels of oil per day. “I’m not focused on getting to a million barrels per day of production by 2020,” Williams said. “We plan to spend within our means and spend efficiently and effectively and achieve desired returns for our shareholders.”


“We plan to spend within our means and spend efficiently and effectively and achieve desired returns for our shareholders.”
image courtesy Suncor

Whether Suncor can accomplish that under Williams is a matter of debate among the oil and gas cognoscenti. He has 35 years experience in the energy industry, but the high cost of producing oil from mining and in situ operations in the oil sands, and the fact that Suncor’s reserves are located in the remote Fort McMurray region has analysts skeptical the company can grow production while keeping a lid on capital and operating costs.

Suncor’s share price has reflected that skepticism. It’s been as high as $37 in the past 12 months, and was trading at $31 per share as this magazine went to press. That’s not a poor showing, but it’s a far cry from the $70 stratosphere its shares were trading at just before the global economy tanked.

FirstEnergy Capital vice-president of institutional research Mike Dunn says the market’s valuation of Suncor is due to the company’s poor execution on major projects of late – like the stalled Voyageur upgrader and its Firebag in situ developments. “The concern is that a lot of the cash flow it is generating is going to be invested in projects with not great returns,” Dunn says. “If the market had more confidence in that, the shares might be performing better.”

This isn’t lost on Williams, and one of his talking points has been to stress that Suncor will be focusing on execution and operating its assets efficiently and effectively. Dunn says that message has reverberated well with investors.

And there are reasons to believe Williams can not only keep Suncor on a profitable course during these volatile times, but that he can make it a stronger company than it was under George. For all his contributions to Suncor – and there were many – it was on George’s watch that the company ran into large cost overruns on some of its expansion efforts in the latter part of the last decade. “It turned out they didn’t have enough money to execute them and they had to spend a good bunch of money to stop them, which at the time put them in a precarious position in terms of their balance sheet,” Dunn says.

Williams’ comments during the July teleconference about only proceeding with projects that have strong economics and deliver value for shareholders suggest the mistakes of the past will not be repeated. “I think what people want them to do is focus on execution and cost control,” Dunn says. “Steve Williams’ background as COO, it’s not so much a concern of strategically navigating the company as it is about execution organically. He brings to the table that sort of focus.”

Much of his focus seems to be centered on ensuring he is clear about what Suncor’s business strategy is. That strategy is what Williams likes to call its “integrated model”, where it is pursuing growth in mining, in situ and upgrader projects. It also has four refineries – three in Canada and one in Colorado – ready to process its oil sands crude into high quality products. Williams says he’s spent a lot of time with the company’s employees and that he had met with 20 per cent of Suncor’s shareholders in his first three months as CEO.

“The concern is that a lot of the cash flow it is generating is going to be invested in projects with not great returns.”

That facetime with the CEO is important for Suncor because it is a big company with 13,000 employees and operations – both upstream and downstream – in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Norway and the Middle East. It’s easy for big companies and their senior management to lose their way, says Scott Sharabura, a Calgary-based principal with management consulting firm Booz & Company.

“[CEOs] can add a lot of value by clarifying the strategy of the company, recognizing what a company is going to do and what it is not going to do,” Sharabura says. “We’ve seen a lot of companies fall into trouble when you don’t have clarity at the top. Deeper in the organization people will not have anything to hinge their activities to. They’ll do their best to chase opportunities. But if you add that up across a large organization, you get a mess.”

No such mess appears to be brewing at Suncor. What the company is going to continue to do under Williams is to produce from its oil sands reserves. That’s not to say that the company will ignore its North American and international operations, which averaged 204,600 barrels of oil equivalent per day in production during the second quarter of 2012. (Dunn says the offshore production it got from the Petro-Canada deal, for example, is the kind of low-cost, high netback production that provides cash flow and more insulation from low oil prices to fund Suncor’s oil sands projects).

But it began its life as a pure oil sands producer and its 27 billion barrels of oil sands reserves are impossible to ignore. It’s a huge resource, and Suncor doesn’t have to go looking for it or deal with the kind of above ground risks it’s experienced in Libya and Syria. What it must do, however, is figure out a way to produce the bitumen as cheaply and efficiently as possible.

