Chairperson of the Year: David Cornhill

David Cornhill
Photograph John Gaucher

David Cornhill is reflective. And he’s had plenty of successes to reflect upon.

After 22 years of running the $10-billion company he founded with zero revenue on April Fools’ Day in 1994, he is taking a backseat in his new role as chairman. Few would describe being the chairman of AltaGas as “backseat” but it is compared to being CEO and chairman as Cornhill was for two decades. Today, he oversees the company’s strategy, its internal auditing, and the independence of the board. Furthermore, “As founder I make sure we remain focused and don’t deviate,” he says. But he is no longer involved in day-to-day affairs. “The CEO has to be totally consumed—the strategic plan, the HR plan…24/7. When you’ve been accountable for 22 years it takes a toll. I now have more time to reflect—it’s like being a grandparent—I want to focus more on opportunities.”

“It all comes back to the creation of social value,” Cornhill says. “I think the long-term responsibility of a corporation is to maximize shareholder, employee, and community value. Different stakeholders have different needs and you need to find the best balance to maximize value. My belief is that if you do that correctly you will be successful.”

“By community, I separate Indigenous peoples because they have traditional and fiduciary rights. And so part of our engagement with First Nations, for example, is to make sure they are part of the social value creation,” says Cornhill. “First you start with respect, and then after that you can move on to other things. Our outreach to First Nations includes their involvement and employment in our projects and operations, safety, and our commitment to protect the environment.”

AltaGas’s 1,700MW of North American power generation includes 400MW of renewables. Most recently it has invested in energy storage in California. Cornhill says, “We no longer invest in coal plants. We believe in clean energy including natural gas, which is low carbon and cost effective.”

He reflects on climate science and carbon pricing. It’s prudent to reduce the rate of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere—carbon tax is a reasonable way to go but a badly designed one will reduce our standard of living, Cornhill says. “A production carbon tax could work if the whole world played by the same rules but we just have to look south of our border to know that is not the case,” he says. Cornhill would like to see a Carbon Added Tax (CAT) modelled after a Value Added Tax (VAT) for carbon added to the atmosphere during production and consumption—the lower the carbon footprint the lower the tax. So in Ontario a CAT would level the playing field between Canadian and U.S. natural gas

As well as environmental concerns, creating a diverse and respectful workplace is critical for success in business. A board needs diversity of thought with a common vision for the corporation to maximize social value creation. Together they provide a higher probability of making good decisions. “At AltaGas we have a Board with diversity of thought but we have not reached the full diversity we would like,” reflects Cornhill. “Overtime we will increase the number of minorities and women to better reflect the workplace and community. Our board is fully supportive of this goal.”

The chair’s role on the board is to ensure the board has the proper governance and control framework in place, and to lead and serve the board by bringing consensus after a review and discussion on a topic, he says. “The board succeeds when they make sound decisions and provide sound advice to management consistent with the corporate values.”

Furthermore, the chair and board members need to meet directly with all stakeholders such as shareholders, community, First Nations members and employees. “It is important for the board to hear directly what our stakeholders are thinking.” says Cornhill.

The chair also works closely with the CEO ensuring that the board sees critical information. In Cornhill’s case this includes bringing managers into the board room to provide the board with information from those who are directly managing a given issue. “This provides staff with an opportunity to present to the board as part of their professional development, and gives board members a chance to really test the assumptions and recommendations that are being presented.”

It’s been a long and thoughtful journey for the man who was laid off due to the introduction of deregulation in U.S. gas markets that triggered the end of Alberta & Southern Gas Co. The day after A&S closed, AltaGas started hiring 20 of its ex-employees, including Cornhill, and soon bought a 5-percent stake in the Wolcott straddle plant at Empress for $1.6 million. One of Cornhill’s goals is to keep the firm’s long-term history alive.

Getting Personal With David Cornhill

Chairman of Altagas

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

What is the least important quality that a senior executive can have?
Putting personal benefit and fame ahead of the corporation, employees and shareholders.

What is your greatest fear?
Not meeting the expectations of the stakeholders I serve.

Which living person do you admire most?
David Mackie, AltaGas. A long serving director. David’s intelligence, courage and grace I admire every day.

What is your greatest extravagance?
Traveling to great golf courses with family and friends.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
Talk more–I tend to be reserved.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Family and the success of our people.

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