CEO of the Year: Steve Williams

Steve Williams
Photograph John Gaucher

Although many words could describe Steve Williams—thought leader, pragmatist, dealmaker—perhaps the one that best explains his successes in 2016 is determination. It was his will power that carried Suncor through its oil sands buyouts in an otherwise tough year. The company also led the pack on environmental issues and in Williams’s own words: “I’m no nonsense. Just do it.”

“For a healthy economy you need to have a healthy environment. And for a healthy environment you need a healthy economy. You can’t have one without the other.”

And doing it included taking over Canadian Oil Sands. Williams wrapped up the $6.9 billion deal early last year, leaving Suncor with a 49 percent stake in Syncrude—up from just 12 percent before the deal. In April, Suncor became a majority owner after snapping up Murphy Oil’s 5 percent stake in the project for $937 million. The fiery COS showdown riveted oil sands watchers. Williams says he finally went directly to COS shareholders after “multiple attempts with board and management” were unsuccessful. As COS upped the stakes and rhetoric, “I tried to be tough but proportionate,” he says.

The bottom line spoke. “Assets were underperforming against potential. They’d gone down over five years and have now gone up,” he says. But Williams isn’t claiming all the credit for this turnaround. “They were doing some of the right things that have come to fruition,” he says. What Suncor brought to the table was a tighter connection between operators and ownership, clearer governance and greater cooperation.

Williams says the biggest challenge of 2016 was the wildfire that devoured a chunk of Fort McMurray, temporarily ceasing Suncor’s nearby operations. The company evacuated 10,000 people and had its response systems tested to their limits—and they came through.

“We were the first northern place that people [fleeing north] came to. It was different from any response that we’d done before,” he says. “For our people it was a test of their grit and grace, their patience and resilience,” Williams said following the crisis. “I have never been prouder of this company, my colleagues and fellow Albertans.”
This sentiment matches the one-word answer he gave when asked what is the most satisfying part of his job: “People.” Williams says he gets the most satisfaction on the job from employee safety award ceremonies. “Forget Steve,” he says. “It’s Suncor.”

When it comes to the environment, however, Suncor is very much Steve. For Williams and other leaders of his generation, the environment became an issue long before ENGOs were making headlines. Former U.K. prime minister Margaret Thatcher, the scientist and the free market champion who shook up Britain’s economy, is one of the people Williamsadaad admires, he says. She was also the first major world leader to make a speech warning about climate change.

Williams’s realization was even earlier. “At university, I studied chemical engineering and a big component was environmental engineering,” he says. “For a healthy economy you need to have a healthy environment. And for a healthy environment you need a healthy economy. You can’t have one without the other.”

Williams currently serves on the advisory board of Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission, which advocates for smart public environmental and economic policy. He also joined more than 60 high-profile business, labor and environmental groups in writing a letter to premiers and the Prime Minister in November, saying Canada should not back away from plans to bring in a countrywide price on carbon. The signatory list is a roll call of top energy, mining and manufacturing firms.

Williams is concerned by the recent politicization of the energy debate, which he says is a matter that “should be decided by scientists and economists.” Nonetheless, this self-styled “straight-shooter” enjoys having conversations with ENGOs. “We’re not that far apart,” he says, adding that oil workers and executives drink the same water and breathe the same air as everyone else.

Suncor is strongly in favor of a “well-designed, well-structured carbon levy,” with protection for trade-exposed Canadian industries helping them remain competitive. Williams was a driving force behind setting up the Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance to develop environmentally efficient oil sands technology. This focus on the environment confuses some of the industry’s toughest critics who don’t understand fully how the oil industry works. “What we’re proposing is to take the resource that makes sense from an economic and environmental point of view and leave behind the fraction of resources that are not economic and have high environmental impacts,” Williams says. “It positions us for the future and we’ve moved Canada to a leadership position. People now ask us how they too can do this.”

Williams also sees carbon constraints as another lever to get Canadian crude oil to tidewater. Not only are pipelines the safest and most environmentally sound way to transport crude, he says, but “we have a 100 megaton carbon cap on oil sands emissions—so what’s the worry?”

The other thing that springs to mind, when describing Williams—and one that helped him through much of last year’s trials and tribulations—is a dry sense of humor. In this, Williams, a proud Canadian and Albertan, remains quintessentially British.

Getting Personal With Steve Williams

CEO of Suncor Energy

What is the most important quality that a senior executive can have? 
Integrity, honesty and listening.

What is the least important quality that a senior executive can have?

What is your greatest fear?
I love challenges so much that I don’t feel the fear.

Which living person do you admire most? 
People who change things. In my lifetime: Nelson Mandela and F.W. De Klerk. Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill.

What is your greatest extravagance?
Going to great lengths each year to spend holidays with close family and friends.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
Soften the way I deliver the truth to people.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
I have a fabulous wife and two children in spite of me.

Back: David Cornhill, Altagas, Chairperson of the Year

Next: Dave Dyck, Penn West Petroleum, CFO of the Year

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