Can Suncor make that happen? There are signs the “focusing on execution” message Williams has been hammering home is not just talk. Production from the first three stages of its maligned Firebag operations averaged 95,500 barrels per day (bpd) in the second quarter of 2012 compared to 56,400 bpd in the second quarter of 2011. And more growth at Firebag is coming, as Stage 4 is expected to achieve first production early in the first quarter of 2013. Williams says costs of this expansion are currently slightly below expectations.

Dunn also believes the Fort Hills, Joslyn North and Voyageur projects will eventually be built. The partnership with Total means Suncor won’t have to go it alone in advancing the projects and the company does have to develop new mines within the next decade to replace its Millennium and North Steepbank sites near Fort McMurray.

Some investors are also predicting brighter days ahead for the company’s share price. In a May report entitled, “Oil Sands Watch”, CIBC World Markets analyst Andrew Potter ranked Suncor as the top pick among Canadian-based integrated oil and gas companies.

“With Firebag 3 continuing to ramp up, Suncor is delivering organic growth, something that has been lacking from the story in recent years,” Potter wrote. “If the company can continue its recent operational momentum in the oil sands and undergo no meaningful scheduled maintenance until mid-2013, we expect Suncor to re-rate to its historical valuation as it returns to growth.”

The stakes are high for the oil sands sector as it pursues growth plans that could double oil sands production by 2020. They are arguably even higher for the new leader of Canada’s highest profile player in the oil sands. But Williams isn’t backing away from the challenge.

“Suncor is in tremendous health, we have great opportunities and growth ahead of us,” he said in an email response. “We have the people, the plan, the resource base and the balance sheet to deliver the kind of profitable growth that shareholders expect.”

More posts by Darren Campbell

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22 Responses to “Can Steve Williams lead Suncor Energy to new heights?”


  1. Steve Williams can lead Suncor enegry to new heights.its excellent company.Suncor has six wind power projects in operation with a total capacity of 255 megawatts. These wind power projects are expected to result in the avoidance of approximately 500,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide annually.Suncor’s St. Clair, Ont. ethanol facility, Canada’s largest biofuels plant, has a current production capacity of 400 million litres per year. The ethanol is blended into our Petro-Canada™ gasoline and contributes to avoidance of up to 600,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions per year.

  2. William Roy Whiteway Smallwood says:

    How to make synthetic Octane petroleum!
    1) Find the Limestone (Calcium Carbonate CaCO3) or Potash Rock (Potassium Carbonate KCO3)!
    2) Existing reserves, just waiting to be mined, may be found on A} the Port aux Port peninsula, B} just West of St. Anthony, and C} the Buckans area!
    3) 80% of the A) Port aux Port peninsula is Limestone! Limestone also covers B) Buchans area. It is C) West of St. Anthony.
    4) Surface mine the Carbonate.
    5) The Carbonate may be explored by drilling and mining it all over, or under, NfLb!
    6) Electrically split the Sodium Chloride salt into Hydro-Chloric acid (-) and Sodium (+).
    7) React the Carbonate with Hydro-Chloric acid. Get the Hydro-Chloric acid from Hibernia platform salt (NaCl)!
    8) The Carbon bubbles up from the Hydro-Chloric acid, up along with Hydrogen & three times as much Oxygen. HCl + CaCO3 or KCO3 => KCl or CaCl + H + C + 3xO + energy!
    9) I’ll then electrolyze the Carbon to form into Ethane gas, then into Butane gas and ultimately condense into Octane gasoline!
    10) The economic emphasis put on the price of gasoline by this technique will be lower prices for Octane gasoline and relatively raise the prices for regular & deisel although they’ll be also be cheaper, though less cheap! It takes more limestone to make inferior petroleum like Regular & Deisel so I’ll stick with synthetic Octane gasoline!
    11) The economic emphasis will also move away from St.John’s and towards Corner Brook where our chemical conversion of Limestone into synthetic Octane gasoline will at first be centered but as time and exploration march on, it’ll see every nook and cranny of NfLb!
    12) The radiation paths should be shielded with lead walls so the charged radiation paths flow straight ahead extending onwards from 3:00 & 9:00! The radiation, when sheilded by the lead walls, are free to behave normaly where the negative attacking molecules and are simultaneously attacked by the positive molecules!
    13) I’ve already figured out how to chemically convert Limestone into synthetic Octane petroleum the most economic way possible!
    14) I’ve likewise already designed how to arrange the lead walls in the most economic pattern!
    15) The radiation then glides straight ahead and condences into Octane gasoline! Paragraph 16 to 18 are kept ! CONFIDENTIAL !

