Running three companies keeps CEO spry

To George Fink, there is always another race to run as he strives to execute better results, be it in the boardroom or on the track.

Fink is the oilpatch’s marathon man. The quiet-spoken 64-year-old recently conquered the Boston Marathon in three hours, 50 minutes to place in the top 27 per cent overall and top five per cent for his age class.

“But my time was not good enough,” mutters Fink, his sights squarely set on improving his time.

The 40-year veteran of the oilpatch takes a similar approach with the three companies he runs, setting the bar high and striving for better results.

George Fink sets the bar high as president and CEO of three companies.

It seems there is always one more chapter to write in Fink’s business success stories that include the phenomenal growth story of Bonterra Energy Trust.

You get the idea the farmboy from Saskatchewan won’t rest easy until Bonterra’s “son,” as he dubs the spinoff company known as Novitas Energy, reaches a stage of growth where it, too, can be converted into an income trust and spun off into yet another startup growth story.

Besides his role as president and CEO of Bonterra and Novitas, Fink also heads a third Calgary-based public company, Comaplex Minerals, a play on the gold market. Fink’s trifecta of companies boast a combined market cap of $390 million.

Fink has also cornered the market on granite, having won two world curling championships in the 1960s as vice-skip of the Ron Northcott team of Calgary.

1. How do you think your upbringing on a farm in Saskatchewan may have contributed to your path to success?

“We were quite poor and I didn’t want to be on the farm for the rest of my life. I was one of six children and I guess the one thing we learned was to get along with each other and respect each other. I guess that’s where a lot of your basic morals and ethics come from.”

2. What was your boyhood dream?

“I wanted to be a professional baseball player. I guess by the time I was 20 I realized I wouldn’t make it, so at that point I switched gears. I had a U.S. college scholarship offer but, realizing I wouldn’t make it to a high level in baseball, I went to Saskatoon (University of Saskatchewan) because I thought the schooling would be much better in Canada.”

3. What did winning two world curling championships (in 1967 and 1968) do for your life?

“It helped give me a lot of confidence, in many respects. I think that it was a big factor. It was a team situation and I think it makes you realize that the team aspect is really important, be it in sports or business. You look at your co-workers as a team and try to make it as a team, rather than working as individuals.”

4. What drew you into the oil and gas business in the mid-1960s?

“It always intrigued me. I guess the thing I liked about oil and gas was that once you found (oil) it made a pretty good contribution to all of society. I guess it’s a bit different in that respect from some other situations. If you’re in the retail business, the higher you sell an item for, the better it is for you, but it’s not so good for someone else. With oil and gas, you’re finding something that everyone needs, and the more you find, the cheaper it is for people to buy because there’s an abundance of it. I think people in the oil and gas industry are just really good people on an overall basis. That’s not say there are not a lot of good people in other industries, but I’ve found the people in the oil and gas business to be honourable, hard working and fair.”

5. What business philosophy has worked for you in the oilpatch?

“We always felt it was better to have a bigger piece of a small pie than a small piece of a big pie, because it’s easier to grow a smaller company into something of value. As long as you’ve got a big piece of it, it’s still worthwhile – whereas for companies that get to, say, 20,000 to 100,000 barrels of oil equivalent (per day), it’s more difficult for someone like me to deal with those kinds of situations. I’m not saying that’s not the right way to go. But for me it was never the right way. It was always better to work in a smaller and more controlled atmosphere, so if you found something it was pretty material. But if you have high volumes where you’re a big company already in oil and gas, you have to find something really big to make an impact. With a small company, you make an impact with a whole lot of smaller finds.”

6. What’s your long-range goal for Bonterra Energy Trust?

“The long-range view is to continue to develop it and make our monthly distributions to our unitholders. I guess we’re always business people and if a transaction ever comes along that makes sense to all our unitholders, we’ll just sell it. But what’s also important to the company is that if the insiders and major owners decide to sell, we’ll always make sure that every other unitholder or shareholder sells on the same basis.

We would never do any side deals, meaning that all unitholders have the same opportunity as we have to liquidate their holdings.

