Paul Ziff was never one to take the easy route to success.
During his studies in Paris, the self-described perfectionist once hitchhiked across Algeria to research a thesis.
It was during his Algerian adventure that Ziff became fascinated by the oil and gas industry.
Today, the chief executive of Ziff Energy, Canada’s largest energy consulting firm with offices in Calgary and Houston, is one of the industry’s most respected authorities — and he’s still globe-trotting.
“I just got back from Trinidad, but I wasn’t at the beach,” says Ziff, in this interview from his company’s Houston office.
1. Your parents lived in Fort Erie, Ont., on the U.S.-Canada border, so how was it that you were born in the U.S.?
“It was an accident of where the doctor was, but I grew up in Fort Erie, Ontario. So I was a dual citizen and, in terms of having offices in the U.S. and Canada, it has made it easier.”
2. What did your parents do in Fort Erie?
“My parents (Louis and Stella) were both mayors of Fort Erie about two decades apart. My dad was a lawyer and practised for 51 or 52 years until he was 83, two years ago. He received the Q.C., Queen’s Council designation. Both my parents were very active in the community, and still live there. My mother was chairman of the school board and my dad created the Friendship Festival about 15 years ago, which has now become very large. It’s in Buffalo and Fort Erie from July 1-4 and celebrates the friendship of the two countries.”
3. What was your boyhood dream?
“I’m not sure . . . I’m the dreaming type. I guess I was particularly interested in politics at an early age and so I sort of got, shall I say, less interested earlier than most. I’ve always been interested in international things. My first job was at the international division of the Bank of Montreal.”
4. As an easterner, where did you develop your interest in the oilpatch?
“I did my third year from Harvard internationally in France (Universite de Paris, Sorbonne) and that’s where my interest in energy was really cemented. While in France, I did a thesis on French-Algerian relations. I went to Algeria, met a number of Algerians and hitchhiked in the desert, which is where a lot of their natural gas comes from. Anybody out west will tell you anybody in Ontario doesn’t know anything about energy. But it was in Algeria where I was really introduced to energy. I got marooned one night on an oasis there, but that experience helped me begin to appreciate the role that energy plays.”
5. What do you remember about your arrival in Calgary in 1973 to begin your career in the energy industry?
“It was a lousy time, during (both) the Alberta-federal price war, and price and royalty issues, so all the companies were laying off. But I did get a government job with the Alberta Petroleum Marketing Commission. I came out to learn about oil, but it turned out the job they had in mind was regulating gas prices. And that’s how I became a gas specialist.”
6. What business philosophy has worked for you?
“Well, it has changed over time. At the outset, it was working hard and trying to work at strategic and anticipate trends. Then, it was being very attentive to the clients. The third phase, which we’re in now, is instead of the external focus on clients, we’ve become quite focused on our staff in the last year or two. We have quite diverse interviews now, involving a broader range of team members.”
7. What’s the big difference between the business environments in Calgary and Houston?
“Well, maybe two if you’ll allow me. One, we were completely unknown when we set up an office (in Houston) and the second thing is the role of lawyers. We’ve been involved in two lawsuits (concerning employees) in the first three years, both of which we won. But it’s a very expensive and time-consuming process. And it’s kind of shocking to Canadians. The legal process doesn’t come cheap here. And you can sue over anything.”
8. What are your interests beyond business?
“I like the arts and I’m on the board of Alberta Theatre Projects. I’m quite interested in art, more towards the modern. My wife and I travel. My wife also has a couple of show dogs and I like gardening.”
9. What’s your favourite vacation destination?
“Warm and tropical. We go to Hawaii for guaranteed weather. I like to go to Europe for stimulation. In France, I’m able to keep my French (language) in gear and I enjoy French wine and bread and cheese and it’s a country of the arts.” 10. God taps you on the shoulder and says you can change one thing?
“It’s been said that I don’t always pick the easiest way to get from point A to point B. Maybe I make more challenges than sometimes there are. I am a perfectionist. I’m always trying to develop new approaches and ideas. I’ll probably think of the perfect answer after we hang up.”
11. How do you combat stress?
“The number one way is probably a very high tolerance. I used to get really concerned and worked up about what seemed to be a huge issue at the time. But we’ve successfully overcome a number of challenges from year to year and having good internal people and good external advisers help.”
12. What’s your outlook for the energy industry?
“We’re quite optimistic. We thought gas prices got carried away. But even when they’ve subsided, they’re far higher than previously. We don’t pretend to be oil gurus, but clearly the oil prices are very robust. And, although the conventional industry in Canada is strained, there’s lots of upside for the unconventional oil in the east-coast frontier and particularly in the northern frontiers. I think everyone in the industry in Alberta has a lot to be thankful for. We didn’t create the oil and gas and the natural resources that lie below us, but hopefully we’ll be good stewards of it.”