  3. I’m so glad to see you retained my letter I’m ready to email modified to show that I’ve 1) decreased the pollution from a barrel of synthetic Octane gasoline because as you increase the weight of gasoline you also increase the carbon pollution, 2) increasing the natural resources going into your gasoline, 3) needing more time, electricity, man-hours, etcetera to make a gallon of gas! Thereby lowering the price of gas!

    Better to stick with my solution to making synthetic Octane gasoline from the bare minimum of 8 Carbons! You can get your Carbon from Limestone, CaCO3, and Potash Rock, KCO3!

    Notice they release 3 Oxygen free for every 1 Carbon! But the environmentalism doesn’t stop at releasing extra Oxygen, my technique also produces 100% Octane gasoline, JET FUEL, the least polluting gasoline!

    Despite what Green Peace would have us believe JET FUEL only produces 8 Carbons / molecule, the bare minimun of Carbons! I say stick with oil electrolyzed from limestone and from Potash Rock if you want to pollute less!

    I can be phoned at 709-834-9700 if you want to make JET FUEL from limestone or from Potash Rock!

  4. I’m so glad to see you retained my letter I’m ready to email modified to show that I’ve
    1) decreased the pollution from a barrel of synthetic Octane gasoline because as you increase the weight of gasoline you also increase the carbon pollution,
    2) increasing the natural resources going into your gasoline,
    3) needing more time, electricity, man-hours, etcetera to make a gallon of gas! Thereby using JET FUEL lowers the price of gas!

    Better to stick with my solution to making synthetic Octane gasoline from the bare minimum of 8 Carbons! You can get your Carbon from Limestone, CaCO3, and Potash Rock, KCO3!

    Notice they release 3 Oxygen free for every 1 Carbon! But the environmentalism doesn’t stop at releasing extra Oxygen! My technique also produces 100% Octane gasoline, JET FUEL, the least polluting gasoline!

    Despite what Green Peace would have us believe JET FUEL only produces 8 Carbons / molecule, the bare minimun of Carbons! I say stick with oil electrolyzed from limestone and from Potash Rock if you want to pollute less!

    I can be phoned at 709-834-9700 if you want to make JET FUEL from limestone or from Potash Rock!

  5. I want to email you a 4 paragraph letter about how to make synthetic Octane gasoline from limestone &/or Potash Rock but I have no email site to email it to! 709-834-9700

  6. I know how to electrolyse 1) Methane gas into Ethane gas,
    2) Ethane gas into Butane gas,
    3) Butane gas into Octane gas,
    4) and condence Octance Octane gas into Octane gasoline!
    I know how to systematically separate these gases so no intermegling of gases occurs to decease the efficiency of this refining operation!

    Please phone me at 709-834-9700 to discuss establishing a refining process of Limestone or Potash Rock into JET FUEL!

  7. I retain my inventive scientific knowledge of how to unite atoms into molecules, Octane gasoline, is systematically made from Limestone (CaCO3) or Potash Rock (KCO3)! All that Oxygen! I can point out a vertical Limestone wall on Joseph R. Smallwoods ranch! It can be seen from Roaches Line behind Uncle Ramsays’ house! It is 20 meters tall, 4 matres thick, and goes 60 metres from 1 hilltop to another! We can chemically convert this Limestone this limestone wall into 1/8 as much pure synthetic Octane gasoline (C8) JET FUEL! We can follow that Limestone close to Conception Bay South and chemically convert it into Methane gas to be electrolysed into (C8) JET FUEL at a mobile refinery! This chemical conversion of close by Limestone reserves into synthetic Octane gasoline (C8) JET FUEL will be good practice for chemically converting Port au Ports’ Limestone into synthetic Octane gasoline (C8) JET FUEL when the Churchill river is generating electricity to flow down to Nova Scotia!