7. Is selling the company a priority right now?

“We’re not pushing towards selling at all at this point, but that’s not to say that if an offer came along next month that we would not sell.”

8. Why did you choose to go the route of the income trust in 2001?

“We were one of the first small oil and gas companies to start paying dividends. We saw that the trust organization was a little bit more conducive to making distributions to your shareholders or unitholders than doing it as a corporation.”

9. Do you think at some point you may have to extend your boundaries beyond the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin in building Bonterra’s reserves?

“I don’t think so. I think as a smaller company, there will still be enough opportunities to continue developing here for the next five or 10 years. Beyond that, it’s difficult to say. There may not be enough left in this basin and (we) may have to go elsewhere.”

10. Is your other oil and gas company, Novitas Energy (a spinoff from Bonterra), perhaps the next Bonterra?

“That is correct. We plan to grow it to a point where it’s fairly successful and then we will probably trust it as well (convert to a royalty trust). And then we will probably start another company as a son of Novitas. But when we start a new company, we never take any cheap shares as management or board members. We always buy at the same price as our other shareholders. We try to be very fair to our shareholders.”

11. What have you learned over the years about weathering the corrections in commodity prices?

“I think the biggest thing is to make sure you never get too much debt and that you’re always able to service the debt. Then, even when prices drop, you don’t have to worry about not being able to service debt. We’ve also always been diversified. We’re in the minerals side . . . and when one side (ie. oil and gas) is in the doldrums, the other one (minerals) might be fairly strong.”

12. Do you think $40 US oil can be sustained for a while?

“I think it can be sustained, although I’m not sure it’s the best situation for the other industries. But when you look at the prices we pay (at the pumps) at $40 (US) oil compared to what’s paid for gasoline in Europe and on some other continents, they’ve had to survive with higher gasoline costs for a long time and there it’s because of taxation more than anything else. Their taxes on gasoline at the pumps are even higher than what it is in Canada or the U.S. So I think that we can survive and we may have to survive, especially if there are breakdowns in supply in the 25 per cent of the 80 million barrels that are needed every day worldwide. If there are breakdowns in supply by OPEC, we probably will have to survive on $40 oil for the future.”

13. What’s your view on the Kyoto protocol on green- house gas emissions and other environmental concerns about the energy industry?

“I think we have to recognize that CO2 (carbon dioxide emissions) are very different from what we relate to as ‘dirty air’. They’re two very different things. I’m all in favour of conservation. I’m all in favour of cleaning up the air. But I’m not in favour of the Kyoto because it doesn’t do that at all. (The Kyoto concept) just takes a whole bunch of money from North America and deposits it into the hands of a lot of European countries without any effect at all in cleaning up the air or reducing carbon in the air.

“I think Kyoto is the wrong approach. I think we need a system that works for Canada and the U.S. and a lot of other parts of the world. And Kyoto doesn’t do it. We have to do something that has an impact worldwide. Canada only emits two per cent of the carbon worldwide, and the oil and gas industry emits about 20 per cent of the two per cent. So we have to do things in Canada that are going to impact the large areas of emissions such as the U.S., China, India, etc.”

14. You’re also running a company focused on gold. So what’s a Calgary oilman doing in the gold business (as CEO of Comaplex Minerals)?

“It’s certainly a different type of business. The people are different and the contacts are different. But it’s also very gratifying. You get to places that you wouldn’t even think of, such as the far north of Canada. Being involved with the Inuit in Nunavut Territory, you get a much better grasp of First Nations people and their thinking. They’re with-it people, they’re hard workers. I’m also a believer that with all the problems we have in the world that gold probably is going to have some value over the next 10 to 20 years.”

15. Which of Comaplex’s exploration projects has the most potential?

“The Meliadine West property in Nunavut Territory. We hope to be in production within two years or so. From the standpoint of reserves, I suppose it will be somewhere in the range of two million to six million ounces of gold.”