13. Is enough being done in the energy industry to address social and environmental issues?
“No, I think the shortcomings in the industry are being proactive on social issues that are of significant importance. Tom Peters (renowned author and business speaker) was speaking to a crowd of mainly engineers in Houston about a month ago and he said the energy industry doesn’t get it.
“He was saying that the rest of society is very concerned with the environment. There have been a number of positive issues, particularly around wetlands and preservation of natural grasses. That’s where the industry has been proactive.
“I don’t pretend to be a scientist, but with greenhouse gas emissions I think it’s coming to more of a consensus (that it’s a problem), but certainly not 100 per cent.
“However, if you wait until everything is known, it might be too late.”
14. So what’s the answer in dealing with these issues?
“I think CAPP (Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers) is taking a number of initiatives. However, the buy-in is very uneven. I think it will come with time. However, the energy industry is judged by how it acts. And as Tom Peters was saying, of the industries worldwide, the energy industry has one of the worst reputations. And those of us who work in the energy industry know that it is a very good industry and a lot of money is reinvested in communities and education. However, we’re judged by a much broader audience.”
15. What’s your projection for natural-gas prices?
“Long-term, favourable, although the industry shouldn’t get too carried away. In the medium term, there are other types of energy-sector competitors like coal and even nuclear, and higher tech like fuel cells. And there are also foreign sources, like LNG (liquified natural gas). Trinidad is going to be one of the top five LNG exporters within three years and it’s all going to the U.S.”
16. What’s your view of President George W. Bush’s ambitious energy proposal?
“I think it’s a great idea, after 20 years, that the U.S. has an energy policy. Although this is what the president wants, it still has to go through Congress. I think there is consensus, particularly in the wake of the California debacle (power crisis), that the U.S. needs an energy policy.”
17. What is Ziff Energy’s current focus?
“We’ve been internationalizing the company. We have people from many different cultures now in our Calgary office, speaking more than a dozen languages. What we’re hoping to do is to do business in the language of the country. Our firm also has a strong commitment to education and we support four scholarships. As we become more international, we’re looking at other ways we can become more involved (with needy organizations).”
18. One person you admire and respect?
“In the Calgary community, that would be David Tuer (PanCanadian Petroleum Ltd. CEO), who is very understated but both personally and corporately supports many, many good causes. It’s not just giving money, but also initiating — be it rescuing Alberta Theatre Projects a year ago, initiating awards for the best teachers in the high-school system or creatively coming up with ways to enrich the community.”
19. What are your ambitions beyond business?
“I enjoy meeting new people and finding out about new cultures. The opportunity to come back to my early interest in things international is something I’m interested in and I see more of that in the future.”
20. How do you define success in life?
“I think being happy with what one does and having good relationships, personally and in the community. That was driven home to me just a couple weeks ago when a good friend and former collaborator (Rory Henkel) passed away at the age of 49. He was someone who had not held a senior office or had not been a big financial success. But the funeral home was just packed. He was just a genuine nice guy with a zest for learning. The idea is to enjoy friendships before that time comes.”
IN PROFILE: Paul Ziff
* Born/raised/age: Buffalo, N.Y., Fort Erie, Ont., 49.
* Title: CEO, Ziff Energy.
* Education: Harvard University, honours economics graduate; Universite de Paris (Sorbonne).
* Family: Wife Mindy Selby.
* Resume: Ziff started his energy career in Calgary in 1973, working in gas-price regulation for the Alberta Petroleum Marketing Commission, a now-defunct government department. He became an energy research analyst with Calgary-based Richardson Greenshields, a now-defunct firm, before founding Ziff Energy in 1982. He is also a renowned speaker.
THE COMPANY: Ziff Energy
* Brass: Paul Ziff, CEO; Richard DeWolf, Adrian Goodisman, senior vice-presidents.
* Profile: Ziff is Canada's largest energy consulting firm with expertise spanning the breadth of the petroleum industry including economics, engineering, finance, regulations and project management. It specializes in natural-gas issues pertaining to supply, markets, transportation and pricing and also hosts industry conferences. The privately held international company employs more than 50 people at offices in Calgary and Houston. The company was founded by Ziff in 1982 and the Houston office was opened in 1997.
* Web site: www.ziffenergy.com
* Address: 1117 Macleod Trail S.E., Calgary, AB T2G 2M8.
* Phone/Fax: 403-265-0600, 403-261-4631 (toll free, 1-800-853-6252).