    Thus is the first of 4 paragraphs that’s too long for me to write down on this IBM!

  8. paragraph 2 of 4

    The most difficult part of this reaction will be to get the needed Hydro-Chloric acid to start this chemical reaction! It is most economic to come from our offshore salt reserves and be drilled out, to have its’ Sodium electrolysed free from the Sodium-Chloride! With all the overburden laying on the salt, the salt wants to come squirting up the wellhole! It takes allot of money just to get a supply of Hydro-Chloric acid! Hibernia Production Platform can extend its’ life producing Hydro-Chloric acid, when it runs low on petroleum! I have to be ready for when the Churchill River is moving electricity down to Nova Scotia to purchase some of that electricity to convert limestone into synthetic Octane gasoline! Perhaps we’ll learn enough from Muskrat Falls to re-attempt Gull Island! Both pale in significance with Joseph R. Smallwoods’ accomplishment!

  9. paragraph 3 of 4

    When the Limestone is nearing depletion on the Port au Port peninsula we can afford to explore NfLb properly by drilling numberous wells and laying down line of seismic to get a picture where the Limestone lies buried! We can pump copious supplies of Hydro-Chloric acid into the Limestone, replacing the Carbon with the Chloride! The Limestone is only 110% as big as the Calcium Chloride, but the Limestone has 3 Oxygen to be got rid of! We’ll then harvest the shallowest supplies of Limestone, of Methane, by drilling wells where the gas will flow to and then electrolyse it into (C8) JET FUEL at the surface! My brother Robert suffered a fatal ‘accident’ drilling Northern Saskatchewan for Suncor! A nut wasn’t tighted on the drilling rig and flew out hitting his temple! To bad someone didn’t spot and fix that danger before the ‘accident’! I hope it wasn’t a practical joke gone wrong!

    William Roy Whiteway Smallwood, 709-834-9700

  10. P.S. I cannot get Marilyn to get me a proper email address! She makes it sound easy but I haven’t found anyone who can get me an email address! I need to email my new technology: how to make petroleum out of 1) Limestone, 2) Hydro-Chloric acid, 3) electricity, 4) skilled labour, 5) myself! If only I could send out emails, I could 1) decrease air pollution, Carbon dioxyde 2) increase gasoline production, 3) lower gasoline prices and 4) employ NfLbers! A real threat to Exxon-Mobil and OPEC! Luckily I’m controled! You scientists, other than chemists, I’m talking to people who remain mentally sharp, not just rememboring how chemicals react to other chemicals! There is a new branch of physics that studies how matter reacts to various forces on an atomic scale! Thus I was able to figure out how to convert Limestone, Potash Rock and Calcium BiCarbonate into (C8) synthetic Octane gasoline!

  11. You can get your refinery to create Methane gas by mixing in equal parts of Hydro-Chloric acid with Limestone, or Petro-Chloric acid or half parts of Calcium BiCarbonate! You can then electrolyse that Methane gas into half as much Ethane gas! You can then electrolyse that Ethane gas into half as much Butane gas! You can then electrolyse that Butane gas into hallf as much Octane gas! You can then condense that Octane gas into Octane gasoline! I know how this gasoline may be created from Albertas’ Potash rock and from Limestone! After you try it and fail contact me 709-834-9700!

  12. that Petro-Chloric acid should read Potash Rock! Alberta rocks are new to me!

  13. On April, 2,008 a flock of wild ducks landed on one of Syncrues’ settling ponds and died! I think that they must of had strokes caused by Potassium being drunk! Potassium Carbonate is one of the minerals in those tailings ponds! A quick review of a medical encyclopedia will rank Potassium as a poison that kills hunans by stroke! But the good news is that humans have had millinea of experience with limestone safely handling it and I figured out a way of making 100% Octane gasoline from limestone! Interested?