16. Why do you choose to keep a lower profile than most entrepreneurs?

“I don’t know. I guess we just always worked with that philosophy with our group of companies. We just sort of get our heads down, go to work and we keep thinking that eventually if we create some wealth within the companies, someone will recognize it and you get the appreciation. We think that eventually the share price will catch up to the value. I think that sometimes we should be doing more promotion. We don’t do a really good job of that.”

17. Do you think enough is being done to dis-courage some of the recent corporate scandals from occurring?

“I think there was certainly a need for some of the rules and regulations a few years back to eliminate the way certain people were taking advantage of the system. I think now we’ve gone too far the other way and it’s becoming very restrictive, especially for smaller companies. The rules are so tight that you don’t have any room to move at all. I think that regulators are looking for a 100-per-cent guarantee that nothing can ever happen. And you can’t ever do that because you’ve always got your two or three per cent who are going to be doing things illegally, and you can’t ever stop that. No matter what you do with the rules, you’re going to have people who go beyond the legal aspect of what’s allowed. I think when you make the rules so tight, you’re choking legitimate people who want to do business the right way. By that, I mean you have to spend so much time on governance rules and regulations and you still can’t stop the bad people. But you really, really make it difficult for the legitimate business people to develop their businesses. I think they have to back off a little bit.”

18. How do you find time to run three public companies at the same time?

“I put in pretty long days. I usually work 11 or 12 hours a day and I quite often work weekends. Nevertheless, I try and keep a social life as well. I’m doing a lot of marathon running and that provides a lot of relaxation. Once I reduced the curling, I had to do something to stay fit. Running is a good way to break up the day.”

19. How long can you keep up the pace of those long hours?

“I really still enjoy my work and don’t mind it. I still like Monday mornings. I’m hoping there isn’t a lot of pressure where you can end up with not very good health because of the pressure. I don’t think I’m finding that, but how do I relate to what other people really experience as pressure? It’s difficult to do. I think I’ll do it as long as I continue to enjoy it and stay healthy. I think I’ll stay in business as long as I can. I do some golfing, but I’m not the kind of person who can play golf every day.”

20. What’s your best advice for a young entrepreneur?

“I think the key thing is to find something that you enjoy. I think it’s the worst thing in the world if you go to work every day hating it. Just keep trying and don’t necessarily be influenced by a situation where you might make another five per cent in salary. Don’t be afraid to make some changes earlier in your career while looking for something you really enjoy. It’s a long time to work for 40 years if you’re not enjoying it. You also need to make darn sure you learn from mistakes as well as from the positive things. I think you learn more from mistakes than successes.”

IN PROFILE: George Fink
* Born/raised/age: Regina; Kendal, Sask.; 64.
* Title: President/CEO, Bonterra Energy Trust, Novitas Energy & Comaplex Minerals.
* Education: University of Saskatchewan, bachelor of commerce.
* Career: Fink’s career spans 40 years, primarily in the oil and gas business. After articling as a chartered accountant with Ernst & Young, Fink worked for Shaw Pipe Industries, Ranger Oil and Comstate Resources before joining Bonterra Energy Trust (a spinoff from Comstate) as CEO in 1998.
* Claim to fame: Fink recently ran the famous Boston Marathon, his 16th full marathon.
* Passions: Running, skiing, golf.

THE COMPANIES
Bonterra Energy Trust
* Recent Stock Price (BNE.UN): $19.85 (52-week range, $9.56-$21).
* Monthly Distribution: 14 cents per unit.
* Website: www.bonterraenergy.com
* Head Office: 901,1015 4th St. S.W., Calgary, T2R 1J4.
* Phone/Fax: (403) 262-5307/265-7488.

Novitas Energy
* Recent Stock Price (NOS-TSXV): .80 (52-week range, .60-$1.15).
* Website: www.novitasenergy.com
* Head Office: 901,1015 4th St. S.W., Calgary, T2R 1J4.
* Phone/Fax: (403) 262-1400/265-7488.

Comaplex Minerals
* Recent Stock Price (CMF-TSX): $2.70 (52-week range, $1.35-$5).
* Website: www.comaplex.com
* Head Office: 901,1015 4th St. S.W., Calgary, T2R 1J4.
* Phone/Fax: (403) 265-2846/232-1421.