  14. From memory: Potash Rock is Potassium Carbonate while Limestone is Calcium Carbonate!Life evoled on earth amidst a healthy supply of Calcium while Potassium is a poison to us! The Port au Port peninsula is 70% limestone just as Fort McMurray is an usual outcrop of Bitumen! I hope that the limestone formation continues under the hills of Newfoundland Labradour and will react to a healthy supply of Hydro Chloric acid got from our offshore salt mines!

  15. 3 Oxygen / 1 Carbon by electrolysing 1 molecule of limestone! That adds up to 24 atoms of Oxygen / 1 molecule of Octane gasoline! That fuel only temporarily holds 16 Oxygen leaving 8 Oxygen free to wait until they are joined by the 16 other Oxygen after being photosynthesyzed by the green Pacific waters! Green Peace take note that Octane gasoline electrolyzers will supply Oxygen to Earth!

  16. Octane gasoline is the optimal fuel for us to make from Port au Ports’ limestone cause any fewer Carbons your just creating vapour, gas, and any heavier though more carbons being incorporated in the fuel your adding less than its’ value of Carbon! Better to limit our production to Octane gasoline! A Supreme brand of gasoline is better than Octane gasoline but you can purchase twice as much synthetic Octane gasoline as you could purchase a supior gasoline!

  17. Between 10 to 100 times the worlds oil Total Reserve production can be chemically converted from Limestone! When so much petroleum production comes on line, we’ll utterly deflate the price of oil! That’s to much to digest at once destroying OPEC, so I’ll let you mull it over first!

  18. William Roy Whiteway Smallwood says:

    We can arrange for someone to purchase 40% of NovaOGas Ltd for the 1) legal expence of registoring NovaOGas and the 2) expence of how to chemically convert 8 limestone molecules and 8 potash rock molecules into Octane gasoline + 20 Oxygen atoms + 4 water molecules OR 8 Methane gas atoms into Octane gasoline!

  19. William Roy Whiteway Smallwood says:

    Steve Williams, and Alberta, should not fear the electrolysis process because it requires you separate the Methane from the Calcium or Potassium first and Potash Rock frees the added on Carbon much easier than Calcium! Potash Rock is all around the noethern Prairies while the rest of earth makes due with Calcium!

    Another blessing of this tecnology to the Northern Prairies is that it liberates 3 Oxygen for every Carbon! Suncor will be creating Oxygen on Earth, 24 Oxygen for every Octane gasoline, jet fuel, created! Take that protestors!

  20. William Roy Whiteway Smallwood says:

    Why not make Octane gasoline from limestone. It’s easier to reach at foot level than thousands of fett under the ground! Don’t go bankrupt, join the crowd and take the lead of 1) chemically converting limestone into vapour CO2, 2) electrically separating the CO2 into Oxygen waste and Methane gas, 3) electrolyze into Ethane gas 4) electrolyze into Butane gas, 5) Electrolyze into Octane gas, 6) Condense into Octane gasoline!

  21. William Roy Whiteway Smallwood says:

    Limestone (CaCO3), Potash Rock (KCO3), Hydro-Chloric acid (HCl)
    8 (CaCO3) + 8 (HCl) => 8 (CaCl2) + 8 (H2O) + 8 (CO2)
    Electrically split 8(CO2) into 8C + 16O
    Electrolyse those 8 Methane 8(C) into 4 Ethane 4(C2)
    Electrolyse those 4 Ethane 4(C2) into 2 Butane 2(C4)
    Electrolyse those 2 Butane 2(C4) into 1 Octane 1(C8)
    Condense that 1 Octane gas into 1 Octane gasoline…
    This is how we may convert Limestone or Potash Rock into gasoline! The future of oil production!

  22. William Roy Whiteway Smallwood says:

    Making Octane gasoline, aka Jet Fuel, only adds 8 Carbons to the atmosphere instead of the 32 Carbons found in Regular gasoline! Jet Fuel is powerful to lift Jets and light to be be carried in jets wings! Although it’s lighter Regular gaasoline is 20-25% more powerful! But that is a small cost when you consider that Carbon diOxide poisoned 3.3 million people centered around Delhi but including Pakistan last year!